|Photo by Ted Soqui|
The Rampart scandal, which broke in 1999, exposed LAPD corruption at its audacious, seamiest best. Anti-gang cops turned gangsters, and gangsters turned cops. Officers purloined cash and swiped cocaine — sometimes right out of the LAPD’s own evidence lockers. The crooked police shot and tortured the innocent. They had secret lairs for illicit affairs. They lied in court and cheated on their taxes. LAPD supervisors took no notice or refused to act. Prosecutors giddily won convictions — and long prison sentences — based on unscrupulous policemen’s false oaths. When the sordid mess began to leak out, through the probing of Matt Lait and Scott Glover at the Los Angeles Times, a skirmish erupted between LAPD brass and then–District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
Conveniently, the blame game averted new revelations, and only a handful of criminal indictments were handed down. Nearly five years later, scores of wrongful convictions have been reversed; the city has paid out more than $125 million in damages to the victims of the dirty cops; and Los Angeles spends more than $20 million annually on a federal monitor operating under a court-supervised consent decree intended to reform the Police Department.
But Rampart never became The Rampart Affair. Heads did not roll. There was no housecleaning at the LAPD or the D.A.’s Office. Even William J. Bratton, the city’s newest top cop, wondered, when he assumed the post in October 2002, why there hadn’t been more-sweeping changes. More recently, after two and one-half years as federal monitor, Michael Cherkasky questioned “whether there has been the necessary cultural shift in the LAPD.”
Rampart never involved anything so easy as a change in attitude — or what police officers call, when threatening ornery citizens, an “attitude adjustment.” This implies the antiseptic application of well-crafted, well-intentioned measures like collecting and analyzing the data from car and pedestrian stops to see if there is racial bias; investigating all police shootings; rooting out excessive force; increasing officer training to “care about the community.” All of this, and more, is required under the five-year consent decree. It is laudable and necessary. But putting the shine back on the badge is in the troubled tradition of William H. Parker, the vaunted chief of police who sanitized a department that throughout the first half of the last century was plagued by bribery and brutality, was sloppy, and rampant with cops tied to gambling, prostitution and dope.
Parker, who took control in 1950, created the thin blue line, a professional force equipped with radio patrol cars that took the cop-on-the-beat off the street, away from temptation and direct contact with the public. His police became a notorious force of occupation, distant, imperious and buff. They also rousted and, too frequently, killed civilians with impunity. They treated blacks and Latinos as if L.A. were Mississippi or Texas, circa 1948. They spied incessantly on the chief’s enemies — à la J. Edgar Hoover. (Daryl Gates was his handpicked spy chief at one time.) Yet, they never conducted shakedowns, and they didn’t use their uniforms for personal gain. Until Rampart, Parker’s mystique of incorruptibility — his great endowment to the force — remained intact.
Then, in late 1999, Rafael A. Perez began talking to local prosecutors. On trial for stealing 8 pounds of cocaine from an LAPD evidence room, Perez sought a plea bargain. His confessions ripped the LAPD wide-open. While in jail awaiting trial, Perez claimed that he was having bad dreams about 22-year-old Javier Francisco Ovando. Perez told a story of a supposed stolen-weapons stakeout at a vacant apartment on South Lake Street, an 18th Street Gang hangout. Perez said he and his partner, Nino Durden, shot the unarmed Ovando in the head, chest and hip and, to cover their crime, planted a .22-caliber rifle on him, falsified their police reports and in court “testi-lied,” as police officers like to say, that the young man, who was now crippled for life, had assaulted them. That got the officers a commendation from then-Chief Willie Williams, and a 23-year prison term for their victim.
Perez disavowed his comrades, telling prosecutors that officers in the Rampart CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) anti-gang unit regularly faked evidence and sold drugs. Soon, episodes of murder and mayhem were pouring forth during the taped interviews prosecutors were conducting with the rogue cop, now whistleblower. He spoke of eight allegedly improper shootings. He told of shakedowns of drug dealers, for cocaine and money. He talked about department supervisors doctoring evidence of unjustified shootings. He alleged that one man was allowed to bleed to death while officers planted a gun near where he’d been shot.
It was about greed. Perez — and no one knows how many other officers like him, earning $55,000 a year — was in it for the money, the glamour, the glitz. He puffed on expensive stogies, he cheated on his wife with young girlfriends, he dressed in designer suits, he drove fancy cars. After his former partner, David Mack, ripped off a Bank of America for $722,000, he and his mistress partied the night away in Vegas, while Mack went on an $18,000 spending spree.
At his sentencing, in February 2000, Perez said, “For many years I proudly wore a badge of honor and integrity and enforced the laws in the standards befitting a Los Angeles police officer. In the Rampart CRASH unit, things began to change. The lines between right and wrong became fuzzy and indistinct. The ‘us-against-them’ ethos of the overzealous cop began to consume me. To do our job fairly was not enough. My job became an intoxicant that I lusted after. I can only say I succumbed to the seductress of power. Used wrongfully, it is a power that can bend the will of a man to satisfy a lustful moment. It can open locked vaults to facilitate theft. It can even subvert justice to hand down a lifetime behind bars.