By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
These incidents hark back to the heyday of the CRASH unit, when the crime rate and the war on gangs was near its peak, and before the revelations from Rampart. Since then, following career moves and adjustments in departmental procedure, most of the faces have changed. Addis Simpson was fired from the force, Andy Luong left the LAPD to take a job with the Buena Park police, and Vinluan is a patrol officer with the 77th Street Division.
In the meantime, in response to the Rampart scandal, Chief Parks disbanded the CRASH units, and abandoned their ugly acronymn, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. Department critics say the move was largely cosmetic, and note that the discredited gang-suppression details were promptly re-formed as "Special Enforcement Units" and retained many of the same personnel.
That continuity is represented at 77th by John Radtke, the sergeant in charge of the new gang unit. Before his promotion, Radtke had a long history at 77th Street CRASH. He distinguished himself as a savvy street cop and made a number of high-profile, high-volume drug cases. At the same time, Radtke established himself as a leader in CRASH, a tough officer who would always stand by his men. Two cases in particular raise questions over the decision to place him in charge of the new gang unit.
SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT ON JUNE 4, 1995, THREE squad cars from 77th Street CRASH were heading northbound in a caravan on Van Ness Avenue. Officers Simpson, Vinluan and Radtke were all on hand; according to a police report, they were "searching the area for a member of a local street gang wanted in connection with a murder investigation."
As the officers reached 52nd Street, they spotted a tan car gliding through a stop sign. The officers in the lead car "opined that the occupants were possibly local gang members," and the caravan set out in pursuit. Soon after, the officers in the lead car "saw the suspect seated in the rear seat holding a large handgun." They alerted the CRASH units that their quarry was armed and dangerous.
The chase ended when the tan car slowed near Arlington Avenue. Two teenagers jumped out and ran while the vehicle was still rolling, leaving a third, identified later as Levar W., 15 years old, in the passenger seat. While the other officers headed off after the fleeing suspects, Radtke closed on the one who remained.
Since Levar W. was a juvenile, he is not further identified in the record and could not be located to give his side of the story.
Radtke stopped his black-and-white close behind where the suspect vehicle had come to rest against a curb. Radtke and his partner exited with their guns drawn, while Levar W. got out of his car and stood there. Radtke hollered at him to put his hands up, but according to the report, Levar W. failed to comply. He may have been confused -- Radtke had left his siren on, and in the darkness, with the racket and flashing lights of the police car, the suspect failed to comply. From a distance of less than four yards, Radtke squeezed off a round and shot Levar W. through the right arm. He dropped and was arrested.
The shooting report suggested that Levar W. "appeared to be attempting to locate an object secreted in the front waistband area of his trousers," then "moved to his right and appeared to grasp the object he had been seeking in his waistband," and then "appeared to be removing the object from his waistband." The report, however, notes that Levar W. had no gun, or anything else, in his waistband. Nor was the reported "large handgun" located in the car, or on the other "suspects."
That was all right with the LAPD use-of-force board that reviewed the incident, but it was too much for then-Chief Willie Williams. In a report to the Police Commission, Williams overturned the internal panel and found Radtke's shooting "premature" and out of policy. In lay terms, Radtke was unjustified in shooting an unarmed teenager. Radtke was never disciplined, however, and his career advanced despite the shooting.
Even more disturbing, considering Radtke's post as the leader of the 77th's new gang unit, was the August 1994 arrest of Gregory Leon Young. Young was hanging out with three friends in front of his home, an apartment complex that fronted on an alley behind Florence Avenue. They were suddenly cast in shadow by the spotlights of two CRASH squad cars, occupied by Radtke and three other officers. In an instant, all four officers were out of their cars, guns drawn, and had them surrounded.
According to police, one of the "suspects" pulled a gun from his waistband and bolted from the scene, fleeing through Young's front door and then out the rear, leaving the door open behind him. At the same time, the police said, Young also produced a gun and tossed it through the open door before the officers could grab him. He then turned, put his hands up and said, "I don't have nuthin'." Young was charged with a felony count of being an ex-con with a gun.