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
The police who patrol such tough neighborhoods develop a sensibility to match. Especially the young ones just out of the Police Academy. "Officers want to go to a place where they're going to get the most experience they can, as soon as possible," says Monroe Mabon, a former sergeant with 22 years at the LAPD, now turned attorney. "You get your boots laced up, and you go where the action is."
"They call it 'stick time,' because you get to swing your baton in those neighborhoods," adds Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who gained insight into the LAPD by representing numerous former officers in litigation against the department. "Every client I've ever interviewed says that's what they were told. You go down there to get stick time."
The problem is, the gangs are ubiquitous, meaning that most young men coming of age will hook up with their local set, whether they personally engage in violent crime or not. For the police, committed to a war on gangs, that means open season on an entire generation.
The Reverend Milton M. Merriweather, 75 years old, is a Baptist pastor who for decades convened his congregation on Hoover Street in the heart of 77th. Merriweather grew up in the segregated South, and to him the war on drugs and crime carries the same stigma. "It's like there's a conspiracy to make sure every black man has a criminal record," Merriweather fumes.
"It's a siege mentality," Mabon says of his former colleagues. "You've got officers with no ties or stake in the community. They're people on a mission -- they're going to eradicate these gang members." Adds Charles H. Hack, a lawyer who grew up in Compton and handles criminal cases out of South-Central, "The officers feel they have to put fear and terror in these guys' minds in order to control them."
That uncompromising attitude translates into a lurid history at the 77th Street Division. With the Watts riots in 1965, and again with the Rodney King riots in 1992, the 77th was the scene for widespread violence, much of it in protest against the LAPD.
In 1988, it was officers from 77th who set out to raid an apartment building at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue and, in the ensuing frenzy, trashed the place, smashing toilets with a sledgehammer, punching holes in walls, even ripping an exterior staircase from the side of the building. Afterward, more than 40 "suspects" were taken to the station and run through a police gauntlet, where they were beaten until they consented to whistle the Andy Griffith Showtheme song.
Anecdotal stories from inside 77th reflect a divisional culture much like what Rafael Perez described at Rampart. One story turns on Stacey Koon, one of the officers who beat Rodney King, who was a sergeant at 77th. Another former officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that when he was transferred to the 77th during the same period, he arrived with a reputation as a stickler for proper procedure. He says Koon decided to set him straight. "He knew I was somebody who would report misconduct, so he took me aside," the officer recalls. "He started screaming at me, just screaming, about how I didn't understand how it was on the streets, how you had to beat on 'these people' because it's all they understand."
Connie Rice relates a particularly harrowing incident from a client who left the department in the late 1980s: "She was telling me about the guys and how they did business at 77th. She went downstairs and walked by an interrogation room, and she saw one of the CRASH guys playing Russian roulette with a gang member. Had the gun in his mouth and was pulling the trigger. And the kid was, you know . . . urinated all over himself and defecated -- you know, he was just scared out of his mind."
Rice said her client was a black officer who resented the attitude of the division's more aggressive officers, and that this incident had made her snap: "She opened the door and pulled [the interrogating officer] out and threw his gun across the hall . . . She took him by the collar and banged him up against the wall. She said, 'If I ever fuckin' see you do this again, I will kill you.' So she got the kid cleaned up and took him upstairs and put him with someone who was, you know, not a sadist. And she quit CRASH the next day."
Mark Furhman, the notorious detective from the O.J. Simpson murder investigation, is another 77th Street Division alumnus, having been stationed there briefly after graduating from the Police Academy in 1975. Furhman recalled that period in tape-recorded interviews with an aspiring screenwriter. "Most of the guys worked 77th together," he said of a crew who invaded a Boyle Heights apartment building in 1978. "We were tight. I mean, we could have murdered people."
THESE ANECDOTES PRE-DATE THE PERIOD INVESTIgated for this story, but documents show that the essential character of the CRASH unit in the 77th remained unchanged at least through the past year. And while the roster at the CRASH unit was fluid, with officers transferring out of the division or into other assignments, the documents reveal a core group of officers who seemed to embody the unit's hard-charging reputation.