The guilty verdicts against Rampart officers last week were immediately hailed as confirmation that there was indeed a scandal at the LAPD.
In fact, the jury verdicts showed that there are two Rampart scandals. One centers closely on Rafael Perez, the admitted rogue cop whose sensational confessions launched the scandal in the first place; the other is much broader, and goes beyond the dimensions of the compact inner-city Rampart Division. The two are quite distinct, and the differences are critical to the continuing, and so far fruitless, efforts to reform the citys police force.
The Perez scandal -- as it probably should be known -- is by far the more sensational, involving drug dealing, extortion and home-invasion robberies. Perez is the only officer accused of forcing drug suspects into the service of his own narcotics racket, and the only one, aside from his partner, accused of shooting an unarmed suspect, who was cornered in an abandoned apartment.
The second scandal involves the more mundane, more widespread practice at the LAPD of bending the rules of legal process, or flagrantly violating them, to make arrests and mete out punishment to suspected lawbreakers. These crimes are more subtle, more difficult to prove and more politically ambiguous. But they are the ones that government officials and police watchdogs must address if they are to achieve real reform at the LAPD.
The distinction between the two scandals was drawn into sharp relief by the remarkable manner in which the Rampart criminal trial unfolded. The case involved three incidents of misconduct selected from among dozens that Perez had described in interviews, each chosen because there was substantial circumstantial evidence to support Perezs allegations. Perez was considered essential -- he would narrate the case, walking the jury through the process by which officers at the CRASH anti-gang unit would fabricate crime scenarios and then file the bogus cases with the district attorney.
But Perez, burdened with his own personal scandal, proved too hot for the courtroom. On the eve of trial, Perez was accused by a former girlfriend named Sonia Flores of committing several homicides. Faced with the prospect of cross-examination on these new charges, Perez announced through his attorney that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to answer, rendering moot any other testimony he might offer.
Flores later admitted she had made up her account of the Perez homicides, but dont expect to see him called to the witness stand anytime soon. Even before Flores accusations, Perez had failed five lie-detector tests administered by the LAPD, and had refused to divulge any material relating to his good friend David Mack, a fellow rogue cop doing time for a 1997 bank robbery. Defense attorneys vowed to attack Perez on every inconsistency.
Still, the sudden loss of Perez seemed to leave the prosecution adrift. At times the case seemed almost random; witnesses were introduced in no particular order, speaking to any one of the three alleged false arrests. Asked at one point during a break in proceedings whom she planned to call for her next witness, lead prosecutor Laura Laesecke said she wasnt sure. Its fluid, she said as she shuffled through her notes. Its a work in progress.
The low point came midway through the trial, when Judge Jacqueline Connor ruled that prosecutors had failed to bring sufficient evidence on one of the incidents even to allow the jury to consider it, and that event was dropped from the case.
By the end, however, the prosecution was able to string together a compelling chain of circumstantial evidence that contradicted the official version of the two remaining arrests. In their closing arguments, Laesecke and Anne Ingalls, head of the D.A.s Rampart task force, pressed the jury to rely on their common sense in deciding whether the officers version of events stood up against the official record and the testimony of witnesses at the scene.
Based on those criteria, the jury found three of four officers guilty of fabricating charges in one of the two incidents examined at trial. And based on those criteria, the district attorney can now consider bringing cases far afield from the Rampart Division.
Perez himself laid out the scenario early on during his interviews with LAPD investigators. I would say that 90 percent of the officers that work CRASH -- and not just Rampart CRASH -- falsify a lot of information. They put cases on people. And I know thats not a good thing to hear. I know thats very broad . . . Im not proud of this, or, you know, it hurts me to say it. But theres a lot of crooked stuff going on at the LAPD.