The L.A.P.D. Blues

  • The cops in the anti-gang unit in Los Angeles' Rampart division had a motto: "We intimidate those who intimidate others." They worked the city's most violent neighborhoods, met firepower with firepower and succeeded in bringing gang-related crimes down 60% from 1992 to 1999. But the unit has been roiled by charges that its Dirty Harry tactics went too far, and last week a jury finally called it to account. In the first of what may be a series of trials, three Rampart officers were found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice by planting evidence and framing gang members. A fourth was acquitted. The intimidators face two to four years in jail.

    Following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and charges of investigative bungling and racism in the O.J. Simpson case in 1995, the Rampart scandal has brought the L.A.P.D. to a new low. Allegations of cops' dealing drugs, shooting unarmed suspects, planting guns and routinely falsifying police reports have left the force reeling. So far, 100 Rampart-related convictions have been overturned. More corruption cases involving police officers are in the works, and the city has been forced to accept a consent decree under which a federal judge will oversee police reforms. Liability suits by those wrongly accused could cost Los Angeles upwards of $100 million. Meanwhile, crime rates are rising again--homicides are up 38% in Rampart neighborhoods this year--as evidence mounts that officers are scaling back on aggressive policing out of fear of disciplinary charges.

    "The Rampart scandal has tainted the entire department," says Richard Drooyan, former chief assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and head of a 190-member commission that released a highly critical report on the L.A.P.D. last Thursday. Drooyan's report, ordered by the city's board of police commissioners, found a "fundamental problem of supervision and leadership" in the department. These problems were acute in specialized units like the Rampart anti-gang CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit, which "developed an independent subculture that embodied a 'war on gangs' mentality where the ends justified the means."

    The trial itself showed how badly the image of the Los Angeles police has deteriorated. The prosecution was unable to call its star witness, self-confessed corrupt cop Rafael Perez--whose tales of his experiences as a member of the Rampart CRASH unit broke open the scandal a year ago--because of concerns about his credibility. A former girlfriend accused him of three murders, about which he indicated he would plead the Fifth Amendment on the stand. She later recanted, but the prosecution had to fall back on calling known gang members to testify. Yet the jury chose to believe the testimony of these men, some with long criminal records, over the evidence given by police colleagues of the accused officers. Jury questions to the judge indicated a high degree of skepticism over police witnesses' repeated lapses of memory, with a juror asking whether this was the infamous "code of silence" practiced by the police.

    The guilty verdict was a bittersweet victory for district attorney Gil Garcetti, whose eight-year tenure was marred by criticism of his handling of the Simpson and Menendez brothers cases and who was seen as being slow to respond to the Rampart scandal. Two weeks ago, Garcetti was defeated in a bid for re-election by Stephen Cooley, who made the Rampart scandal the centerpiece of his campaign. Cooley has said he will set up a new division in the D.A.'s office dedicated to "pursuing anyone who attempts to taint the public justice system. Good cops will welcome a prosecutor who takes out the bad cops."

    Those found by the jury to be bad cops were still defending their actions last week. "I believe we did our job keeping the citizens of L.A. safe from all the gangs and crime that is going on out there," said Sergeant Edward Ortiz after he and Sergeant Brian Liddy and Officer Michael Buchanan were found guilty.

    And while charges of police misconduct continue to be examined by the courts, not much has changed on the streets. In Rampart neighborhoods, where residents still hear gunfire at night and wake up to find bloodstains and flower wreaths on the streets where gang members have been killed, there is little criticism of the police. "Sometimes it gets pretty crazy here," says Greg Taymizyan, owner of El Gallerito food market on 3rd and Rampart. He points down the street to where a shooting took place two days ago. "We need the cops here. Because of a few bad apples, you shouldn't throw out the whole basket."

    The citizens of Rampart, and the rest of Los Angeles, hope that someone sorts out that basket soon.