L.A. not so confidential

A police informer blows the whistle on some old news -- no one has been able to police the LAPD.

Published September 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A bad L.A. cop gets pinched lifting 8 pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker. Under pressure from prosecutors he rolls over on his buddies and the stories he tells rock the department: A 19-year-old suspect was handcuffed, shot point-blank in the head and then had a weapon planted on him. He went to jail, paralyzed for life.

In another incident nine cops crash a supposed gang safe house. Ten rounds are fired, all by the cops. One kid dies; another is shot through the chest. Now we find out he was really shot in the back, and the gang members were all unarmed.

The stories go on from there: Innocent suspects beaten till they vomit blood. Evidence fabricated to justify sweeping anti-gang injunctions. Cops dealing dope, perjuring and covering up for each other. An entire elite anti-gang unit running amok while police brass avert their eyes.

One more L.A.-based neo-noir movie? A sequel to "L.A. Confidential"? No such luck. Barely seven years after the most serious domestic civil disturbance in a century, and an equal number of years into what was supposed to be profound police reform, the LAPD is once again bleeding blue all over the evening news.

The cop who got caught with the coke is no fictional character. Former LAPD officer Rafael E. Perez is single-handedly obliterating the infamous code of silence -- dishing all the dirt he can in a frenetic attempt to save his own butt. The result? It's what the Los Angeles Times has called the biggest LAPD corruption scandal in 60 years. But it's worse than that.

What we see in Los Angeles today is the result of the LAPD's persistent refusal to submit to civilian oversight. "You can draw a straight line from the Watts riots to Rodney King's beating right up to the events of last week," says former Police Commission president, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum.

So far a dozen cops have been suspended and as many as 50 are under investigation. The kid shot through the head, Javier Ovando, has escaped his 23-year prison term -- though he's confined to a wheelchair since the shooting. Two phonied-up gang injunctions have been lifted. And multi-million-dollar civil suits are piling up against the offending officers and the city.

In what might be the greatest understatement yet mumbled in this affair, City Attorney James Hahn, a leading mayoral candidate, says "this could wind up being very expensive." Literally hundreds of criminal convictions could be overturned by what now appears to be serial police perjury. Meanwhile, internal LAPD investigators, as well as federal and state officials are widening their probe of the department. Former Officer Perez is expected to fill the week of Sept. 27 by continuing to name names and the city fathers are nervously bracing for the worst.

Civil rights attorney Leo Terrel, for example, says he's trying to arrange federal protection for three other cops who want to sing. "They want to talk about planting evidence and about 'kill parties' -- officers getting together to celebrate police killings."

At the epicenter of the scandal is the rough-and-tumble unit known as CRASH -- Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. They now look like some of the biggest hoodlums in the city -- macho police gunmen who rumbled through their mostly Latino territory competing with and shaking down the drug dealers they were supposed to be arresting. Published reports portray the CRASH unit as little more than another gang itself.

New unit members were "jumped in" -- a gang term used for initiation beatings. Other reports tell of CRASH officers shouting gang-like slogans and hanging handcuffs on their rear-view mirrors as a taunt to the local gang-bangers. The "war" on gangs, on crime, on youth was apparently so internalized by CRASH that its members saw themselves as elite warriors exempt and above the normal rules of engagement.

It's all part of what reform-minded former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara calls a frightening new trend in policing: "A drift toward a military mind set on the national level," he calls it.

The police brass, the political establishment and the local media have scurried to put the usual spin on the crisis: This is all a matter of a few rotten apples giving a clean department a bad name. But, inescapably, the central questions underlying this scandal are these: Will the LAPD ever truly accept effective civilian oversight? And can its dark internal culture ever be transformed?

These question have festered since at least the 1966 McCone Commission report that -- in the wake of the Watts riots -- called for independent civilian review structures. That idea was left dormant until the videotaped beating of Rodney King shockingly revealed the department's brutal reflexes. The hastily convened Christopher Commission -- named for former Secretary of State Warren Christopher -- came up in the early '90s with another set of proposed police reforms.

The demand for full and independent civilian review was traded in a compromise, approved shortly thereafter in a city election, creating a new office, that of inspector general. The IG would be the "eyes and ears" of the appointed police commission. It was established to make sure the LAPD would at once carry through its reforms, and that it would be responsive to civilian overseers.

For a while it looked like reform was on track. Discredited Police Chief Daryl Gates resigned and was replaced by African-American Willie Williams. New efforts were made to diversify LAPD recruits and the police academy was even teaching sensitivity training. A tough prosecutor, Katherine Mader, won the job as the first inspector general, seeming to promise some hope for real reform.

"The reforms were good, right on the money," says legal writer Joe Domanick, author of the authoritative history of the LAPD, "To Protect and Serve." "The problem is that there was no will by the city to implement the reforms. Mayor [Richard] Riordan only paid lip service to them."

Indeed, even the illusion of real reform was short-lived. When Chief Williams proved to be ineffective, the city council overruled the police commission when it moved to dump him. And when Williams was finally pushed out, in 1997, he was replaced by career LAPD defender, Bernard Parks, also an African-American. Parks rushed to proclaim that the LAPD had already improved "beyond the reforms" advocated by civilian hand-wringers. But his defense of the department hasn't won him the love of his rank-and-file, who resent him as a controlling disciplinarian.

"Parks is a control freak, a would-be banana republic dictator," says a source close to the police commission. "He has clamped down on all dissent. He's like a stern father that only punishes. When he heard that some tea was pilfered from a station house, he ordered the interrogation of 83 cops. He's more worried about that than what the CRASH unit is tearing up. He has no perspective on the big picture."

In that context, Parks made it known in no uncertain terms that he resented the IG poking her nose into police business. And last fall, Katherine Mader dramatically quit, complaining she was "bottled up." Throughout the political tug-of-war between the IG and the police chief, Mayor Riordan's hand-picked police commission essentially sided with Chief Parks and let Mader twist in the wind.

And the tension continues. Just a few weeks ago, on the eve of the current upheaval, Mader's successor, Jeff Eglash, echoed her complaints that his access was being sealed off by Chief Parks. "The problem with the department command is its firm conviction that it understands its job better than anyone else in the world," says the pro-reform former LAPD Assistant Chief Dave Dotson. "It believes there just isn't very much that any civilian can contribute to a better understanding."

Just last week the police commission secured a ruling from the city attorney recognizing it as the supreme authority over the LAPD. "The commission is in charge of the police department," commission president Gerald Chaleff told a local radio station. But rhetoric aside, it's unlikely the commission will try to assert itself over Chief Parks. "Gerry Chaleff is too worried about whether the chief likes him," says a veteran city commissioner in another department.

No one on the commission objected, for instance, when Parks announced that the principal investigation of the current corruption scandal will be carried out by a department board of inquiry -- an internal investigation of the cops by the cops.

"Here once again we have Chief Parks resisting the role of independent civilian investigation," says Stanley Sheinbaum, a former police commission president who helped broker the exit of Daryl Gates. "Now Parks says he needs six weeks to carry out the investigation. If proper oversight had been taking place all along it would take six days, or better, none of this would ever happened."

The ACLU, also lacking confidence in the LAPD to clean its own house, has demanded that some sort of independent permanent special prosecutor be created, to ensure not only a more neutral probe but ongoing scrutiny. So far, no comment on that proposal by Los Angeles' notoriously timid political leadership.

This new LAPD crisis is exploding just as a field of candidates for L.A.'s next mayoral race are jockeying for position. And just about every major potential candidate has some link directly to the crisis. City Attorney Hahn, the expected front-runner in the 2001 mayoral race, has enforced numerous gang injunctions potentially tainted by false police testimony. It will also be his task to limit the city's legal exposure in the torrent of civil suits now gathering. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, another possible first-rung contender, last week demanded that District Attorney Gil Garcetti re-institute the special police-shooting investigation units he disbanded three years ago.

Other potential candidates, ranging from current Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa on the left to Riordan crony Steve Soberoff on the right, have so far made noncommital statements simultaneously expressing outrage at and confidence in the department. But will any one of these potential candidates have the courage to admit that police reform in L.A. has been a sham? And will any one of them step forward to propose what LAPD has always resisted: effective civilian review of the cops?

Again, not very likely. "Where are [the politicians] going to be three months from now, six months from now?" asks Rabbi Greenebaum "All those people saying the right things now, OK. But they tend to fade away over time."

"As always, they are praying like hell the whole thing blows over and everyone forgets," says a prominent local defense attorney active on police-abuse issues. Mayor Riordan for his part, has said little except to reaffirm his support for Parks. "Riordan has been quick to take credit for the police when they look good," says Heather Carrigan, public education director of the local ACLU. "But shouldn't the mayor make it his responsibility that not even the slightest blemish be allowed on the police? Don't count on it."

The only hope, say police critics, is that former Officer Perez will spill so much more dirt out of his files this week that no force will be powerful enough to sweep it back under the rug.

"I'm skeptical that any long-term commitment to really doing anything is going to come out of this crisis," says former Assistant Chief Dotson. "My fear is that an investigation will be had, a few people will be disciplined, and even some command staff will be transferred or demoted. Then they'll all say this crisis is over.

"Meanwhile, no one will have looked at the organizational structure, management practices, systems for accountability -- at training and selection of personnel, and at all of the myriad factors that have contributed to the situation we are confronted with: this huge inert mass that is the culture of the LAPD."

By Marc Cooper

Marc Cooper is a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His work as translator for Salvador Allende is detailed in his book, "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir." His website is www.marccooper.com.

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