Pubdate: Sun, 26 Mar 2000
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2000 The Toronto Star
Contact:  One Yonge St., Toronto ON, M5E 1E6
Fax: (416) 869-4322
Author: Kathleen Kenna, Washington Bureau
Bookmark: Link to LAPD corruption items:


Probe Of Los Angeles Police Puts At Least 400 Cases In Jeopardy

THE BAD GUYS wore badges. In a city notorious for warring gangs, cops 
became the most feared gang of all.

Rogue anti-gang officers in the Rampart unit of the Los Angeles Police 
Department are accused of framing, bullying, torturing and sometimes 
shooting innocent people and covering up their vigilantism with fraud and 

They are alleged to have celebrated their "kills" - the real ones and the 
men they sent to prison - at booze-and-gun parties where the biggest 
hunters won special plaques for taking down another "homie." They stole 
cocaine and cash, planted guns and drugs to make arrests, bragged about 
lying under oath. Some officers are alleged to have sold and used coke 
confiscated from street dealers.

In the biggest corruption scandal to ever rock Los Angeles, at least 29 
officers have been relieved of duty and dozens of criminal convictions have 
been overturned.

The revelations began with a plea bargain worked out by veteran undercover 
officer Rafael Perez, who was convicted of stealing cocaine from a police 
evidence locker. In exchange for a five-year prison sentence, he identified 
dozens of fellow cops whom he claimed abused their power and maintained a 
code of silence between 1995 and 1998.

In a city that is considered to have the worst gang problem in the States, 
the underlying mentality has been that it would take an army to cure the 
problem. The police became that army.

"These police have a certain swagger, that locker-room mentality that 
they're the baddest gang on the street," says Antonio Rodriguez, a former 
gang worker-turned-lawyer.

"They know they're baaaaaaad," he drawls.

This was especially true of the 400-member force that handles Rampart, a 
drug- and gang-infested area near downtown that police chief Bernard Parks 
calls the "most violent 10 square miles in the city." Perez was part of 
Rampart's elite CRASH unit, an acronym for Community Resources Against 
Street Hoodlums.

Every Latino kid, every youth from the 'hood, every black man walking the 
streets of some of L.A.'s poorest blocks was a suspect as far as CRASH was 
concerned, its critics say.

"The attitude is, if you don't get the right gang member this time, it 
doesn't matter," says lawyer Jorge Gonzalez, "because if he didn't do this 
(crime) then he did another or he will do it some other time.

"Justice is not the Number 1 question. It's, 'Do I get a conviction or not?' "

Gonzalez, president of Police Watch, a citizens' watchdog group, says the 
rich turn a blind eye as police run roughshod over the human rights of the 
poor. "And as long as people are safe in their gated communities, they 
couldn't care less if a few Mexicans or blacks get shot, get framed, get 
put away."

The L.A. District Attorney's office is reviewing 400 potentially tainted 
cases. Defence lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran of O.J. Simpson fame, 
have amassed a list of 10,000 cases just involving testimony of 27 cops at 
Rampart and other stations ensnared already by the Perez allegations.

About 35 lawsuits, seeking millions of dollars in damages, have been filed 
against the city since the Rampart scandal broke, with many more expected. 
Mayor Richard Riordan estimates the cost to taxpayers will top $300 
million. Some fear the eventual toll will be so high that Los Angeles could 
go bankrupt.

A 360-page report from a board of inquiry, released earlier this month by 
Parks, describes a culture in which officers believed they were in a 
life-and-death struggle with the division's gangs.

Written by four senior LAPD officers, including two deputies, the report 
describes Rampart's siege mentality and belief it was a law unto itself - " 
'We do things differently here,' the so-called 'Rampart Way.' "

Responding to Perez's allegations of widespread corruption, the board 
conducted a five-month internal investigation that involved 300 staff and 
hundreds of interviews across the United States and South America and 
produced tens of thousands of documents.

But that is only the start of what is expected to be a years-long criminal 
inquiry involving every level of government and the criminal justice 
system, including the FBI and federal justice department.

Twenty-two officers have quit, been fired or relieved from duty - in LAPD 
lingo, "assigned to their homes" - as the scandal continues to explode.

Many more could follow Perez, who only turned snitch after he was finally 
nabbed for years of stealing confiscated cocaine from an LAPD evidence 
room. His haul was estimated at the equivalent of more than $1.5 million.

"This is everybody's worst nightmare," says lawyer Carol Sobel, who has 
many police clients. "People have been saying for years that CRASH was out 
of control, that the LAPD was out of control."

The internal inquiry - which is only preliminary and reveals nothing from 
the widening criminal probe - uncovered an unbelievable collapse of the 
usual checks and balances intended to curb corruption and police brutality.

The board discovered that arrest, use-of-force and other critical reports 
were regularly falsified and signed with forged signatures by cops' 
partners instead of supervisors, as required.

The inquiry confirmed what community workers and lawyers had claimed for 
years: Youths were often slammed into patrol cars, taken to police stations 
and released without charges being laid. When they emerged with injuries 
from out-of-sight detention areas - sometimes headed for hospital - they 
would claim they fell.

Supervision of the CRASH crew especially seems to have been non-existent.

"Peace officers are at war with these kids," Rodriguez says. "It's a dirty 
war. And it has grown to such magnitude that you have to believe these 
officers are a home-grown death squad."

"It's the war on drugs," adds Carol Watson, the first civil rights lawyer 
to file a lawsuit related to the Rampart scandal. "They recruit warriors. 
And because they're eligible for millions and millions of dollars in 
federal funds for this war, there's a lot of pressure on local cops to work 
on (drug arrests) only. They'll do anything, they don't care what, to make 
drug arrests.

"They use drugs to buy information and it's a very short step before they 
start selling it or using it themselves."

Officers who reported misconduct were ignored by superiors and hounded by 
peers until they shut up, transferred or quit, according to lawyers and 
police interviewed from downtown to Beverly Hills.

The report cites the example of a Rampart patrol supervisor who complained 
to senior officers about "the entire CRASH unit with their uniform shirts 
off, playing cards and working out" while on duty at the station.

The supervisor was threatened and the tires on his personal car were 
slashed. After being confronted for "tattling on the CRASH officers," his 
replacement tires were slashed. No culprit was found.

Retribution is feared so much that a prominent L.A. lawyer involved in a 
major lawsuit against the city refused to allow interviews with his 
clients, who are former cops.

"I wouldn't let my clients talk to you," he says, asking not to be named. 
"The vendetta is unbelievable."

Every cop is under suspicion while the dragnet against dirty cops spreads.

"It tarnishes everyone in the LAPD," Parks says. "It hits at the core of 
everything we do."

Is Rampart the tip of the iceberg, as civil rights lawyers and LAPD critics 
charge? Or, as former LAPD officer-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh wrote 
recently, is it "only a few CRASH unit cowboys . . . at first a law unto 
themselves and, finally, outlaws unto themselves"?

Rank-and-file cops complain about a double standard because no supervisors 
have taken the fall yet for crimes committed on their watch.

Parks has promised swift action on the board's 108 recommendations, from 
constant "stings" to nab bad cops, to tougher hiring for weeding out the 
ex-cons, former gang members and one-time drug dealers that the Rampart 
inquiry has revealed joined the force in a crime-busting wave this decade.

Just this month, days after the report came out, Parks announced he would 
disband the city's 240 CRASH units in favour of no-name squads with less 
elitism and more oversight.

"All the things we've done wrong, we'll fix," Parks vows. "And we'll punish 
all those who are responsible."

But Parks is so clearly chafing at the delay in bringing suspected dirty 
cops to trial that a particularly nasty, name-calling battle has erupted 
between him and the district attorney's office, which is reportedly 
considering charges soon against 15 cops fingered by Perez.

"Every night, I get down on my knees and pray it's only Rampart," says 
deputy chief Gregory Berg, a 30-year LAPD veteran who drafted the inquiry 
report. "It's a shock to find we have a whole operation go bad on us."

Adds Parks: "We're not sure if it was restricted to Rampart. We have seen 
some of the telltale signs of poor work quality that we saw at Rampart. 
Everyone wants a quick answer, but we can't speculate. And no matter what 
we say, we can't win."

Cover-up charges have hounded the force for years and the Rampart scandal 
has heightened demands for a civilian oversight agency. Many say this 
proves police can't police themselves.

But Los Angeles has a five-member civilian police commission that watches 
the budget, handles complaints and hires chiefs (it fired Parks' predecessor).

The commission was formed after the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. 
Ironically, the aftermath of the King assault also set the stage for the 
guerrilla war that has been played out in the years since.

Riots paralyzed the city for days and when they were over, Los Angeles 
vowed, never again.

It hired so many new cops so quickly - the force is the nation's second 
largest, at almost 10,000 - and declared such a crackdown on crime that 
normal controls were overwhelmed.

"One cop became a snitch and has given us a little peephole into the 
underground world of the police," says Gonzalez. "We truly underestimated 
the scope of this scandal. The corruption goes much farther than we think.

"We have people in custody, on probation, on parole and perhaps deported - 
or still risk being deported - because of this. Their names need to be 
cleared to the extent that they can." 
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