LAPD corruption runs deep

Pubdate: Sat, 12 Feb 2000Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company

LOS ANGELES – So many lies, false arrests, dirty cops and wrongful convictions are being exposed in the latest scandal engulfing this city’s police force that it is getting hard to keep up with all of the corruption.

The tally of abuse and deceit increases almost every week.

The police chief now says that rogue officers in a neighborhood overrun with gangs framed at least 99 people during the past three years by planting drugs or guns on them, and also may have reveled in shooting a few unarmed suspects.

The district attorney is investigating whether hundreds of criminal cases, all linked to the growing list of police officers under suspicion, may be tainted or fake.

At last count, 32 criminal convictions have been overturned.

And so far 20 officers have been fired, suspended, or have quit.

It is one of the most corrosive police corruption cases ever in Los Angeles, it rivals similarly sordid tales that have plagued other big-city police forces lately, and by all accounts the probe of it has only just scratched the surface.

“An evil cancer has been found inside the LAPD,” said Steven Yagman, an attorney representing several dozen people allegedly assaulted or framed by officers. “I’ve never seen anything like this all at once. We’ve got boxes filled with these stories. This is a bad, bad thing, and the city knows it.”

The scandal, which came to light last fall, has grown so large that last week Police Chief Bernard C. Parks told city council members that settling lawsuits could cost $125 million. That sum is twice what Los Angeles budgets each year for liability.

Reeling from that disclosure, some city officials have begun discussing whether to put a bond measure on the ballot and ask voters whose faith in the police department has been shaken badly–again–to help pay the huge cost of cleaning up the force. Nine more criminal cases linked to a new set of officers being investigated were thrown out last week, and a fifth innocent person who had been sent to prison on phony drug dealing charges was set free.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti is promising another wave of overturned convictions soon. “The investigation has clearly expanded,” said Victoria Pipkin, a spokeswoman for his office. “We’re still in the early stages, but we believe that when the smoke from this settles, it will entail many more than 99” people framed.

In many ways the scandal is the same old damning story for the LAPD, which has often been its own worst enemy in the last decade, from the beating of Rodney King caught on videotape to its disastrous handling of the city’s riots and detective Mark Fuhrman’s perjury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

One former officer, Rafael A. Perez, is the focus of the latest probe. He has told investigators that he and a partner shot an unarmed 19-year-old man, planted a gun on him, then testified that he threatened them with an assault weapon during a stakeout on gang turf.

The man, Javier Francisco Ovando, was sentenced to 23 years in prison. He was freed one week after the scandal broke. He may be confined to a wheelchair for life because of the shooting.

In another incident just disclosed, Perez said that he and other officers shot an unarmed 21-year-old gang member they had been chasing through an apartment building, then delayed calling an ambulance while they planted a gun on the scene to make the shooting look justified. The man, Juan Saldana, later died.

And this is just the beginning of the sensational stories Perez has had to tell. He is helping investigators in exchange for leniency on charges of stealing cocaine from a police evidence locker.

According to Perez’s account, much of which police say they are corroborating, planting drugs, lying under oath in court, using brute force and conducting illegal searches have been common in one of the department’s elite anti-gang units known as CRASH. It stands for Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, one of the city’s primary weapons in the long battle against gang violence.

Police say Perez has told them that in their zeal to bust suspected gang members, he and other officers sometimes carried stashes of drugs when they patrolled, to make a frame-up quick and easy.

In investigative transcripts obtained by the Los Angeles Times this week, he also says CRASH members sometimes gave each other a plaque after shooting a suspected gang member, such as Ovando. In one instance, he said officers betrayed a confidential informant in front of fellow gang members, knowing he could get beaten, or worse.

Until last week, all of the overturned convictions had direct links to Perez. But in a sign of how the probe is widening, Perez was not the arresting officer in any of the nine latest criminal cases just thrown out by a judge because they involved phony drug charges. Dozens of officers and their supervisors in the department’s Rampart Division near downtown, where Perez was assigned, are under suspicion for the same misconduct, or for looking the other way.

And police have not said that they are certain the corruption is confined to Rampart.

In the ranks, the scandal has been devastating. Sgt. Armando Perez, who has been assigned to the Rampart Division for six years, said officers feel betrayed by their colleagues, frustrated by the pace of the investigation and worried that they could be made scapegoats by a department under pressure to clean house.

On the streets and in court, Perez said, officers also sense their credibility is in shambles, or gone.

“All the hard work we do is in question now,” said Perez, who is one of about 400 officers at Rampart. “At trials, the first thing that defense attorneys are asking officers when they take the stand is, ‘Are you assigned to Rampart?’ ”

The scandal is also dividing the community around the Rampart Division. Home to many newly arrived Mexican and Central American immigrants, some illegally, it is a bustling part of Los Angeles that is all grit, no glitz. At least 20 gangs roam its narrow alleys and tightly packed, low-rise apartment buildings, warring over turf and drug sales. Rampart is one of the police department’s biggest and busiest precincts.

Residents are not defending officers admitting to misconduct, but some still say they support the harsh attitude that the force flaunts on the streets. Its crackdown on gangs, they say, is saving the neighborhood.

“Three years ago, it was really bad here, but it’s gotten a little better,” said Santiago Ramirez, 31, a maintenance supervisor. “The police have helped me out a few times. I have nothing to say against them.”

But a few protests have been staged at Rampart, and some community leaders say the investigation into the renegade style of officers is long overdue. Fearing reprisals, many others are angry but reluctant to criticize police. They say they now fear some officers as much or more than gangs.

“If you have dark hair, a moustache and a car, the police will harass you,” said a Hispanic man in his twenties as he worked in a local shop.

“People are afraid,” said a middle-aged man who has lived in the area for five years. “They’ve seen and heard what can happen if you don’t stay on the good side of the police.”

Carol Watson, a leader of a local nonprofit group called Police Watch, which monitors the department and has been working with the community around Rampart, said that since so many residents are newcomers from other countries, they have almost accepted police abuse as a fact of life.

“There’s disillusionment, but mostly people are just numb to it,” she said. “From what we’re hearing, these things with police happened all the time.”

Parks has assigned nearly 50 officers to the Rampart probe. Some have gone as far as Mexico and Guatemala to interview possible victims of police misconduct. The chief is urging Garcetti to prosecute three officers, and recently he announced that cases involving 52 defendants are so “severely tainted” they should be dismissed at once.

To date, a core question has gone unanswered: What went wrong? Some officials who have studied the LAPD say that it has instilled a by-any-means-necessary mentality in officers fighting gangs. Other city leaders wonder whether a rush to beef up the force – the department added about 2,000 officers in the past six years–has hurt training. Similar moves in other cities, including the District, have led to serious policing problems. But the scandal here is not focused on patrol officers.

“We’re talking about highly specialized units this time,” said Merrick Bobb, an analyst of policing practices who has investigated the LAPD. “You would think that the department would be able to carefully select officers for that kind of assignment.”

What the department needs most, some say, is stronger civilian oversight. But other community leaders contend that little will change until more officers break codes of silence, report misconduct and face no recriminations.

In the meantime, the corruption probe wears on. Garcetti said recently that it could take months, even years, to resolve. The department is being besieged by lawsuits.

At Yagman’s firm, business is so brisk that lawyers are being hired just to work on potential cases against the LAPD. On the firm’s Web site, he also recently posted a new list from Garcetti of people whose convictions involved officers now under investigation. It has several thousand names.

Special correspondent Neal Becton contributed to this report.