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The Untouchables

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.

“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.

 

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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