LAPD: The Deep Blue Rot
Revolutionary Worker #1047, March 19, 2000
Four days before the passage of the anti-youth Proposition 21 in California on March 7, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks announced that he was disbanding the infamous CRASH unit. CRASH--"Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums"--was LAPD's "anti-gang" unit. It was on the front lines of LAPD's war on the oppressed communities--and it has been at the center of the huge scandal about police corruption and brutality. Even as Prop 21 steps up the system's criminalization of youth, the power structure is facing a deep scandal that exposes more and more rot among their enforcers in blue.
The cops often brutalize the people in secret, under cover of the darkness of night, hidden in alleyways, using lies and fake evidence. They especially target the oppressed youth--those cast off and marginalized by the system. These youth are labeled as "gang members," "drug dealers" and "super-predators." New laws call for locking them up for more time at a younger age. Or they are straight-up framed, just for being young and Black or Latino. They disappear into the vast lock-ups of Amerikkka, or find themselves deported to other countries, or their young lives stolen by police bullets.
The LAPD scandal--involving especially cops from the Rampart division but others as well--is bringing these crimes against the people out into the light of day. There has been exposure about how cops were involved in systematic brutality and murder, robbery of money, drugs and jewelry, and the railroading of people on fabricated evidence. Thousands of people were sent to jail by cops who are now under suspicion in the scandal.
The scandal has also shown that police commanders, judges, prosecutors, and politicians encouraged, guided and protected the Rampart cops. The problem is not just a few "rotten apples." And in recent weeks, the scandal has spread all the way to the federal government.
High-Level Pigs Exposed
In late February, LAPD Chief Parks announced that the FBI was going to join the official "investigation" of the Rampart scandal. This was supposedly a step to ensure an "impartial" look at the scandal. A few days later, there were reports that agents from the FBI as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) worked closely with many of the LAPD cops who have already been fired or suspended because of the scandal.
The FBI and the INS set up special operations in Pico-Union and Westlake--the largely immigrant neighborhoods patrolled by the Rampart cops. The INS (people call it La Migra) has two special units in the Pico-Union--the Violent Gang Task Force and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). The OCDETF was created by the U.S. Congress--supposedly to go after large-scale drug-trafficking. The OCDETF agents sat in an office at the Rampart division police station and deported people who were snatched off the streets by CRASH. Over the past three years, they deported hundreds of immigrants and charged at least 40 with federal felonies.
Sometimes the cops arrested people but found that there was no way to charge them with an actual crime--so the police turned these people over to the INS agents. In some cases, the cops wanted to get rid of witnesses against the police by getting them deported. The CRASH cops even went out to carry out their own Migra raids--busting Latino people they thought were deportable.
These actions by the cops openly violated a city policy known as Special Order 40. This policy was adopted in the 1990s, after years of struggle by immigrant rights groups and others who wanted to stop the LAPD from acting like immigration police. Special Order 40 says that "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person."
Exposing the police is like using a cattle prod inside a pig pen--it sets off a chorus of squealing. Caught in an embarrassing exposure, INS agents talked to reporters and said that working with the Rampart cops wasn't their idea: The FBI made them do it.
Following the 1992 L.A. Rebellion, the city was flooded with a lot more FBI and other federal agents, including cops from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Sometimes they work together in huge county-wide task forces. On April 1, 1995, the feds assembled a small army of 600 cops to carry out the biggest raid in Southern California history near the corner of Florence and Normandie, one of the centers of the 1992 Rebellion.
The FBI's Violent Gang Unit began working with the LAPD in Pico-Union in 1993 to "investigate" the street organization known as "18th Street." The FBI claims that 18th Street has ties to international drug traffickers in Mexico and Colombia. The FBI has not come up with any evidence for their claims, even after years of investigation. But this did nothing to slow down their operations in Pico-Union.
In 1997, according to an INS report, the FBI demanded help from the INS "on the pretense of making an OCDETF case out of an FBI investigation of gang members with no drug or organized crime connection." INS agents, as well as an assistant U.S. Attorney, opposed the FBI request, but the INS regional director ordered OCDETF to work with CRASH.
A few days after the revelations about the FBI's role at Rampart, an INS memo was leaked to the L.A. Times and pointed the finger back at the INS. The memo--a 1997 OCDETF plan on work at Rampart--said, "In cases where criminal prosecution cannot be sustained, proceedings will be initiated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to remove the individual from the United States." In other words, the Migra was fully cooperating with the Rampart cops from the beginning.
The various police agencies may have temporary disagreements and in-fighting. But they are all enemies of the people.
Police in "Enemy Territory"
It is no surprise that police from all levels have paid so much attention to the Pico-Union community. Pico-Union, just across the freeway from the skyscrapers of downtown L.A., is the most densely populated urban area west of the Mississippi River. It is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and refugees from the U.S. wars in Central America. They live in old and crowded brick tenements and stucco apartment houses. It's a proletarian area, where families survive on minimum wage jobs in garment or other sweatshops, cleaning houses or selling things on the street. A lot of young people can't get any jobs, and have to survive any way they can. The fires of the 1992 Rebellion burned fiercely in Pico-Union. There are street organizations in Pico-Union, including 18th Street, whose members are almost all immigrant youth from Mexico or Central America. The L.A. Times called the neighborhood "enemy territory."
CRASH cops have been known to stop kids in the neighborhood and force them to pose for pictures while they throw gang signs. The photos become part of the "gang database." Once a person's name is in the gang database, it is there forever. One man who was deported after an arrest by Rampart cops had a job and was married and had small kids. He had not been a member of any street organization for years. The databases are used in injunctions that make it a crime for specific individuals to own beepers and cell phones or be on the street with friends. If people on the gang databases are convicted of a crime, they are subject to longer prison sentences.
The Railroad of Alex Sanchez
The exposure about the close working relationship between the Migra and CRASH first came out around the case of Alex Sanchez and the organization Homies Unidos. Sanchez was busted by CRASH in January of this year. Homies Unidos works with members and former members of street organizations and promotes peace truces among gangs. It began in El Salvador, where there are street organizations started by youth deported from L.A. Sanchez was deported from L.A. to El Salvador in 1994. He returned in 1996 to rejoin a son who lived with his mother in L.A. Two years later, Sanchez started a chapter in Los Angeles, making Homies Unidos the first international gang peace organization.
Sanchez also helped start Arts Expand, which has weekly drama and poetry workshops for teenagers. Immanuel Presbyterian Church gave them a meeting place.
From the beginning Homies Unidos had to deal with police harassment. Cops staked out the meetings and stopped and searched people. The commanding officer at Rampart said, "There's not going to be any hands-off policy for any gang members in Rampart. It's our job, when gang members get together, to gather intelligence. And if we see them on the street and have probable cause, we're going to search them." A few months before his arrest, Alex Sanchez testified at hearings in the California State Senate on police brutality.
Last July, a CRASH cop named Jesus Amezcua stopped Alex Sanchez, saying he "looked suspicious" and took his photo. On August 6, the same cop staged a raid on a birthday party for Alex's fiancé, kicking open the door, brutalizing people and beating Alex with a police club.
The threats increased when the cops arrested a young member of Homies Unidos and tried to frame him for murder. José Rodriguez, 14, faces trial as an adult and a sentence of 50 years to life in prison. But the killing that Rodriguez was arrested for happened while he was at a Homies Unidos meeting, on stage practicing a skit with the director of the drama workshop. Alex Sanchez is also an alibi witness for Rodriguez. Sanchez saw officer Amezcua again at a court hearing for Rodriguez. After that, he started getting stopped on the street all the time.
Amezcua openly threatened to destroy Homies Unidos. "He gave Homies Unidos six months to live," Sanchez said recently. Homies Unidos took steps to counter the police harassment. Workshop leaders picked up youth at their homes, so they wouldn't have to run a gauntlet of cops to get to the church. When a state senator held a hearing at the church about the harassment, cops asked a custodian if they could hide in a closet to conduct surveillance. The custodian refused. The police approached a church official and tried to rent a room to carry out spying. The church refused to collaborate and sent a letter to the police in protest.
On January 21, Alex Sanchez was standing on a street corner when he was arrested. Sanchez remembers hearing the cops say they had to call to see if the INS wanted to arrest him. According to Sanchez, Amezcua told him after the arrest, "It's over. You can take Homies Unidos and shove it."
The commanding officer at the Rampart Division told the L.A. Times, "Representatives from the INS instructed the LAPD officers to arrest Sanchez and book him." INS officials said that was news to them. They said there was a warrant for Sanchez for illegally re-entering the U.S. in 1996. But the warrant was dormant until the LAPD called.
There were immediate protests of the outrageous arrest. Recently, the U.S. Attorney in L.A. announced that the criminal charges against Sanchez had been dropped and that the deportation process had been suspended. But he is still being held at the immigration detention center at San Pedro.
The Scandal and the In-Fighting
The widening crisis, including the exposure of the FBI and INS, has brought the in-fighting within the ruling class out into the open.
In early February, local newspapers published extensive excerpts from interviews that the police conducted with Rafael Perez, the Rampart CRASH cop who started to talk after he got caught stealing four kilos of cocaine from the police station. He got a five-year sentence in return for his cooperation.
It was clear from the beginning that this scandal would have huge repercussions. Rafael Perez admitted he framed so many people that he couldn't remember them all. His police interrogators had to bring him boxes of old case files. Perez's revelations show that brutality and frame-ups were so widespread that everybody at the police station had to know about it. There were details about supervising officers helping to put together fake "crime scenes." The captains and lieutenants willingly signed off on police reports that totally contradicted the physical evidence. They held parties for cops who shot people and gave them trophies.
The City Attorney now estimates that the city would have to spend over $125 million to settle lawsuits from people wrongly convicted and sent to prison. The number of cops under investigation is now at 70 and rising. The Mayor, DA Gil Garcetti, Police Chief Parks, the L.A. City Council, L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Police Commission all came out with their own proposals on how to carry out the investigation.
The LAPD has had investigators talking to Perez and checking out his stories, including cases involving other cops Perez named. The DA's investigation is going very slowly. Garcetti claims this is necessary in order to build strong cases against the cops. So far, no cops other than Perez and his ex-partner David Mack (who was photographed robbing a bank) have been arrested. Of the thousands of cases of people wrongly convicted by these cops, only a little more than 40 have been dismissed so far.
And there have been revelations about Garcetti's own role in Rampart. The DA's office twice refused to prosecute ex-cop Brian Hewitt, another former partner-in-crime of Rafael Perez--even though Hewitt was fired from the force for a 1998 beating at the Rampart station.
DA Garcetti and Chief Parks (a protegé of former Chief Daryl Gates, who was forced out after the L.A. Rebellion) are openly hostile to each other in public. The mayor is firmly backing the police chief. Parks accuses Garcetti of going too slow. Parks wants to dismiss 100 cases of people falsely convicted by Perez's fake testimony--and call the whole thing over. His office just released a 362-page report on the Rampart scandal. The report completely ignores key issues, such as the code of silence among cops. And it makes the same old proposals for "reform," such as "ethics training," better screening, more personnel in Internal Affairs and so forth. Parks was forced to disband CRASH--something he refused to do just two months ago. But he said CRASH will be replaced with yet another "anti-gang" unit.
Garcetti contends that there is not enough evidence to convict the other officers yet, and that immediate indictments would let them get off. But LAPD Chief Parks has initiated disciplinary proceedings against 15 officers, a move which could jeopardize future criminal proceedings against them.
Some City Council members pushed for an "independent" investigating commission, like the Christopher Commission that investigated the LAPD after the 1991 beating of Rodney King. But the City Council turned down that proposal. Instead they agreed on a "blank check" to the Police Commission to increase the staff of the Inspector General's office. The Police Commission is a "civilian" committee appointed by the mayor. It rubber-stamped every one of the police shootings of unarmed people that are now being investigated as part of the scandal. But Parks has been trying to make the Inspector General even more toothless by making it part of the LAPD chain of command.
The disagreements and in-fighting within the power structure is an indication of how serious the Rampart scandal is for the ruling class.
The California penal system is already the third largest in the world. And, in the wake of Proposition 21, officials are getting ready to add two or three more prisons just for youth.
But the LAPD scandal has helped to touch off broad sentiments against the police. Al Martinez, a usually pro-police columnist for the L.A. Times, wrote about getting a letter from a prisoner who was framed by Rampart cops in 1991. The prisoner is now at the infamous Pelican Bay maximum security prison on a life sentence. Martinez wrote, "We are suddenly awash in convicts who swear they were railroaded by LAPD detectives. Some were and were freed from prison. Now we are all faced with the possibility that many others were similarly imprisoned, but may never be freed. That rests heavily on the public conscience."
Bernard Kastin is a retired businessman from the wealthy community of Rancho Palos Verdes near L.A. His daughter was murdered in 1977 by a serial killer. He recently said, "At the time, I was strongly in favor of the death penalty for the killers... Recently, I've heard so much about police misconduct--to put it mildly--with the planting of evidence, the lying and distorting of facts to justify the police's arresting suspects and testifying so that they receive the maximum sentence possible, including the death penalty, that I started to really turn the other way. It's not just going on here in Los Angeles. If it's all true what this officer, Rafael Perez says about what's been going on, it causes me to have doubts about the police's position in any of these cases."
There are stories about juries who are refusing to take a cop's word over a defendant's in drug cases in L.A. courts.
A panicked local government official recently said that the Rampart scandal was "undermining our way of life." This American "way of life" is based on the suffering and exploitation of billions of people around the world. It rests on the oppression and police suppression of poor and oppressed people here. And it also depends on the silence and collaboration of people in the middle classes. When this "way of life" starts to show cracks, it is a positive development for those who want a very different way of living.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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