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Beyond the Verdict

The guilty verdicts against Rampart officers last week were immediately hailed as confirmation that there was indeed a scandal at the LAPD.

In fact, the jury verdicts showed that there are two Rampart scandals. One centers closely on Rafael Perez, the admitted rogue cop whose sensational confessions launched the scandal in the first place; the other is much broader, and goes beyond the dimensions of the compact inner-city Rampart Division. The two are quite distinct, and the differences are critical to the continuing, and so far fruitless, efforts to reform the city’s police force.

The Perez scandal -- as it probably should be known -- is by far the more sensational, involving drug dealing, extortion and home-invasion robberies. Perez is the only officer accused of forcing drug suspects into the service of his own narcotics racket, and the only one, aside from his partner, accused of shooting an unarmed suspect, who was cornered in an abandoned apartment.

The second scandal involves the more mundane, more widespread practice at the LAPD of bending the rules of legal process, or flagrantly violating them, to make arrests and mete out punishment to suspected lawbreakers. These crimes are more subtle, more difficult to prove and more politically ambiguous. But they are the ones that government officials and police watchdogs must address if they are to achieve real reform at the LAPD.

The distinction between the two scandals was drawn into sharp relief by the remarkable manner in which the Rampart criminal trial unfolded. The case involved three incidents of misconduct selected from among dozens that Perez had described in interviews, each chosen because there was substantial circumstantial evidence to support Perez‘s allegations. Perez was considered essential -- he would narrate the case, walking the jury through the process by which officers at the CRASH anti-gang unit would fabricate crime scenarios and then file the bogus cases with the district attorney.

But Perez, burdened with his own personal scandal, proved too hot for the courtroom. On the eve of trial, Perez was accused by a former girlfriend named Sonia Flores of committing several homicides. Faced with the prospect of cross-examination on these new charges, Perez announced through his attorney that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to answer, rendering moot any other testimony he might offer.

Flores later admitted she had made up her account of the Perez homicides, but don’t expect to see him called to the witness stand anytime soon. Even before Flores‘ accusations, Perez had failed five lie-detector tests administered by the LAPD, and had refused to divulge any material relating to his good friend David Mack, a fellow rogue cop doing time for a 1997 bank robbery. Defense attorneys vowed to attack Perez on every inconsistency.

Still, the sudden loss of Perez seemed to leave the prosecution adrift. At times the case seemed almost random; witnesses were introduced in no particular order, speaking to any one of the three alleged false arrests. Asked at one point during a break in proceedings whom she planned to call for her next witness, lead prosecutor Laura Laesecke said she wasn’t sure. ”It‘s fluid,“ she said as she shuffled through her notes. ”It’s a work in progress.“

The low point came midway through the trial, when Judge Jacqueline Connor ruled that prosecutors had failed to bring sufficient evidence on one of the incidents even to allow the jury to consider it, and that event was dropped from the case.

By the end, however, the prosecution was able to string together a compelling chain of circumstantial evidence that contradicted the official version of the two remaining arrests. In their closing arguments, Laesecke and Anne Ingalls, head of the D.A.‘s Rampart task force, pressed the jury to rely on their common sense in deciding whether the officers’ version of events stood up against the official record and the testimony of witnesses at the scene.

Based on those criteria, the jury found three of four officers guilty of fabricating charges in one of the two incidents examined at trial. And based on those criteria, the district attorney can now consider bringing cases far afield from the Rampart Division.

Perez himself laid out the scenario early on during his interviews with LAPD investigators. ”I would say that 90 percent of the officers that work CRASH -- and not just Rampart CRASH -- falsify a lot of information. They put cases on people. And I know that‘s not a good thing to hear. I know that’s very broad . . . I‘m not proud of this, or, you know, it hurts me to say it. But there’s a lot of crooked stuff going on at the LAPD.“

Perez offered little actual evidence of such misconduct outside Rampart, but reform advocates -- including the monitor appointed under the federal consent decree -- have plenty of leads to work with. Already in the past year, officers from the LAPD‘s Southeast, 77th Street and Central divisions have been indicted, fired or forced to retire owing to alleged misconduct. Even if the first Rampart verdict ends up being dismissed because of juror misconduct, investigators don’t need to wait on Rafael Perez to develop cases, perhaps dozens of them, in those and other high-crime areas of the city.

But if the Rampart trial showed that prosecutors can bring successful cases against cops, it also showed how difficult it will be to muster and maintain the political will such efforts will require. For just as the convictions of three officers stripped the police of their moral stature, so did the close exposure strip the cops‘ quarry of any chance they might enjoy public sympathy.

Police critics have been wondering since the Rampart story broke why this scandal had so little hold on public opinion. What the criminal trial established was that Rampart does not lend itself to easy moral pronouncements. In the war on street gangs in Los Angeles, there are no heroes, and there are few innocent victims.

That case was made clear as the jury heard the story of Raul Munoz, one of two gang members for whose arrest Sergeants Ed Ortiz and Brian Liddy and Officer Michael Buchanan were convicted of conspiracy. Ortiz and Liddy were also convicted of perjury and Buchanan of filing a false report. In that episode, Munoz, a member of the Temple Street gang, was arrested on charges that he ran Buchanan and Liddy down with a pickup truck while fleeing the scene of a police raid.

The circumstances of the arrest were detailed from the witness stand. It was July of 1996, and Temple Street was facing a crisis. The gang had been feuding with the Mexican Mafia over who would collect the ”rent,“ or rake-off of illegal profits from the hustlers near MacArthur Park who trafficked in fake papers for undocumented immigrants. A ”rent collector“ named Lizard had been dispatched to Temple Street turf to collect the Mexican Mafia’s due. While sitting down with Temple Street members outside a McDonald‘s restaurant, Lizard was murdered.

The Mexican Mafia answered by putting a ”green light“ on the entire gang, meaning that any Temple Streeter who had the bad fortune to land in the state prison system was a target for retaliation. Scared and confused, Temple Street called a summit to plot its reaction. The whole gang would be there, an easy target for its enemies, so they agreed to meet outside their home turf, in an alley in Los Feliz, a couple of blocks from the Vista movie house.

That night saw more than 40 Temple Street members come together, including Munoz, then 23 years old. A gang veteran who went by the street moniker ”Prieto,“ Spanish for ”shady,“ Munoz had been born in El Salvador but grew up in Reseda and fell in with Temple Street boys who were bused to school in his neighborhood. When he was 16, Munoz made his bones with the gang when he gunned down a member of a rival gang in front of a local high school.

Munoz arrived at the Temple Street meeting with a girlfriend. He was on parole at the time, and his mere presence at a gang gathering violated the terms of his deal. Soon after his arrival, Munoz left with another gang member to go and retrieve a gun. Returning to the meeting, he kept the gun with him; as a convicted felon, holding that gun represented another felony. At trial, defense attorney Paul DePasquale emphasized, ”You knew you were breaking the law with that gun in your lap?“

Munoz replied, ”I broke it since I arrived.“

About that time a police helicopter bore down on the meeting, illuminating the scene with its Night-Sun spotlight as a combined squad of Rampart and Northeast division CRASH units closed in on the ground. ”Everyone scattered,“ Munoz recalled on the stand. ”I didn’t care where I was going, I just wanted to get outta there.“ As for the gun, Munoz said, ”I had to get rid of it somehow.“

Munoz jumped into his truck with a fellow gang member named ”Joker,“ and the two sped down the alley past the converging officers. This is where Liddy and Buchanan said they were run down. According to Munoz and several other witnesses at the scene, however, nobody got hit and the truck proceeded to the end of the alley, where its path was blocked by a black-and-white.

Swerving to avoid a crash, Munoz stalled out the truck. He and Joker fled on foot, Munoz dodging between several uniformed officers with his gun tucked under his shirt, ”in a football position.“ Halfway down the block, with cops behind him and cops in front, he tossed the gun in a bush. Moments later he was confronted by an officer with a shotgun and dropped to the pavement. That, Munoz said, was his first encounter with Liddy -- when the CRASH officer caught up with him, he kicked Munoz hard between the legs, and informed him, ”You‘re in deep shit.“

The jury found that Munoz never struck two officers with his truck, that the charges were fabricated, and that Ed Ortiz, the sergeant in charge that night, knew of the ruse when he signed off on the arrest report.

But the fact remains that, on the basis of his own testimony, Munoz is at least a two-strike felon who maintained his gang ties until he was deported to El Salvador, where he resides to this day. He’s the sort of repeat offender that made street crime the top domestic political issue of the past decade. While he may have been mistreated by officers from a gang squad that flouted the rules of criminal procedure, Munoz will never be a poster boy for police reform.

In her final argument, prosecutor Anne Ingalls was able to persuade the jury that, while all citizens want to see the police rid the city of criminal street gangs, ”Let‘s get them fair and square.“ It was enough to bring a verdict against three officers after a four-week trial, but something less than the sense of outrage kindled by the videotaped beating of Rodney King, outrage that led to the formation of the Christopher Commission and the ouster of Daryl Gates.

By contrast, the leading public figure in the Rampart scandal will remain Rafael Perez, an antihero who will get media attention but never exoneration. The question for the city and for the LAPD is, What will become of the second Rampart scandal? Who will move to rein in the cowboy officers like Liddy and Buchanan and Ortiz, who staff the specialized units across the city?

The first Rampart criminal trial made clear that the answer will be a test of leadership, not a measure of civic will. With the federal consent decree and a spate of recent critiques, the apparatus for reform is already in place, but the future of reform at the LAPD must come at the direction of a handful of political figures, including the mayor and the district attorney. To get there, they won’t have the luxury of riding a crest of public outrage. They‘ll have to muster that determination on their own.