|Photo by Ted Soqui|
BRIAN HEWITT WAS THE QUINTESSENTIAL CRASH officer, according to the cops who worked with him. Fair-haired, with light eyes and a slim, buff build, Hewitt was known for brusque arrogance and a short fuse. He was in high demand as a training officer who invested intense personal interest in his young charges, but some peers were reluctant to ride with him as a partner. “Hewitt always wanted to be at the center of what was going on,” one officer recalled. Said another, “He's got a big ego. Of course, you need that out on the street.”
During four years on special assignment at the LAPD's Rampart Division, first at the CRASH anti-gang detail and then working in plainclothes as a narcotics agent, Hewitt earned a reputation as a high producer — and for wielding a heavy hand, dispensing the bare-knuckles brand of street justice for which the Rampart Division has become notorious. “Hewitt was a hands-on kind of officer,” one Rampart supervisor explained in an interview. “Hands-on meaning if he wants you to sit down, he takes you like this,” grabbing a reporter by the arm and neck of his jacket and hauling him across to a chair. “Here, sit down.”
Ethan Cohan developed a very different kind of reputation in two years as an officer on the Rampart gang squad. Where Hewitt tried to dominate the neighborhood by intimidation, according to officers and some gang members, Cohan specialized in cultivating sources. He treated his contacts with respect and patience, spending hours on street corners bantering and trading information.
Hewitt and Cohan both focused on the 18th Street gang, the city's largest and most violent, and both â worked out of the Rampart Detectives Division, a converted bank building at Third and Union streets, about half a mile from the main station house. But they never shared the same assignment — Cohan joined CRASH in September 1996, a month after Hewitt moved to narcotics — and with their differences in temperament had little contact, according to officers who worked with them. “Cohan never liked Hewitt, and he never made any effort to act like he did,” one officer recalled.
Yet these two officers share a fateful bond and a grim distinction: They are the first two officers to be fired by the department for misconduct in connection with the ongoing Rampart scandal. The case against them arose not from the testimony of CRASH officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez, whose allegations have been the subject of a monthslong internal investigation, but from the beating, while handcuffed inside a detectives' interview room, of a longtime 18th Street gangbanger named Ismael Jimenez. It was Hewitt who brought Jimenez in; it was Cohan who cut him loose.
Both officers were fired last June after extended hearings before internal boards. The ruling on Hewitt caused little reaction — nobody would countenance a station-house beating, and Hewitt's reputation made his case all but untenable. Cohan, on the other hand, was fired for being slow to report misconduct, and for failing to get Jimenez medical attention when Jimenez emphatically declined offers of assistance. To his fellow officers at Rampart, even to the sole civilian member of his disciplinary review board, Cohan was being sacrificed, a scapegoat to the reform effort staged by Police Chief Bernard Parks.
In her formal dissent from the decision to fire Cohan, board-of-rights member Karen Andres was emphatic that the department had erred in its prosecution of Ethan Cohan. “The newspapers and the public often condemn the LAPD for blind defense of the actions of sworn personnel,” Andres said. “This case is quite the opposite. The department has been quick to vilify an officer who, from all accounts, is consistently dedicated, decent, even exemplary.”
Department investigators believed that in the Hewitt beating, and Cohan's silence, they had stumbled across a conspiracy to stifle claims of police abuse. But a close look at the Jimenez case suggests that Parks and his internal prosecutors punished Cohan more for what might have happened than for what they could prove. Said one Rampart supervisor who was familiar with the case, “All they had was a theory.”
It may be that, in his determination to root out excessive force and break the code of silence, Parks believed he needed to demonstrate to the department that a new, higher standard is now in effect. Or it may be that, in the face of a scandal that threatened to swamp his already beleaguered administration, Parks was simply looking for bodies to throw before the public.
Exactly what happened that night remains the subject of dispute, but everyone agrees something extraordinary took place. Jimenez was left gasping for breath and vomiting blood, the squad room where he was assaulted was cordoned off that night, and word of the incident spread rapidly. “All we heard was that someone had beat the living hell out of a gangbanger in an interview room,” one Rampart officer says of the squad-room reaction. “There was blood everywhere — at least that's what we heard — and there was crime-scene tape up. People may think that sort of thing happens all the time, but let me tell you, everybody was shocked. It was all very hush-hush.”
The investigation into the February 1998 beating was handled by a then-secret task force assembled by Chief Parks after the first indications of widespread misconduct at Rampart, and was concluded before the public, and even most of the police, realized a scandal was unfolding. Since then, ex-officer Perez has admitted to stealing cocaine from the department's evidence locker; to framing dealers and peddling drugs himself; and to assaulting, shooting and framing unarmed gangbangers. In the meantime, Hewitt and Cohan have been all but forgotten, referenced simply as among the “dozen” officers fired or suspended as a result of Parks' housecleaning.
The charges leveled against Hewitt and Cohan have little of the flash — the fast living and crass corruption — of the crimes to which Perez has confessed. But by the spotlight it puts on the methods employed by cops on the beat, the Jimenez case affords new insight into what went wrong — and what went right — at Rampart. And in its aftermath, in the internal campaign waged against the two officers involved, the case highlights the tricky ethical questions that arise when a department that once turned a blind eye to police misconduct suddenly adopts a policy of zero tolerance.
THE LAPD ESTABLISHED ITS CRASH unit in 1980 to combat a sudden surge in gang-related violence — the acronym stands for Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — and Rampart presented the most intractable gang problems in the city. The district claimed L.A.'s highest concentration of gang members, with as many as 8,000 affiliated in 60 separate sets vying for dominance in the immigrant neighborhoods bounded by Normandie Avenue on the west, Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards to the north, the Santa Monica Freeway to the south, and reaching east to downtown.
For young men and women coming of age in the Rampart district, joining a gang is often simply a matter of survival. The Crazy's, for example, were formed “by a group of Los Angeles High School students who needed a way to protect themselves from other gang members,” according to police.
CRASH was to be the unit that would turn the tide in L.A.'s war on gangs. The idea was to gather intelligence on individual gang members — their affiliations, their territory and their criminal histories. As the data banks grew to include profiles of thousands of gang members, officers could more readily connect gangbangers to specific acts, responding to crime scenes armed with photos of likely suspects.
At the same time, CRASH officers set out to ratchet up the pressure on the street, constantly reminding the gangs they were being watched. CRASH officers began confronting gang members wherever and whenever they encountered them, searching them for weapons or drugs, ticketing them for infractions as minor as blocking the sidewalk, hauling them into the station for hours or even days before finally cutting them loose. As one CRASH officer put it in an authorized profile of the department, “The only way to stop the gangs, even for a little bit, is to make it so dangerous for them to do their shit that they'll be forced to sit at home and watch cartoons.”
That was the apparent operating principle at 5 p.m. on February 26, 1998, when Officers Brian Hewitt and Daniel Lujan accosted two reputed 18th Street shot-callers in front of a tattoo shop on the high-crime corner of Alvarado and Sixth streets.
Eddie Hernandez was considered by police one of the top members of Columbia Li'l Cycos, a gang described in a police intelligence report as “one of the largest and most violent of the 18th Street cliques, involved in multiple homicides, shootings, assaults, and extensive drug trafficking. CLCS also has extremely close ties to the Mexican Mafia.” According to police, Hernandez ran the street trade and collected rent from shopkeepers and drug dealers around MacArthur Park. He was a regular target of CRASH operations — Hewitt alone testified later that he had detained Hernandez “more than 100 times.”
Ismael Jimenez, then 20, joined CLCS at the age of 13 and went by the street moniker “Loner.” In 1992, he had been convicted of kidnapping in connection with a gang-related murder — in court papers, a Rampart officer described him as the “triggerman” in the crime. Tried and convicted as a juvenile, he was released on parole in 1997, on condition that he avoid other gang members and submit without question to any police search.
As it happened that humid Thursday evening, Hernandez had come off parole, for charges of receiving stolen property, the day before. He and Jimenez were hanging out on the balcony in front of Shaggy's Tattoos, a place frequented by the CLCS clique. Not much was happening — we were “looking at the street, cars passing by,” Jimenez said later — when they were spotted by Hewitt and Lujan. The officers were in plainclothes, working a narcotics detail. Each approached from a different direction; each had his gun drawn.
Both of the gang members knew Hewitt by face and by reputation, which meant that Jimenez could see that trouble was on its way. As he later recalled, “I told my friend, 'Oh damn, that's Hewitt.'” Jimenez was resigned to the usual routine for gang members detained by Rampart cops — questioning, a search of his car, a trip to the station house. He had no idea that tonight standard practice would be pushed to the extreme.
THERE ARE TWO DIFFERENT STORIES, each rooted in the personal history of the two gang members, as to just why the cops came down on the gang members that day.
Eddie Hernandez got a taste of the CRASH unit's approach to gang suppression in March 1990, when he was 13 years old. According to a civil lawsuit filed later that year, Hernandez was hanging out on the corner of South Burlington Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets when he was stopped by two officers from the Rampart gang unit.
According to the complaint, the officers dragged Hernandez into an alley and proceeded to work him over, first with a flashlight, beating him about the head and face, and then, when he fell to the ground, kicking him in the back and legs.
Hernandez's mother, Connie Perez, took her son to White Memorial Hospital to have his injuries treated, and two weeks later to a clinic for follow-up. Perez filed a complaint against the police, and eight months later a civil suit for damages, â which the City Attorney's Office settled for $5,000. Looking back, police see that claim as evidence that Connie Perez and her son had learned how to use the system to disrupt the department in its escalating war on street gangs. To Hernandez, it was a lesson in the value of standing up for himself.
Whatever the merits of the case, the alleged beating did little to deter Hernandez from the gang life. Within a year of the altercation, Hernandez had joined the Columbia Li'l Cycos, had taken the street name Oso, and had inked his allegiance to 18th Street in three tattoos.
In February 1998, two weeks before he was detained at the tattoo shop, Hernandez again found reason to lodge a complaint against the LAPD. Hernandez claimed in court papers that he was stopped by two Rampart patrol officers near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street with Gabriel Aguirre, another reputed 18th Streeter. According to Hernandez, Officer Jeffrey Stewart took him to the side of a building, slammed his head against the wall until “I felt blood dripping from a cut on my head over my right eye,” and then took both men in.
Hernandez was held for two days on suspicion of threatening the lives of two local residents, but was released with no charges filed when two witnesses decided not to cooperate for fear of reprisal. While in custody, he filed a complaint against Stewart and named Aguirre as a witness.
It was that complaint, Hernandez asserted later, that provoked the arrest by Hewitt and the subsequent beating of Jimenez. According to Hernandez, Hewitt told him so. “He said he came here to take care of what had happened . . . ,” Hernandez testified at an LAPD hearing. “It was a complaint that I had put on an officer, and somehow he had found out about it . . . Officer Hewitt told me before to never put a complaint on an officer.”
THE COPS, NOT SURPRISINGLY, DENY ANY scheme to punish Hernandez and his associates for filing a complaint against an officer. Neither Cohan nor Hewitt, nor their attorneys, agreed to speak with the Weekly for this story, but their positions were laid out in testimony at departmental hearings. That February afternoon, they assert, they were simply looking to catch up with a friend.
At the time of his parole from the California Youth Authority, Ismael Jimenez was ready to leave the gang life. As Jimenez detailed in court papers and in an interview with the Weekly, he had a girlfriend, he had seen the criminal justice system from the inside, and he wanted to start over. That was when he first encountered Rampart CRASH Officer Ethan Cohan, himself new to the detail.
According to police records and to Jimenez, Cohan took an active interest in Jimenez's welfare. He sought him out, spoke to him on a regular basis, even found Jimenez a job. It was out of character with the approach that most CRASH officers took to law enforcement, but that was what set Cohan apart. As his commanding officer noted in a performance review, “Cohan puts the community to work for him. He developed contacts in and out of the gangs he 'services.' These contacts provide information to him on a regular basis.” Another review noted, “The rapport and trust [Cohan] has developed with community members, victims of crimes and gang members has developed into valuable investigative leads . . . and the lowering of the perception of fear within the community.”
If it was a new approach at Rampart, it was a patently successful one. Cohan became something of a star at the substation, working closely with the deputy district attorney assigned to draw up gang injunctions, and becoming one of several officers assigned to work with federal agents from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on a joint task force targeting 18th Street.
What impressed Jimenez was Cohan's personal manner. “He wasn't like all the officers,” Jimenez said in an interview. “He'd come up and he'd talk to you — I mean, not just me but lots of people. Other officers they just, boom-boom, take you to the station . . . [Cohan] was the only officer I know that played by the book. The other officers, they see you as so much shit. Like, 'I see you one more time, I'll take you in for something.'”
Jimenez had just such an encounter with Brian Hewitt four months before the arrest at the tattoo shop. According to records and to Jimenez, Hewitt pulled him over in September 1997 and impounded his car on suspicion of it being stolen — which it was not. He brought Jimenez to the station, placed him in an interview room and then, according to Jimenez, pulled a bag of marijuana from his chest pocket. “He says, 'You're gonna go down for this,'” Jimenez recounted later. “He said, 'Gimme a gun.' I said, 'I don't got no gun,' and he finally released me.”
When word of the alleged incident got back to Cohan, according to a source in a position to know, Cohan was furious. Here was one of the delicate community contacts he was cultivating so assiduously, and here was a fellow officer jacking him up on a bogus charge. According to the source, Cohan came to the station on his day off to complain about Hewitt's conduct. And according to the same source, Hewitt was rebuked by his superiors for the incident.
By the following February, Cohan was unable to reach Jimenez and wanted to re-establish contact. At the start of his shift one night, Cohan showed Officer Lujan a photo of Jimenez. If Lujan saw him on the street, would he ask Jimenez to get in touch?
Hewitt and Lujan say that's what prompted them to stop Oso and Loner on the afternoon of February 26. Lujan testified later that Hewitt “pointed out the two individuals to me, and told me they were from 18th Street, and told me their monikers, their gang monikers. At that time, I told Officer Hewitt, my partner, that Officer Cohan wanted to speak with Loner from 18th Street.”
The two differing accounts — one from the gang members, the other from the cops — form the narrative thread for two competing theories of the case.
HEWITT AND LUJAN ARRIVED AT THE RAMPART detectives' station around dusk with the two gang members in handcuffs. They still had given no reason for the detentions, and tension began to rise. Jimenez said later that he whispered something to Hernandez, and Hewitt wheeled on him. “Did I give you permission to talk?” Jimenez said no, and Hewitt said, “You must not know who I am. I'm going to have a little chitchat with you.”
The two detainees were led to the second floor and placed in small, adjacent interview rooms, windowless, with just enough room for a table and two chairs. Lujan exchanged Jimenez's plastic cuffs for metal ones, then departed to input the day's progress on a computer.
The only account of what happened next comes from the gang members, as no officer admitted to any antagonism with the detainees. Hernandez and Jimenez told their stories to police investigators, and those accounts were made public by the district attorney's office. According to both gang members, Hewitt interviewed each of them. Hernandez was first.
Here again, Hernandez told department investigators, Hewitt reiterated that he “had to do the dirty work” of answering the complaint filed against Stewart. Hewitt also demanded that Hernandez “provide him with information about a gun or other criminal activity,” according to a district attorney's account of the interviews. (Several Rampart officers, as well as Jimenez, said demanding a gun was routine in encounters with gang members.)
When Hernandez made it clear he would not cooperate, Hewitt left and stepped to the room where Jimenez sat waiting. According to Jimenez, Hewitt entered and closed the door, then told him to stand and step to the corner. He stated, “It's like this. I'm going to book you for homie [Hernandez] because his mother made a complaint. You are going down for it. I will take your car.”
As Jimenez described it to police investigators, the encounter suddenly escalated. Hewitt said, “Now I want a gun. It will only take me 10 minutes to book you.” Hewitt then grabbed Jimenez by the neck, shoved him up against the wall and began choking him. “You are going to tell me,” the officer demanded.
Jimenez, still handcuffed, said he would not say anything until he could speak with his father, the registered owner of the vehicle. Hewitt was incensed. “You are not fucking hearing me. I will book you for anything. Look at me when I'm talking to you. You had better tell me where a gun is tonight.” Hewitt slugged Jimenez two or three times — short, sharp punches to the chest — and then hit him again in the side, just above the belt. By this time â Jimenez was gasping for air.
“Get back in the fucking chair,” Hewitt said, releasing Jimenez. “All I want is a little gun,” he concluded, and then departed. By that point, Jimenez told investigators, he'd become hot and sweaty and was close to losing consciousness. With Hewitt gone, Jimenez leaned forward and threw up on the floor. His vomit was laced with blood.
During this time, Lujan testified, he was occupied on the department computer, and then headed downstairs to look for Officer Cohan to let him know that Jimenez was in custody and available for questioning. Both Hewitt and Lujan knew Cohan was there — he'd arrived early, before his 5 p.m. shift, and they'd seen him.
Lujan found Cohan and asked him, “Do you still want to talk to Loner?”
Cohan said no, but he'd meet with him if he was in the building. Lujan accompanied Cohan up to the second floor, where Hewitt was waiting outside the interview rooms. Cohan opened the door to one, only to find Hernandez; he closed the door, stepped to the next room and there found Jimenez.
Cohan realized immediately something was wrong. Jimenez's skin was bright red, turning toward purple, and he told Cohan he couldn't breathe. Cohan said to relax and try to breathe normally. In one account Jimenez said he told Cohan that he'd vomited blood; Cohan said “Oh shit” and quickly left the room. In a later version, Jimenez said he simply told Cohan he was upset and suffering from an asthma attack.
Cohan stepped out to find Lujan and Hewitt in the detectives' lobby. When he asked Hewitt what had happened to Jimenez, Hewitt answered, “Nothing happened. He's just mad because he thought he was going to be booked.” According to Cohan's testimony, Lujan seemed more surprised — “No, nothing happened” — and then gave Cohan the key to the handcuffs.
The sequence is a bit tangled, but at some point Hewitt returned to Hernandez. He again threatened to book him for an unnamed crime, according to Hernandez, but then he relented, removed the handcuffs and walked Hernandez down to the first-floor lobby. Night had fallen. Hernandez estimated that he had spent about an hour at the station.
When Cohan returned to Jimenez, he inquired directly what had happened, and whether Jimenez needed medical attention. “I asked him what was the matter, what was wrong, and he was adamant, 'I'm just mad . . . I'm mad. I just want to get out of here,'” Cohan testified. Jimenez echoed that account in an interview: “I asked him, 'Am I getting booked or what?' and he says, 'No, you can leave any time you want,' so I said, 'Okay, can I leave?'”
Cohan then walked Jimenez to another interview room downstairs and got him a drink. Jimenez again: “He said, 'Are you sure you're all right?' He goes, 'What happened in there? Something happened in there, right?' I go, 'No, nothing happened.' He goes, 'You want an ambulance? You want a ride somewhere?' I say, 'No, I just want to leave.'”
COHAN WALKED JIMENEZ TO the door. It was 7:10; he'd been in custody just over 90 minutes. It's hard to say just what might have been going on in Cohan's mind at this point, but it's obviously a crucial question in the case.
On the record, Cohan has asserted that he simply took Jimenez's word for what happened and left it at that. That seems implausible — after all, Cohan felt something was enough awry that he asked Jimenez if he needed an ambulance.
More likely was that he did realize that Hewitt had committed some sort of mayhem in the interview room. In fact, Hewitt made it very hard for Cohan not to notice — he knew that Cohan had a personal relationship with Jimenez, he knew that Cohan was in the station that night, and he stood by while Cohan found Jimenez in obvious distress, still handcuffed in the interview room.
If we accept, in addition, the account from a source inside Rampart that Cohan complained after Hewitt's first encounter with Jimenez four months before, then we have to assume that this second encounter left Cohan outraged. Here was Hewitt treading again on Cohan's turf (or, more specifically, one of his neighborhood contacts), this time delivering not a threat but a beating.
And yet, according to the record and the testimony of those involved, Cohan said nothing. He made no report. He did not mention the incident to his supervisors, or even to his partner in the field that night. To the brass, that decision represented a patent cover-up: A former CRASH officer beat a suspect while he was in custody; another CRASH officer released the injured gangbanger without any effort to bring the misconduct to official attention.
A more likely reason for Cohan keeping silent is that, as scores of complainants have alleged for years, rough handling by arresting officers is simply too commonplace to bother reporting. Besides, inside the LAPD today as ever, it rarely pays to complain about another officer's misconduct.
Katherine Mader, the former LAPD inspector general and now a deputy district attorney, explained in an interview that, while department regulations require officers to report any misconduct as soon as it occurs, in practice officers who blow the whistle are often discouraged and, on occasion, punished.
Mader cited a study she conducted of the year 1996. Four times, officers filed complaints of excessive force against fellow officers. In two of those cases, the department found that excessive force had in fact not been used, but the officers who made the reports were themselves disciplined for failing to make their complaints more promptly. In the other cases one accused officer was fired and two others were disciplined but remained on the force, leaving those who filed against them to report to work each day carrying the reputation of in-house snitch.
“When somebody has the courage to come forward like that, there's no procedure for commending, for letting other officers know that the department approves of this,” Mader said. “You're kind of left on your own. It's a tremendous strain . . . Why would they ever do it again?”
ONCE OUTSIDE THE STATION, Jimenez threw up three more times. He made his way to the tattoo shop, where he encountered Hernandez and Chris Hall, a tattoo artist. Hall said Jimenez looked like hell and should seek medical attention. In an interview, Hall said Jimenez was flushed and clearly upset, and had choke marks on his neck.
Hernandez eventually drove Jimenez to Good Samaritan Hospital nearby. As they entered the emergency room, a security guard asked what brought them there. When Jimenez said he'd been beaten while in police custody, the guard insisted on calling in a complaint.
Jimenez was then examined by Brian Harris, the ER doctor on duty that night. Harris found “anterior neck markings” consistent with being choked, along with “redness to Jimenez's neck and chest area.” Moreover, Harris observed Jimenez “to be weepy and in an obvious emotional state,” which Harris found “out of context with Jimenez's physical demeanor, in that he appeared to be a very large and strong male adult.” Harris pressed Jimenez to name the officer who had assaulted him; when Jimenez named Hewitt, Harris scrawled the name on the hospital bedsheet.
The official investigation began that night, with the call from the security guard. Sergeant Richard Beach was dispatched from the main Rampart station to handle the inquiry. He went directly to the hospital and took Jimenez downtown to Parker Center to photograph his injuries. The photos are not striking; Jimenez's color had returned to close to normal, and there were no marked lacerations or bruises.
Nevertheless, Beach took the complaint seriously. He brought Jimenez back to the Rampart detective station, roped off the interview room, had more pictures taken and assigned a criminologist to cut out the square foot of carpet stained with Jimenez's bloody vomit.
Jimenez finally left the Rampart station around midnight. Officers Hewitt, Lujan and Cohan each worked their shift and headed home as well. According to subsequent testimony, nobody breathed a word of the incident to anyone.
By the time the officers reported to work the next day, however, word was â out that Hewitt had administered a beating to a handcuffed suspect. It was also rumored that an officer named Doyle Stepp had released the injured gangbanger.
Hewitt responded to the news by contacting Sergeant George Hoopes, widely admired as a fair-minded supervisor with an encyclopedic knowledge of the department's Byzantine internal codes. Hewitt explained to Hoopes that he'd brought Jimenez in so that Cohan could meet with him, and knew nothing about a beating. He then asked Hoopes to represent him in the event of an internal disciplinary hearing.
Cohan said he learned of the beating for the first time the next afternoon, before his shift began, when he received a phone call from Jimenez. As Jimenez recounts it, he told Cohan, “Look, remember last night, something really did happen.” Cohan asked if he'd made a report, and Jimenez replied yes, he'd spoken to his attorney and officers at the station. “You know what,” Cohan replied, “I'd rather not know any more about it. I think it's better that way.”
At the station that evening, Cohan heard the rumor about Stepp and decided he ought to come forward. He attempted to reach Hoopes but found he was off-duty; two days later, he reached him at home and detailed his discovery of Jimenez and his decision to let him go. It was the first voluntary report anyone made about the incident.
IN LATE MARCH, JUST WEEKS AFTER the Jimenez beating, LAPD officials discovered substantial quantities of cocaine missing from a Rampart Station evidence locker. Chief Parks responded by forming a secret task force, consisting of detectives from Internal Affairs and the Robbery-Homicide Division. The mandate quickly expanded to cover any allegations of corruption and misconduct at Rampart. By June, task-force detectives Robert Poole and Beatrice Cid, both veteran investigators, took over the Jimenez case.
The investigation moved slowly. Daniel Lujan, for example, was not interviewed until the following November. In part, the pace was determined by the many other leads the investigation was tracking, and by the deliberate manner adopted by the task force — they placed wiretaps, for example, and several Rampart officers said later they believed they were being kept under surveillance. It was also slowed by the snarl of different, often conflicting, versions of events.
In fact, to go by the accounts of the officers involved, no beating ever took place. There was not even a record that Hernandez and Jimenez were ever taken into custody. Department regulations require that anyone detained at an LAPD facility be signed in by the arresting officer whether they're eventually booked for a crime or not, but no such logs were maintained at the Rampart detectives station.
What clinched the case and forced the department to act was the physical evidence — DNA tests showing Jimenez's blood, in a pool of vomit that measured roughly a foot by nine inches, on the carpet in the Rampart interview room. Combined with the testimony of Dr. Brian Harris, it appeared certain that Jimenez had indeed suffered a beating while in custody.
Yet Officer Hewitt never admitted to any physical altercation with Jimenez. Instead, he testified that once the two 18th Streeters were placed in the interview rooms, he went to the bathroom, stepped out for a smoke and then joined Lujan to head back out on patrol.
Hewitt's clear implication was that if there was a beating that night, it was Cohan who administered it. As Hewitt explained it to Hoopes, he had simply responded to Cohan's request to talk with Loner by making the arrest and informing Cohan that “Jimenez was ready to talk to him.”
Similarly, Lujan said he never saw anything untoward in Jimenez's appearance, and denied that Cohan asked him if anything had happened in the interview room. Lujan said he left the station that night thinking nothing was awry.
As for Cohan, he held to his story that he never saw the pool of bloody vomit in the interview room, and said that while he suspected something might have happened, Jimenez had firmly denied it. “Maybe now, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been so complacent with the answers I got,” he testified at an internal hearing the following year. “But on that day and at that time . . . [Jimenez] was someone I knew, and he had never lied as far as I knew. I was going on the word of the two officers and Jimenez, all saying nothing happened . . . At that point in time, I had no reason to doubt what anyone was saying.”
Poole and Cid were skeptical of that account. They were convinced Cohan had seen the blood on the floor. They doubted that Jimenez would lie to Cohan, an officer with whom he'd established a personal relationship. And they had problems with Jimenez himself, who proved a most difficult witness.
In his first interview the night of the beating, for example, Jimenez said he didn't know the officer who released him. He also told Sergeant Beach that Hernandez was his brother. In a second interview, Jimenez conceded Hernandez's identity and said he had pointed out the blood to the officer who released him — still unnamed — and that the officer had said, “Oh shit” and left the room. In three subsequent interviews, these in the presence of his attorney, Jimenez named Cohan, but said the officer did not see the blood.
MORE PERSUASIVE TO POOLE and Cid was the testimony of Eduardo Hernandez. From the outset, Hernandez presented a coherent story, one that jibed with the events as they could be reconstructed, and which provided a motive for the beating. Besides, Hernandez's theory that officers systematically retaliated against gangbangers who lodged complaints against officers, and that they covered up that retaliation, fit the broad scenario of a Rampart Station run amok.
It was the beginning of the unsettling phenomenon that has become a hallmark of the Rampart investigation: With the cops under suspicion, it's the gangbangers that the authorities are now turning to for the truth. And that can lead prosecutors and investigators onto very shaky ground.
Take Hernandez and his retaliation theory, which he enunciated in statements to police investigators and laid out again in court papers filed in June 1998, as the investigation was gathering steam. The papers were filed in opposition to Hernandez and Jimenez being named in a new gang injunction, one that targeted the 18th Street CLCS clique and which relied on the testimony of Cohan, Hewitt and several other Rampart officers.
“I have never admitted to being an active member of the 18th Street gang,” Hernandez said in the declaration. He then recounted his altercation with Officer Stewart and said that “a subsequent, severe beating of Gabriel Aguirre at his apartment by the police . . . was in retaliation for Gabriel's role as an eyewitness and supporter of my complaint against the police.”
In both instances, Hernandez portrayed himself and Aguirre as passive bystanders jumped by the cops without provocation. But according to papers filed by the Rampart cops in answer to Hernandez, the gang members initiated both encounters by criminal activity. Stewart arrested Hernandez in February, according to court papers, after two neighborhood residents said Hernandez and Aguirre threatened their lives. And Cohan specifically addressed the Aguirre “beating.”
Earlier that day, Cohan explained in a declaration, he'd taken a report from a neighbor who said Aguirre had slashed him “viciously” with a knife. In addition, Cohan said there was a warrant for another assault outstanding against Aguirre, who went by the street name “Spider.” Aguirre was injured, Cohan said, when he fled officers who attempted to arrest him that night.
But while Cohan's declaration was intended to debunk Hernandez, it may well have backfired. Unbeknownst to Cohan, the Rampart task force was watching his every move. And while Cohan did not mention it in his declaration, he was assisted in arresting Aguirre by Rafael Perez, who was already the lead suspect in the Rampart Station cocaine case, and would soon be arrested on drug charges. To the investigators, Hernandez's conspiracy theory was making more and more sense.
DETECTIVE POOLE MADE HIS first effort to interview Cohan that summer, making several blind calls to Cohan at the Rampart Station and asking him to come to Parker Center to be interviewed. When Poole refused to state the nature of his inquiry, Cohan declined to cooperate.
In late August, another task force detective contacted one of Cohan's supervisors at Rampart and pressed him to lean on Cohan. The supervisor relayed to Cohan that the issue was the Jimenez beating, and that Cohan was being sought as a witness. After mulling it over, Cohan called Poole. He'd be happy to cooperate, and no, he didn't need an attorney or a defense representative present. After all, he had nothing to hide.
Cohan met with Poole and Cid on September 3, a week after Perez was arrested. The interview was contentious and at times hostile, as it quickly became apparent that Cohan was being regarded as not just a witness to another officer's misconduct, but as a co-conspirator. As Poole stated at one point early on, “You're part of a cover-up of a beating!” Poole played the bad cop, berating Cohan, shouting at him on occasion, at one point storming out of the room. Cid maintained a more even, coaxing demeanor, but both made it â clear they did not buy Cohan's story.
On several occasions, Cohan reiterated his conviction that he'd done nothing wrong, that he could not have known what happened between Hewitt and Jimenez, and that he never saw any blood. Poole pressed him repeatedly on the moment he discovered Jimenez.
Poole: Ethan, this is your guy . . . He trusts you . . . And I would be very upset if I found out that Hewitt took one of my people and manhandled him and put him in a position where he was about ready to pass out. And I think you knew that.
Poole: Okay. He was injured. A good officer, a good detective, whoever, is going to ask some questions.
Cohan: And I did that. But it's the same argument backwards. My opinion is, if I say what's the matter, he'll tell me what's the matter. I had no reason not to, and that's why I questioned him over and over.
Poole was not swayed. He returned to the themes laid out in Hernandez's brief, the themes of retaliation and cover-up: “What do you know about [how] any time a gangbanger files a complaint against a police officer . . . different officers will go and detain the person that made the complaint or his associates or homeboys and intimidate them and bring them in?”
Again Cohan said he had no information about systematic retaliation, no information on another cop's misconduct. And again, his interrogators raised the stakes. The questioning shifted from the beating to Perez, whose arrest was still reverberating through Rampart Station.
What did Cohan know of Perez's personal associations? His girlfriends? Did he ever drink with Perez at the Shortstop, the cop bar on Sunset Boulevard? Had Cohan partied with that crowd? Again the answer was no.
And then there was another conspiracy Poole wanted to ask about. This one involved guns.
Another year would pass before Perez began sharing with investigators all that he knew of corruption at Rampart, but already, according to Poole and Cid, the task force had come across evidence of a group of officers who were seeking to dispose of a cache of weapons taken off suspects. Since then, it's been alleged that such guns were kept to plant on unarmed suspects such as Javier Ovando, whom officers sought to frame on weapons and assault charges.
According to the investigators, word of the guns had surfaced on phone taps. The errant officers were apparently seeking a way to unload the hot guns. And, presumably due to his connections to the ATF task force, Cohan's name was mentioned as one who could help.
“For several months we've had wires on several phones,” the investigators told Cohan. “We have tapes of officers saying, 'Let's get rid of the guns . . . ' Do you know of any police officers who have tried to get rid of guns that were confiscated?”
Cohan answered with a flat denial, but again the investigators seemed convinced that if they only pressed hard enough, they could bring Cohan around. “Jimenez is nothing,” Cid said at one point. “The bigger thing is that your name was mentioned with these officers.”
Cohan showed little interest in playing ball with the investigators — even if he could. He insisted repeatedly that there was nothing for him to report.
It's a question that the Rampart task force is wrestling with to this day: Perez has reportedly alleged, and the LAPD brass apparently believes, that there was a broad conspiracy involving at least a dozen cops at Rampart to systematically violate standard procedure and, along the way, the civil rights of gangbangers and honest citizens alike. And while some of those allegations appear to have been borne out — there seems to be a pattern of untraceable weapons turning up after officer-involved shootings, police say — the task force has made no arrests, and the Perez leads are beginning to run cold.
It wasn't for lack of trying. During his interrogation, Cohan clearly became upset by the tough nature of the questioning, but Poole gave no quarter. “I'm here to get at the truth,” he declared at one point. “I was assigned to do it, and I'm not going to sit here and pussyfoot around just because you're a police officer and you get upset because I yell.”
By the end of his two days of interviews with Poole and Cid, it was apparent to Cohan that he was more a suspect than a witness, and that if he did not agree to turn in his fellow officers — Hewitt, at least, if not Perez and a slew of accomplices — the department would throw the book at him.
OFFICERS HEWITT, LUJAN AND Cohan were suspended from their posts in February 1999, and brought up on charges before boards of rights — internal disciplinary panels consisting of two command staff and one civilian member who adjudicate change brought by the chief. Lujan was charged with four counts of improper search and detention, and a single count of failure to obtain medical treatment for Jimenez. The proceedings were fairly cut-and-dried; Lujan pleaded ignorance of any misconduct, and the following June, he was cleared on all counts.
Hewitt was charged more broadly, with 16 counts ranging from improper search and arrest, to assault on a handcuffed suspect, to several accounts of simple discourtesy. The findings in his case speak to the stiff, sometimes strange logic governing the LAPD's internal discipline system — Hewitt was found guilty of excessive force against a handcuffed suspect, but not guilty of being discourteous to the same suspect.
The testimony and proceedings in Hewitt's case were closed to the public, but its findings were made public and included narration of how decisions were made. The board found Hewitt not guilty on two separate counts of making threats against Jimenez, for example, because there were no witnesses besides Jimenez and Hernandez to speak against Hewitt. In other words, even when the board believed a beating took place, it would not take the word of a gang member against that of a cop.
As to Hewitt's choking Jimenez and striking him, however, the board found him guilty, citing ER doctor Harris, as well as Chris Hall, the tattoo artist. There was also DNA evidence that it was Jimenez's blood that had stained the carpet of the interview room. As to which officer did the beating, however, the board finally had to rely on Jimenez — nobody else, not even Cohan, was able to identify Hewitt.
On yet another charge — that Hewitt failed to obtain medical attention for Jimenez — the board found Hewitt not guilty. Here the mantle of veracity changes owners again. Hewitt and Lujan, after all, testified that they saw nothing wrong with Jimenez; it was only Cohan who admitted he had noticed something wrong and asked Jimenez if he needed a doctor. “Just because the evidence shows unnecessary force was used, it does not necessarily show the accused knew medical treatment was necessary,” the board concluded.
The District Attorney's Office was even further cowed by the complexities in the case. In March, Deputy D.A. Hector Guzman issued a decision not to prosecute Hewitt for assault under color of authority, in part because “Mr. Jimenez's credibility is problematic.” In addition, the D.A. found the medical evidence inconclusive despite the testimony of Dr. Harris. “It is difficult to establish what actually happened in the Rampart detectives' interview room,” Guzman concluded.
The case against Cohan was simpler — six counts, including one of failure to obtain medical attention and one of failure to report possible misconduct by fellow officers. Cohan was found guilty on both of these counts, as well as of failure to tell the full truth to officers Poole and Cid.
Key to the case against Cohan — like Hewitt's, it was closed except for the board's account of its findings — was Jimenez's changing story about whether he pointed out the blood on the floor, as well as an Officer Azarte, who entered the interview room later that night and chose to use a different room after seeing the bloody stain. To the two command officers on the review board, that was enough to convict Cohan, and to fire him.
The decision was not unanimous, however. The dissent was lodged by the civilian on Cohan's board, Karen Andres, who works for the state as an administrative-law judge. Andres noted that the blood stain on the carpet was nondescript and “looked like dirt,” and that a person of Jimenez's size sitting in the confines of the interview room might well have blocked Cohan's view of the mess. Moreover, Andres noted, “It defies logic that Officer Cohan would deny medical treatment” to Jimenez. “Officer Cohan liked him,” Andres said. “He was protective of him.”
The two commanders on the board were more impressed with the testimony of Detective Poole, who testified that Jimenez told him he liked Cohan and wanted to protect him. Thus, they found, Jimenez was lying when he said Cohan had not seen the blood on the floor, and Cohan in fact knew that Jimenez had been injured.
Once it had ruled against Cohan on the facts, the board took testimony in the penalty phase as to Cohan's character. The results were resounding — from command staff, from colleagues in the District Attorney's Office and from members of other law-enforcement agencies. As one of his commanders, Detective Terry Wessel, put it: “Ethan is an honest young man. He's a dedicated young man . . . It's guys like him that I want to see stay on the department.”
So why was the board so determined to run him out of the department? In an interview, Karen Andres said, “I was shocked at the conclusions [reached by her colleagues]. I didn't realize how far we were apart.”
Andres said she got the sense that the police commanders on the board were pursuing their own agenda as the case developed: “A lot of the time we were deliberating on this case, the two captains wanted to talk to me about Rampart. I said no.” Andres emphasized that in her work for the state, as well as on the police boards, she pushes herself to take each case on its own facts and merits, and not to allow broader issues to sway her judgment.
But that may be the price for a scandal like Rampart, or, more specifically, for a rogue cop like Rafael Perez. For more than a decade, the CRASH units have operated in every station of the city, and the complaints from gang members, their families and their attorneys have been routinely ignored. Now everybody's listening, and cops like Cohan are getting caught in the crossfire.
“We're spending all our resources looking into ourselves,” said one frustrated officer. “We're cannibalizing ourselves.”
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