A deafening silence

Why haven't Latino leaders spoken out about the LAPD scandal?

Published March 7, 2000 12:00PM (EST)

When Los Angeles County threatened to reduce the number of hospital beds available to poor and working residents, the state's Latino political leadership rallied to block the plan. When the city's highest ranking Latino educator came under attack this fall, Latino politicians came out to defend one of their own. And when television crews captured the grainy images of two Riverside County sheriff's deputies beating undocumented immigrants two years ago, Latino civil rights and elected officials marched and called for a federal investigation of the incident.

But six months after the eruption of one of the worst corruption scandals in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department -- in which it was revealed that a rogue anti-gang unit ran amok in the Latino community, shaking down gang members, illegally harassing immigrants and in one case shooting and planting a gun on an unarmed drug dealer -- the state's powerful Latino political bloc remains curiously quiet.

"It's amazing that you haven't seen or heard any of the elected or self-anointed Latino leadership speaking out on this issue," says Sam Paz, a local civil rights attorney. "I think it's really sad that we have worked so hard to build a body of Latino elected officials and organizations and they have all been paralyzed in terms of speaking out on this case."

The scandal began when Rafael Perez, a former officer in the LAPD's Rampart Division, was arrested in September after he was caught stealing 8 pounds of cocaine from a police evidence room. He agreed to cooperate with investigators in exchange for receiving a lighter sentence. He was sentenced late last month to five years in prison.

Perez detailed how Rampart's special anti-gang units, known as CRASH, routinely framed individuals. Perez himself confessed to shooting Javier Francisco Ovando, an unarmed gang member, and planting a gun on him. Ovando, who was left paralyzed by the shooting, served three years of a 23-year sentence before being released.

More damaging evidence surfaced in January, including information that Rampart officers routinely targeted immigrants for arrest and deportation. The allegations are a direct violation of a city ordinance known as Special Order 40, which prohibits police from stopping anyone based on their immigration status. At the end of February, the FBI joined the investigation into the Rampart Division.

Adding to the flap over police treatment of immigrants, last week two agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service filed a lawsuit against the LAPD alleging they were falsely arrested and roughed up by officers.

One city councilman has described the Rampart scandal as "the worst manmade disaster this city has ever faced." But despite months of startling revelations, Latino leaders have remained in the background, saying little. Last week Assemblywoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, took a small action, introducing a bill in the Legislature calling for stiffer penalties for officers caught tampering with evidence.

The silence has been even more striking in light of the recent political changes that have characterized California's politics. Last spring, opposition to Proposition 187 -- the ballot measure that sought to cut off medical and educational services to undocumented immigrants -- propelled Latino politicians into powerful new roles. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, Rep. Xavier Becerra and state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco are just a few of the state's powerful new Latino elite -- and all four represent districts involved in the Rampart scandal.

Many of the cops implicated in the scandal are Latino, but no one interviewed believes that is what has kept leaders from speaking out.

So why the silence? Politics.

Insiders say with elections just around the corner, once-outspoken leaders such as Villaraigosa and Becerra, both of whom are running for mayor, have been taking a more cautious position.

No one wants to appear soft on crime, political strategists say. So candidates are choosing their words carefully. Speaking out too harshly against the LAPD could cost them votes among the city's Anglo voters. And appearing soft on gangs could alienate middle-class Latino voters who want to get rid of gangs at nearly any cost.

More important, however, no candidate appears willing to risk angering the city's powerful police union. "The Police Protective League is very friendly with a lot of people. And no one wants to come out and hit their friends," says Leo Brillones, a political consultant who has worked on some of the toughest campaigns in recent years. "Their endorsement means a lot."

That has angered civil rights attorneys who have often fought alongside Villaragoisa and Polanco.

"If it weren't for the black community speaking out on cases like Rodney King, where would we be?" says Paz.

Now that Latinos are gathering power, activists want to see them use it. "Among the reasons these politicians were elected is because one presumed they would provide a voice for this community, and now they are silent," says Antonio Rodriguez, a civil rights attorney representing a victim of the Rampart scandal.

For their part, Latino leaders such as Villaraigosa dismiss critics who say they've been shy about taking on the issue. "No one asked me about this until now," says Villaragoisa. He says he spoke out about the scandal in an editorial published in October. For now, he says he wants to be responsible and review the function of the CRASH units. "I'm not an ambulance chaser," he says.

Others such as Becerra don't want to bash "the people who are there to protect my wife and children just because there are some truly bad apples in the department," as he recently told the Los Angeles Times.

Critics say many politicians aren't willing to risk an election to defend a community that still lacks political clout.

"I think both Latino elected officials and whites look at this community as being largely from an area that doesn't vote, either because they don't have documents or don't want to," says Rodolfo Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at California State University at Northridge. "And besides, historically the Latino community has done little about police abuse issues."

But don't expect things to stay quiet. The latest revelation involving the illegal deportation of immigrants may finally spark a reaction.

"I think this will tip the scales," says Rodriguez. "The subject of deportation has always been a special hurt in the Latino community." In the 1940s, thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were rounded up and deported.

Already some leaders are beginning to act.
Democratic Rep. Lucille
Roybal-Allard announced last week she was meeting with federal
officials to discuss the immigrations charges.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund has begun
meeting with other groups on the issue to
discuss a strategy,
including litigation that would strengthen Special Order 40.

And last week civil rights attorneys including Paz, Rodriguez and Connie Rice sat down to hash out a collective response to the scandal.

In the meantime, however, the strongest voices of protest have come from the city's white politicians, including state Sen. Tom Hayden, who has been meeting with the U.S. attorney and the INS. "I haven't been getting any calls from my colleagues," says Hayden.

Some say no one should be surprised by the silence from Latino leaders. After all, this is politics, and if Latinos play to win they have to consider the rules. "How they handle this will determine if [Latino politicians] become the big hitters," says Raymond Rocco, a professor of political science at UCLA. "And in the end it will be a sticky situation for them no matter how they choose to handle it."

By Sandra Hernandez

Sandra Hernandez is a freelance journalist who regularly writes about immigration and Latino issues in Los Angeles. She is a former staff reporter with the Associated Press and the LA Weekly and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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California Immigration Immigration Reform