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The Untouchables 

Lasting, sad lessons of Rampart

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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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.

“Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself,” Perez warned his former colleagues on the force.

 

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This is the epilogue to Denzel Washington’s searing performance, as LAPD Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris, in Training Day. Perez was, indeed, a man whose ethics got blurred while trying to do justice. The justifications he offered himself, before his repentance, must have sounded an awful lot like Harris’ in the film: Whatever he got on the side, whatever crimes he committed, it was done in the service of a higher mission, and as the only way to put the real criminals behind bars.

Anyone who has spent time with cops on the beat understands how this frame of mind can develop, how a Rafael Perez can become an Alonzo Harris. Rafael Perez, and cops like him, are paid to shield polite society from the underbelly that mocks and occasionally imposes on our (we think) well-deserved comfort. From the point of view of many cops, our society is weak. You’ve got to club a few suspects, plant some evidence, give some false testimony, and, as part of the spoils, if you grab some hoodlum’s coke and cash, and party in Vegas, well, that’s the compensation for being the ones who’ve been assigned to run in the muck.

Rampart exposed all this, for those who cared to see. It showed the all-too-human side of police work. Unlike the supercharged racism that lay behind the Rodney King beating, Perez and the 70 or so other officers who were reluctantly scrutinized by LAPD investigators demonstrated the frailties in us all. You might be able to slowly cleanse a racist attitude — foremost by integrating the force. But how can you instill rectitude when you are asking average men and women to protect a segment of Los Angeles that has the blithe prerogative of not needing and usually not wanting to know the worst? Most of us have excused ourselves from the job of making safer and better neighborhoods merely by paying our taxes. Is it any wonder that the police end up, however perversely, identifying with the criminals they patrol? And, occasionally, becoming them?

After Rampart broke, Los Angeles needed its own Serpico, the legendary New York cop who single-handedly took on NYPD corruption. The city needed a cop wizened from time on the streets to publicly reveal the full extent of the wrongdoing — no matter how far or wide his investigation took him. The depths of perfidy and criminality should not have been relegated to a satrap like federal monitor Michael Cherkasky to explore. To see just how far the LAPD had fallen, we needed someone who understood what it meant to take a fall. Such a man might have given the city the outlines of the problem. His investigation should have been public — not cloistered and by-the-numbers, as is the case under the consent decree. We might not have had such a clean road map of reform, and the process would surely have been untidy and ugly and brought the worst into the light. But the city would have been engaged in grasping after answers instead of pretending that technocrats can disguise the shambles with color-coded graphs.

No one will want to hear from Rafael Perez again. His crime, in the end, was to tear the façade off the LAPD. Despite the efforts of the city’s power elite — from Police Chief William Bratton to District Attorney Steve Cooley and Mayor Jim Hahn — one thing is certain: The mask will come off again. That is the lasting, sad lesson of Rampart.

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