Stay on my good side, mother fucker:
If it's too loud, you're too old:
Batman Theme by Danny Elfman
CRASH and Burn:
Corruption, Gangs, and the L.A.P.D.
Word Count: 5,629
The line between those who break the law and those who enforce it is dangerously thin. Gang-members and police officers are often reflections of each other, holding many similar customs and practices, i.e., a shared tradition, code of loyalty, group isolation, etc. Often the distinction between the two is hard to define. It is common for police officers to cross that line and participate in criminal activity. This paper will examine police corruption, and the gang mentality in relation to the infamous LAPD CRASH Units, with a special focus on the Rampart Scandal of 1999.
The formation of CRASH Units
The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums Unit (CRASH) was a group of anti-gang units within the Los Angeles Police Department. Begun in the 1970s, CRASH Units were “set up to tackle increasing gang-related crime in the city” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). “CRASH officers were required to get to know gang members – their names, habits, friends – to keep on top of gang activity (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Former Chief of the L.A.P.D. Daryl Gates said the Units were made up of “the very best – individuals who are not afraid – people who are willing to work, people who are willing to get out and mix with the gangs, and get a better understanding of the gangs, who are not intimidated by the gangsta" (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
According to Gerald Chaleff, Former President of the LA Police Commission CRASH officers were "some of the most, you could say, gung-ho or ambitious officers.” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). The title was a prestigious one, highly prized. The position offered “freedom of movement and activity" (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). The responsibilities of the Units were varied.
The duty of CRASH Units
Sergeant Brian Liddy, a former CRASH officer, defines the primary mission of the Unit as gathering intelligence on and monitoring the activities of criminal street gangs. Liddy says, “There are kind of two sides to it. There's the intelligence side, where you kind of got to know all these people by their nicknames, where they hang out, what kind of cars they drive. Then there's the crime suppression mode, where you're out trying to keep them from doing drive-bys and robberies and extortion – the criminal end of their involvement” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). In April 1988, Police Chief Daryl Gates initiated Operation Hammer, “a series of street sweeps of gang-infested areas in South Central” conducted by as many as a thousand police officers moving from one neighborhood to the next, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of suspected gang members and drug dealers (Cannon, 1997: 17). CRASH Units were assigned to special details aimed at getting gangsters off the streets. According to Joe Domanick, there were ‘tag teams’ set up to enforce the operation, consisting of motorcycle cops who conducted traffic sweeps.
They knew the vehicle code backward and forward, every clause in the section. Every clause. They knew that a car had to be parked eighteen inches from the curb, and if it was twenty-two, it was a ticket. If the windshield wipers didn't work, it was a ticket. If there were no floor mats, it was a ticket. They knew everything and could get anybody...Sure, you pissed off a lot of people, and sure most of them weren't involved in killings or serious violence, but it was a way, the LAPD way, of getting at the problem" (Domanick, 1994: 324).
Liddy describes the expertise of the Units further: “Some gangs are into stolen cars. Some gangs are into dope. Some gangs are into robberies. Some gangs are into burglaries. Then the bigger gangs have different cells--this group of gangsters sells dope, this group of gangsters does this. You need to know all that to be an expert on the gang that you're assigned to” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Liddy offers a description of the CRASH Unit acting as a community experiment in goodwill, rather than a hammer, saying that the majority of time is spent talking with gang members, relating to them on a personal level, in order to get information (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
A sense of elitism and privilege was fostered among members of the police unit, deriving from their use of unmarked cars rather than the standard black-and-whites, freedom from radio check-ins, and being sought out by other officers to answer gang questions (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Sergeant Liddy notes a feeling of being important, of not being tied to the “day-to-day business of a policeman in any city. You're just dealing with gang members. You're not being assigned radio calls unless it strictly pertains to gang activity. You're supervised, but you're supervised at a different level. You're expected to be mature, responsible, go out there and do what you're supposed to do” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Liddy cites a positive effect on the quality of life, especially in his own Rampart area, as a direct result of the CRASH Unit:
In 1990, I believe Rampart had right around 150 murders in the division. In 1997, it was down to about 33. When I left Rampart, in the afternoon, people would take their kids to the park and play at Rampart. When I had first went to Rampart, nobody took their kids to the park. So the quality of life in those eight years had changed drastically in Rampart. Crime was down. The gangs were nowhere near as bold as they had been. They had taken to staying in the back of the buildings and not showing their face, because they could expect to get visited by the CRASH officers (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
The Rodney King Legacy
In the early 1990s, Los Angeles was generally thought of as a harmonious, culturally diverse city; a near utopia (Cannon, 1997: 4). However, “Poverty and discord rippled through forty square miles of mean streets. This Los Angeles was the city of which mystery writer Walter Mosely said, ‘It's a land that on the surface is of dreams, and then there's a kind of slimy underlayer’” (Cannon, 1997: 4). Racial tensions and deteriorating conditions for minorities did not receive attention from national or local media, the belief that such squalor was an “old hat” story, and unfashionable as news in the decade of political correctness (Cannon, 1997: 14).
The public image of the police received a damaging blow on August 1, 1988, when eighty Los Angeles police officers, acting on a false tip, “decended on four apartments near Thirty-ninth street and Dalton Avenue that they believed were gang-controlled crack cocaine houses. They smashed toilets, destroyed furniture, broke windows, and wrote pro-police graffiti on an outside wall” (Cannon, 1997: 17) Thirty-three African Americans were arrested, but the raid turned up less than an ounce of cocaine and resulted in only one single successful prosecution on a minor charge. “Dozens of officers were disciplined, and three were prosecuted on felony vandalism and other charges" (Cannon, 1997: 17).
Operation Hammer was regarded by many as an inconvenience; many of those arrested in sweeps were simply teenagers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Chief Gates was seen as unresponsive to the community’s needs, and out of touch (Cannon, 1997: 17). "While some activists described the LAPD as an occupying army, polls showed that a majority of blacks and Latinos were supportive of the police. One objective measure of the community's attitude was the consistent support given by South Central voters, especially blacks, to ballot measures that would have raised taxes to pay for additional officers or better police equipment" (Cannon, 1997: 17). Individual officers in high-crime precincts often developed ties with citizens (most often Latinos) who supported a crackdown on gangs (Cannon, 1997: 18).
That all changed with the release of a videotape of the beating of Rodney King. The world witnessed an unarmed man being beaten with batons by several police officers, while others looked on in the background. The consensus was that this was a case of excessive force (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Following the incident there were a number of comments from police trying to be supportive of their fellow officers, but these were viewed by the public as an attempt to justify King’s treatment, and as a result the L.A.P.D. lost credibility with the community (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). This inevitably led to citywide riots after the officers were acquitted.
The incident served to “handcuff” the police department; Chief Gates was unwilling to offer a forceful response to the riots for fear of appearing too aggressive or provocative. The result was millions of dollars worth of property damage, a wave of lawsuits against the city, and the irreversibly tarnished image of what once was the greatest police force in the country (Domanick, 1994: 426-427). The near-reverence of the community for their police department was gone, replaced with “a white-hot cauldron of hatred and resentment” at the arrogant behavior of the police (Domanick, 1994: 333).
According to Los Angeles civil rights attorney Gregory Yates “the public began to view L.A.P.D. as being a corrupt, an almost SS troop kind of organization. I think the people that lived here wanted to deny it as long as they could, because you have to feel that you're protected. Who are you going to go to if you're in trouble (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001)?”
Chief Gates reluctantly retired from the force, causing an upheaval in the leadership in the department:
They brought in a chief of police from the East Coast. That was a mistake…He came in, a very nice guy, and all of that. But he was an individual who did not understand the Los Angeles Police Department, did not have…"the L.A.P.D. mentality"…and didn't understand any of that. He didn't understand the structure of the Los Angeles Police Department, and he undermined that structure…He took away an awful lot of the kinds of things that are necessary in order to make sure that you don't have police officers doing things that they ought not to do…It's important to have that supervision…he really screwed up by taking the CRASH units away from the supervision, and putting them down at another location outside of Rampart, where they were on their own. What in the hell did anybody expect was going to happen? And it happened. It happened (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
The Rampart Scandal
On March 18, 1997 Undercover L.A.P.D. officer Frank Lyga shot and killed off-duty L.A.P.D. officer Kevin Gaines in a case of apparent road rage. The fact that Lyga was white and Gaines was black created a highly publicized controversy. Lyga claimed that Gaines “had ‘I'm a gang member’ written all over him.” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001) The investigation into the shooting revealed that Gaines, and several other officers had been working off-duty as a security guard for Death Row Records, a rap recording label owned by Marion "Suge" Knight. Indeed, it appeared that several officers had played a role in the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001)
Nearly eight months later, an investigation into a bank robbery revealed the participation of officer David Mack and his ties to Death Row Records. It was discovered that two days after the robbery, Mack and several other officers, including Rafael Perez, a member of the Rampart CRASH Unit had gone to Vegas, spending thousands of dollars. (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
In March, 1998 the investigation of Perez lead to the discovery of several pounds of cocaine missing from the L.A.P.D. property room. Perez had switched the drugs with Bisquick and sold them via his girlfriend (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Chief Bernard Parks established the Rampart Corruption Task Force to root out ties between any other CRASH officers and Death Row Records (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Perez cut a deal with prosecutors, meeting with investigators more than 50 times over a nine-month period. Perez provided more than 4,000 pages in sworn testimony, implicating about 70 officers in misconduct ranging from bad shootings to wrongful arrests to filing false police reports to drinking beer on the job. Perez was quoted as saying, “Believe me when I tell you, if there was 15 officers in CRASH, 13 of them were putting cases on people” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Based upon Perez's allegations nearly 100 convictions were overturned and 58 officers were brought before an internal administrative board (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). 12 of these officers were suspended, seven, and five were fired outright (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). On March 3, 2000 Chief Parks disbanded the CRASH Units, replacing them with new anti-gang details that he assured “would include more rigorous requirements for membership, stressing the officers' level of experience” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
In the late 1980s, as a result of a newly instated consent decree, the L.A.P.D. experienced an influx of new police officers from various backgrounds. The police department was effectively integrated and became much more diverse. Daryl Gates, chief at the time, confirmed that the measure was largely a positive one, but unfortunately, in the struggle to make quotas, often one is forced to compromise:
You can't hire all the people you need. So you've got to make all of those quotas. And when that happens, you get somebody who is on the borderline…And we made some mistakes. No question about it, we have made some mistakes. No police department should hire more quickly than they can assimilate the people that they bring in, and we did…Some folks became cops, L.A.P.D. officers, who shouldn't have: "That's right, no question about it. The background investigators slipped, probably because they were overwhelmed. . . . They did not do the depth of research that's necessary in order to really weed out those that ought not to be police officers. Some people were slipped in that ought not to have been police officers" (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
As a result, incidents occurred such as the rousting of fifty-five year-old Jessie Larez by CRASH officers, in the search for a gun allegedly used in a murder. Larez’s nose was broken during the early morning raid and his family won a settlement against the L.A.P.D. (Domanick, 1994: 353). Ruben Rojas, a Temple Street gang member, recounts that CRASH officers often went beyond just doing good police work, conducting surveillance on the houses of gang members and even pitting gang members from different neighborhoods against each other just to watch them fight (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Their job was to keep us off the street.... But they just forgot that, you know? You just don't put cops in neighborhoods like that, because there is a lot of temptation, and the temptation will get you. You will bite into it--especially in West L.A…You know what I can say about that? They were a wannabe mafia (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Gangs policing gangs
Gerald Chaleff, former President of the L.A. Police Commission, describes the nearly rogue behavior of the CRASH Units:
First of all, there was something in L.A.P.D. called the “Rampart Way” – things in Rampart were done differently. But second of all, this particular Rampart unit was in a building away from the main station because of space problems, without supervision. So you had these sergeants, senior police officers and others doing whatever they wanted to. That's always a problem (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Chaleff says the CRASH Units developed their own methodology of police work, apart from departmental policy. “Many people who would say that the CRASH unit in Rampart became just another gang, and that's how they dealt with things. If some of the things that are alleged are true--and I'm certain that some of them are--they were as violent as gang members are” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Without proper supervision, the CRASH Units began redefining the rules for what constituted “good guys” and “bad guys.” Their sense of autonomy and superiority led to officers acting extra-judicially, or outside the law (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Clearly the line between those who enforce the law and those who break it began to blur.
Detective Mike Hohan, the principal investigator on the Rampart Corruption Task Force notes the CRASH Unit’s adoption of a motto: “We intimidate those who intimidate others” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
I believe that had to deal with that they created such fear in the gang members, because no matter what had to be done, again, stretching whatever had to be stretched, you would go to jail if you were a gang member. He told us that officers in the CRASH unit carried what we call our drop guns, which are guns that they recover on the street, but they don't recover them from anybody. The policy would be to book them as evidence. And what these CRASH officers would do, including Perez, is keep them. When they found a gang member that they wanted to go to prison or wanted to go to jail, they would plant one of these guns on him. They would do a similar thing with rock cocaine (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
Hohan also reports that CRASH officers would hold back some of the narcotics from drug busts. “They would use it to give to informants. They would use it to plant on people that they couldn't get a case on any other way” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
The Unit operated very much like a gang; painting graffiti, identifying themselves with specific clothing and a unique logo, and, above all, engaging in criminal activity. Hohan continues:
They would give plaques. And they had tattoos and patches that they wore on jackets, sort of like bomber jackets that they had. And the tattoo and the patch had a cowboy hat with a skull, and then aces and eights on it. The aces and eights, of course, stood for the dead man's hand that Wild Bill Hickock had. When an officer was involved in a shooting and the officer had a hit, he would get a plaque that had the aces and eights in it, a patch, and some other memorabilia. And allegedly, they would put a couple of shell casings for the number of times that the officer hit the person he was shooting at. There were two types of plaques. One was for a fatal shooting, and one was for when they wounded somebody (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001).
According to Ruben Rojas, “CRASH was basically an organization that was created like a gang. Their method was to get us off the street, to arrest as many gang members as possible and lock them up. That's what the CRASH unit was based on” (“L.A.P.D. Blues,” 2001). Chief Parks points out that much of the gang-like behavior of the Unit stemmed from the officers’ personal lifestyles.
So all those things begin to reflect on [Kevin Gaine's] off-duty associations, how he's conducted himself. And the variety of complaints that were going on around him at the time began to give some concern about who he associated with, who were some of his friends, what was going on. And we finally began to realize that some of our officers, in working off-duty, were heavily involved in the whole hip-hop culture, providing security for many of the rappers that were involved with other kinds of crimes. These things began to reflect a completely different view of some of our personnel than we had before…any time you deal with a criminal element and you're being part of a security force, you become part of that criminal element, because it's difficult to separate yourself ("L.A.P.D. Blues," 2001).
Ethics in policing
What does the Rampart scandal reveal about the nature of law enforcement? How much does personal character have to do with one’s performance as a police officer? Should officers be held to a higher moral standard than normal humans being?
Edwin Delattre (1994) cites the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics in his book, Character and Cops: Ethics in policing:
As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality, and justice. I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear of favor, malice or ill-will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities. I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service" (Delattre, 1994: 31).
With the passage I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others, there is a clear distinction made that police officers serve as models for the rest of society. How can the law be enforced by those who do not believe in it and do not follow it to the letter? Delattre emphasizes the importance of the police officer’s authority, and the power of its effect on society:
A police officer is authorized to make decisions about the lives of others, an enormous power the rest do not have. Such power should be exercised only by those whose public and private behavior befits authority. A person who is hung over or weakened by other intemperance is more prone to errors of poor concentration, inattention to detail, and so on. The public cannot allow those who have special powers to indulge in excesses allowed others. The rights of police arise from their institutional mission (Delattre, 1994: 156).
Delattre makes it clear that (ideally, at least) holding the position of a police officer requires a very hard sacrifice. They must adopt the manner befitting the model officer at all times. Unlike the average McDonald’s employee, the police officer can not turn it off at the end of the day and be himself. They are expected to uphold the values of their police department and adopt them as their own.
In Police Deviance Thomas Barker and David Carter (1986) define police occupational deviance as “the deviant behavior--criminal and noncriminal--committed during the course of normal work activities or committed under the guise of the police officer's authority.” They posit that occupational deviance is one of the many forms of the general topic of police deviance. This is usually thought of in two forms, police corruption and police misconduct. Barker and Carter note that both of these specifically apply to the officer's role as an employee rather than to the practice of policing in general (Barker and Carter, 1986: 4).
Even though every occupation may provide the basis for deviant acts, there are few occupations which place their members into work settings with so many opportunities for deviant acts as does the police occupation. This phenomenon is particularly aggravated by the authoritarian nature of policing as well as the subcultural solidarity associated with law enforcement (Barker and Carter, 1986: 5).
Moreover, Barker and Carter emphasize the fact that the ramifications of police deviance can be devastating to the community. “A cop engaging in corrupt acts is not only subverting his/her authority but he/she is also denigrating the public trust in and respect for the law. The officer who commits a theft during the course of a criminal investigation not only violates the criminal law but also damages the relationship between the community and the entire criminal justice system” (Barker and Carter, 1986: 5). This damages the effectiveness of law enforcement activities. As in the case of the L.A. riots, the authority of the police was totally undermined and mass destruction ensued.
Barker and Carter note that “persistent deviance typically is not a solitary enterprise; rather is best flourishes when it receives group support. Second, deviance typically is not an individual or group innovation, rather it has a history in particular locales” (Barker and Carter, 1986: 16). This, of course, is true of the L.A.P.D.; the Rodney King beating was a group effort, and the Rampart scandal was one of many examples of uncovered police corruption in the department.
The authors found that “officers who engaged in shakedowns of criminals and accepted payoffs from vice operators and businessmen who operate outside the law were likely to be reported. Over 70% of the subjects believed that a policeman who engaged in any of these acts would be reported” (Barker and Carter, 1986: 18). Yet, the Rampart scandal was uncovered only after a tragic incident of “friendly fire.” One might assume that the gang mentality of the CRASH Units existed elsewhere in the department, and that certain forms of police corruption were not disapproved of.
Barker and Carter persist: “Those most likely to witness police actions are other police officers…But police will rarely incriminate another officer. They will either support the officer's actions or deny knowledge of the incident. This attitude has come to be referred to in police circles as the blue curtain” (Barker and Carter, 1986: 273). Is this “curtain” of silence the accepted norm in the Los Angeles Police Department? Is corruption really so tolerated? The authors offer an explanation: