By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Hoping to get a bed for the night, Abner Thomas headed off to grab an early spot in line outside the downtown Midnight Mission. As he walked down Winston Street through L.A.’s Skid Row district, the lanky Thomas spied some men playing craps on the sidewalk. Unbeknownst to the gamblers, an LAPD black-and-white carrying Officers Christopher Coppock, 28, and David Cochrane, 34, had seen them too.
As the police car slowed to a stop, Thomas gave the dice players a “Hi” sign to alert them. Jumping out of the car, Cochrane yelled to Thomas, “Turn around and grab the fence.”
Thomas says he immediately complied. As Cochrane began the customary pat-down for weapons, he menacingly growled, “You think you‘re pretty slick, warning your friends.” Then he demanded to know what Thomas had in his mouth.
Thomas, 47, told the Weekly that he denied having anything in his mouth. But Cochrane, he says, persisted, “If you don’t fucking spit it out, I will bust you in the back of the head with my flashlight.”
Turning to face his accuser, the homeless man again protested that he had nothing to hide. Thomas says he even coughed and spit several times to show Cochrane he was telling the truth.
It was then, Thomas says, that Cochrane leaned into him. The officer opened his own shirt pocket and showed him a crack pipe and several baggies filled with nuggets of cocaine. “‘Which one do you need,’ he asked me, ‘the pipe or the rock?’ I‘m telling you,” says Thomas. “It was crazy.”
The date was November 6, 1997. At that time, Thomas says, he was completing a parole term from a previous drug bust and had turned his life around. “I had been clean and sober for 14 months, joined a Christian fellowship, and recently passed a drug test by my parole officer. I was following all the rules and staying out of trouble,” he insists.
Still, Thomas says, he was scared. “I told the cop that I was on parole, and he responded, ’You‘re on parole, well, you’re going to jail.‘ But he never said for what.”
Thomas says he repeatedly begged Cochrane not to arrest him, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. Meanwhile, Coppock, who had been interrogating another man, joined his partner. Cochrane, Thomas says, checked his pockets and pulled out what appeared to be a piece of lint or popcorn. He accused him of having cocaine.
“I told him it wasn‘t cocaine, and that I was clean. But he said, ’I‘m no fucking chemist, so you are going to jail.’” (The item Cochrane collected was later tested by the police and proved not to be drugs.) Thomas says the men playing craps were allowed to leave the scene.
Thomas says they handcuffed him and put him in the back of the patrol car. The time, he contends, was around 4:20 p.m., a fact that would later prove crucial to his case.
Instead of taking him directly to Central Division for booking, Thomas says, the officers continued to cruise the area, occasionally stopping to order homeless men off the street. Twenty minutes later, Thomas says, his captors happened upon Charlie Robinson, another homeless man.
Robinson was stopped outside a liquor store on Fifth Street near Crocker, emphasizes Thomas. In his written declaration and testimony, Robinson corroborates that claim. Both men say that Coppock and Cochrane searched Robinson and discovered, in his pocket, a piece of a car antenna, an item often used to smoke crack cocaine. Thomas says he saw one of the officers use his hand radio to call for what he figured was a warrant check.
Robinson was eventually handcuffed and put in the police car alongside Thomas. Like Thomas, Robinson protested his innocence. Robinson, he says, denied having cocaine and said he found the antenna on the street, intending to use it for trade. After Robinson‘s arrest, Thomas says, the officers continued to patrol. A short time later, he says, they happened upon a group of men using lighters on what appeared to be a pipe.
“The cops pulled up fast and jumped out of the car,” says Thomas. “They took the pipe from one of the men and put it on the hood of the car. Then they searched the group, handcuffed two of the men, and put them in the black-and-white next to me and Robinson.” The men were later identified as Elmore Williams and William Perry, who both stated they didn’t have any cocaine.
Finally, Thomas says, Coppock and Cochrane drove back to Central Division. At the station, Thomas says, he protested to the watch commander that he was innocent of any cocaine-possession charges and even offered to take a drug test, a request that, he says, was ignored.
The arrests of the four homeless men -- Thomas, Robinson, Williams and Perry -- all with past histories of drug problems and arrests, led to the suspension and, ultimately, termination of the two officers. The case illustrates how hard it is to get the criminal-justice system in Los Angeles -- from police investigators to prosecutors and judges -- to take seriously the claims of suspects who swear they are innocent.
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