By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
During four years on special assignment at the LAPD's Rampart Division, first at the CRASH anti-gang detail and then working in plainclothes as a narcotics agent, Hewitt earned a reputation as a high producer -- and for wielding a heavy hand, dispensing the bare-knuckles brand of street justice for which the Rampart Division has become notorious. "Hewitt was a hands-on kind of officer," one Rampart supervisor explained in an interview. "Hands-on meaning if he wants you to sit down, he takes you like this," grabbing a reporter by the arm and neck of his jacket and hauling him across to a chair. "Here, sit down."
Ethan Cohan developed a very different kind of reputation in two years as an officer on the Rampart gang squad. Where Hewitt tried to dominate the neighborhood by intimidation, according to officers and some gang members, Cohan specialized in cultivating sources. He treated his contacts with respect and patience, spending hours on street corners bantering and trading information.
Hewitt and Cohan both focused on the 18th Street gang, the city's largest and most violent, and both â worked out of the Rampart Detectives Division, a converted bank building at Third and Union streets, about half a mile from the main station house. But they never shared the same assignment -- Cohan joined CRASH in September 1996, a month after Hewitt moved to narcotics -- and with their differences in temperament had little contact, according to officers who worked with them. "Cohan never liked Hewitt, and he never made any effort to act like he did," one officer recalled.
Yet these two officers share a fateful bond and a grim distinction: They are the first two officers to be fired by the department for misconduct in connection with the ongoing Rampart scandal. The case against them arose not from the testimony of CRASH officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez, whose allegations have been the subject of a monthslong internal investigation, but from the beating, while handcuffed inside a detectives' interview room, of a longtime 18th Street gangbanger named Ismael Jimenez. It was Hewitt who brought Jimenez in; it was Cohan who cut him loose.
Both officers were fired last June after extended hearings before internal boards. The ruling on Hewitt caused little reaction -- nobody would countenance a station-house beating, and Hewitt's reputation made his case all but untenable. Cohan, on the other hand, was fired for being slow to report misconduct, and for failing to get Jimenez medical attention when Jimenez emphatically declined offers of assistance. To his fellow officers at Rampart, even to the sole civilian member of his disciplinary review board, Cohan was being sacrificed, a scapegoat to the reform effort staged by Police Chief Bernard Parks.
In her formal dissent from the decision to fire Cohan, board-of-rights member Karen Andres was emphatic that the department had erred in its prosecution of Ethan Cohan. "The newspapers and the public often condemn the LAPD for blind defense of the actions of sworn personnel," Andres said. "This case is quite the opposite. The department has been quick to vilify an officer who, from all accounts, is consistently dedicated, decent, even exemplary."
Department investigators believed that in the Hewitt beating, and Cohan's silence, they had stumbled across a conspiracy to stifle claims of police abuse. But a close look at the Jimenez case suggests that Parks and his internal prosecutors punished Cohan more for what might have happened than for what they could prove. Said one Rampart supervisor who was familiar with the case, "All they had was a theory."
It may be that, in his determination to root out excessive force and break the code of silence, Parks believed he needed to demonstrate to the department that a new, higher standard is now in effect. Or it may be that, in the face of a scandal that threatened to swamp his already beleaguered administration, Parks was simply looking for bodies to throw before the public.
Exactly what happened that night remains the subject of dispute, but everyone agrees something extraordinary took place. Jimenez was left gasping for breath and vomiting blood, the squad room where he was assaulted was cordoned off that night, and word of the incident spread rapidly. "All we heard was that someone had beat the living hell out of a gangbanger in an interview room," one Rampart officer says of the squad-room reaction. "There was blood everywhere -- at least that's what we heard -- and there was crime-scene tape up. People may think that sort of thing happens all the time, but let me tell you, everybody was shocked. It was all very hush-hush."