Photos by Robert Yager
The LAPD has an organizational culture that emphasizes crime control over crime prevention and that isolates the police from the communities they serve . . . It is now time to develop programs to de-emphasize force and promote restraint, to foster within the LAPD a different attitude to the community it serves, and to assist the public to gain greater trust in the department. –Christopher Commission, July 1991
SCATTERBRAIN WAS DOING WHAT SCATTER ALWAYS does. Dropping in on a party, talking up a storm, grabbing a little something to eat. Back to the car, off to catch up with another scene.
But there would be no more parties that night for Scatterbrain. Turning north on 10th Avenue at 63rd Street, Scatter picked up a tail — Officer Art Talamante and his partner from the CRASH Unit at the LAPD's 77th Street Division. Halfway up the block, Scatter pulled into his driveway and the officers stopped behind him.
The cops approached with guns drawn. Talamante did the talking while his partner searched the car. He told Scatter he was being stopped for running a stop sign; if no warrants turned up, he'd be cited and released. Leaving his partner in charge, he went to his in-car computer while Scatter waited.
At 22 years of age, Scatter had been through all this before. It had become sort of a rite of passage for him and his three older brothers — all nicknamed Scatterbrain, the moniker adopted from an aunt's boyfriend, who'd been shot and killed when they were little. The boys grew up as creatures of the streets they roamed. Big Scatter, Little Scatter, Tiny Scatter and Baby Scatter all fell in with the Rolling 60s street gang, each in his own way, and they all had trouble with the law, getting to know the cops through the routine drug stop, the gang roust, the slow-rolling once-over.
Scatter believed that night, March 20, 1999, would be the same deal: “You know, take me down to the station, talk bad to me, how black people live or something, whatever he wanted to do.” Instead, the encounter escalated.
Officer Talamante returned with a readout showing two outstanding traffic warrants. According to Talamante's arrest report and court testimony, Scatterbrain, whose real name is Shadron Kinte Holmes, then broke and ran.
Scatter tells a different story. He's taut and passionate, and speaks in bursts, sometimes sounding like a rap track. “Talamante wanted to get a attitude. For some reason he had a pissed-off attitude, like he didn't get no pussy that night or something, or somebody pissed him off, or he had a bad scuffle or something. He had a attitude the whole long time. Anyway, Talamante starts pushing on me. I can't do nothing. I'm handcuffed. First he socked me in the stomach, then he's pushing me to the back of the building where it was dark, no lights, be no witnesses or nothing. He push me to the back of the building and got to whupping my ass.”
Of course, Scatter might have said something to set Talamante off. He had inherited a sharp tongue from his daddy, a preacher with a big congregation in Texas, who long ago lost interest in his L.A. progeny. And there's nothing like a little attitude to antagonize LAPD CRASH.
Several minutes passed before other officers, eight or 10 of them, arrived on the scene and got to the rear of the apartment court, where they found Scatterbrain screaming for help and bleeding from a nasty head wound, his shirt torn and his pants tangled around his knees. Seventy-seventh Division CRASH Sergeant John Radtke took control of the scene.
“The sergeant, all he did was say, 'Uh, put his pants on.' My pants was off, everything was off. That was from the beating. I mean, that was a ass-whupping. I don't mean 'Pa, pa, pa, you'll know better next time.' I mean, 'Beat, beat, beat, I'm taking this out on you.' That's the kind of beating I'm talking about.”
Holmes was treated at a hospital for his injuries and charged with resisting arrest, assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, possession of cocaine with intent to sell and running a stop sign. When the case reached a preliminary hearing, on May 13, Talamante testified that Holmes had not been handcuffed, but had fled and attempted to jump a fence. When he and his partner caught hold of Holmes, Talamante told the court, Holmes fought fiercely, kicking both officers in the head, and receiving his own head wound when he lost his grip and slammed to the ground. Holmes was charged with assault on a police officer.
Talamante testified further, almost as an afterthought, that aside from Holmes' failure to observe the stop sign, he'd been spotted moments before while making a drug transaction, and that after Holmes was arrested, officers found 13 grams of cocaine stashed in his shoes.
Holmes and his attorney attacked that charge as preposterous, noting the shoes were barely big enough for Holmes' feet, let alone such chunky rocks. In fact, Holmes vehemently denied the cops' entire scenario from the day of the incident. “I didn't even know it was a drug case till I got to the hospital. I asked what I was in for. They said assault on a police officer, evading arrest. They saying I ran from them, you know, like I'm going to run in handcuffs. Where am I going? Where am I really going to go? They try to say I hop over a fence. No. Tell the truth. I was in handcuffs and you beat my ass.”
The case was bound over for trial, and Holmes spent the next six months in jail, waiting for a trial date, conferring with the public defender assigned to his case, mulling over the offers presented by prosecutors. “It was like Let's Make a Deal, a new offer every time I went down there,” Holmes recalls. Finally, tired of stalling and tired of jail, Holmes took a deal — pleaded no contest to possession of cocaine and resisting arrest, the sentence being the time already served. On October 13, Scatterbrain went home.
It would be just another disputed case, the suspect's word against the cops', were it not for Holmes' parole officer, Agent Jorge Carroll of the California Youth Authority. When Carroll first heard of the beating, he recalled in an interview, he told Holmes, “Well, you probably deserved it.” But Holmes insisted on his innocence, and Carroll decided to go to the scene and look for witnesses. He located several.
He took it on the chin (and the eye, and the temple): Shadron Holmes after his arrest
One was Chris Lewis, 35, who lived next door to Holmes. Lewis said he saw the cops run into the driveway with guns drawn, screaming oaths at Holmes and ordering him to stop. He saw Holmes stop, and saw two officers handcuff him with his hands behind his back. Lewis then left his apartment and went out to the street, expecting to find Holmes in front. Instead, Lewis said he heard cries for help from the rear of the apartment court.
Another witness, Volare Power, said she heard the commotion from the beating and headed back to see what was going on. She saw Holmes on the ground, with two officers kicking and beating him. She said the officers then turned their attention to her. “They told her to get the fuck out of there if she didn't want to go to jail,” Carroll's report states.
An 18-year veteran of the state Youth Authority, Carroll said he was reluctant to dispute police officers in the field. But he said he found the field interviews persuasive. “These witnesses weren't his friends, they weren't his relatives,” Carroll said. “I didn't sense that they were fabricating events.” As to Holmes, he added, “It's not like I'm giving him breaks here. Hell, I've locked him up before. But I know he's not doing drugs, 'cause I test him. And he's not stupid enough to be attacking [the police officers].”
Carroll declined to comment on the broader implications of the case, but said he was offended by what had happened to Holmes. “I think they did a miniRodney King on him,” Carroll said.
to document the witnesses to Holmes' beating, he is no crusader. He said he forwarded his findings to Holmes' attorney and left it at that. But Scatterbrain was indignant. He filed a complaint with Police Watch, a state-bar certified lawyer referral service, and he spoke to the Weekly despite his fears of retaliation.
The arrest, the beating, the trumped-up charges, all are standard practice for the LAPD gang squad, Scatter says. “It's CRASH. They man-haters. CRASH hate everybody. They don't care if it's your granny, they'll harass your granny.” Born and raised on the streets south of the Coliseum, Scatter acknowledges that he can only speak about the cops on his home turf, the LAPD's 77th Division. But he says the revelations from the Rampart Division sounded strikingly familiar: “I'm telling you, 77th, it's just like Rampart. There's no difference. The same craftiness, the same everything.”
FROM THE MOMENT RAFAEL PEREZ STRUCK HIS DEAL and started talking about widespread misconduct by his fellow officers at the Rampart CRASH unit, the LAPD, the federal government and the city of Los Angeles have been faced with a critical and fateful question: How big was the problem? How wide was its scope, how deep did it go?
Chief Bernard Parks responded to Perez's revelations by commissioning an internal Board of Inquiry to review LAPD operations and determine whether the problems at Rampart extended citywide. It's conclusion, detailed in a 362-page report last March, found that “the Rampart corruption incident occurred because a few individuals decided to engage in blatant misconduct and, in some cases, criminal behavior.”
That may be the case with the extraordinary crimes Rafael Perez confessed to — including home-invasion robberies and the theft of cocaine from LAPD evidence lockers — but what of the other crimes he accused his fellow officers of committing, crimes of the zealot: unwarranted shootings, planted evidence, excessive force? Was that sort of conduct really limited to Rampart?
Tools of the trade: Cuffs await suspects in an LAPD paddy wagon
Our search for an answer started with the usual suspects — the civil litigators, defense attorneys and police-reform advocates who make up L.A.'s corps of police watchdogs. They said it loud and clear: Misconduct like Perez described at Rampart takes place throughout the LAPD, and especially in the specialized units, where the department's cowboy elements are nurtured and extolled. “Those of us who have been doing this for many years would not have distinguished Rampart from any other division,” says Robert Mann, considered the dean of L.A.'s police-litigation bar. “The only thing that stands out about Rampart is you have somebody talking.”
Okay, fair enough. But not far enough. We wanted to get beyond generalizations and get down to cases. If what Perez was saying were true, it seemed reasonable to expect that a serious inquiry should be able to turn up ample evidence of official misconduct. But the LAPD is a vast organization, with close to 10,000 officers and countless contacts with the civilian population. We wanted something a little more manageable; we set out to select a single division we could inspect more closely.
We got a little more guidance from Anthony Willoughby, a civil rights attorney in Beverly Hills whose practice lands him cases from all over the county. Willoughby narrowed the field to a few favorites — 77th, “shootin'” Newton and Rampart as the city's worst, with Southwest and Hollywood “right below them.”
That analysis is sharpened by Michael Zinzun, a police critic who lost an eye in an altercation with officers in 1986. “Seventy-seventh has been shown to be one of the most corrupt stations in the city of L.A. It's the stronghold for some of the city's worst police officers,” Zinzun says. “They basically have a green light to stomp through those communities.”
Gary Casselman, a lawyer who has won several sizable awards for plaintiffs suing the LAPD, is more succinct: “The 77th is the armpit of the LAPD.”
Such assessments are hard to corroborate statistically, as most cases of officer misconduct are not reported and are not provable. Robert Mann observes, “Most of the people subjected to cases like this never find attorneys.” Just as the Rodney King case would never have come to light save for a chance videotape, “None of the Rampart cases would have come out either,” Mann says.
One useful barometer of LAPD misconduct is the archive maintained by Police Watch, which takes close to 2,000 complaints per year from all over the county — everything from rude behavior by officers in Bell Gardens to unwarranted shootings by Sheriff's deputies. Their files from the past five years show Hollywood generating the most complaints of any LAPD division, trailed closely by Rampart and 77th. Vina Camper, the office manager at Police Watch, points out that those numbers are skewed because people from Hollywood are more likely to report misconduct. In minority neighborhoods, she says, “Nobody's ready to stand up and say anything. Young men out on the streets are more vulnerable, they have no power.”
Other indicators from Police Watch: the Newton, Central, Van Nuys, South West, South East and Wilshire divisions are each duly represented, consistently generating more than 20 complaints per year. But Rampart, 77th and Hollywood were clearly in their own league, with the number of complaints registering in the high 30s and low 40s.
The LAPD's own Board of Inquiry report offered another statistical database, comparing Rampart to five other fast-paced divisions. And there again, the 77th stood out. The department brass highlighted the fact that Rampart proved the most violent division in the city, as measured by the percent of use-of-force incidents that resulted in someone getting hurt. But measured by sheer volume, use-of-force incidents at the 77th Street Division easily outnumbered those at Rampart — 1,258 over the five years surveyed, as compared to 582 at Rampart. Likewise, more suspects were injured in the 77th — 511 total — than at Rampart, which recorded 344 people injured in their encounters with officers.
The numbers seemed to point strongly to 77th as a fruitful place to look for trouble with the cops. And during interviews with LAPD investigators, Rafael Perez suggested as much himself.
In his extensive, audiotaped confessions, Perez made sweeping allegations about the anti-gang units at the LAPD, contending that “90 percent of the officers who 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.”
More specifically, Perez said that 77th and Rampart CRASH shared the same cowboy culture, the same attitude toward shootings and beatings, the same disdain for the citizenry. “You go into the Short Stop [a favorite cop hangout on Sunset Boulevard] and you hear, you know, 77th CRASH and Rampart CRASH get into a shooting. We used to be up at the — at the benches up in the Academy, and we talk about how things went down. How they really went down and how they were fixed up.”
In fact, Perez implied that he learned the tricks of his dirty trade from 77th — or, more particularly, from Nino Durden, Perez's partner at Rampart and his alleged partner in crime. “You got to remember Durden came from 77th CRASH,” Perez told investigators, referring to a six-month stint Durden served there before joining Rampart.
None of this was reflected in the LAPD's Board of Inquiry report. Without making specific reference to 77th, the report found, “There were no patterns or trends within the units audited that would suggest department-wide corruption problems within CRASH or any other specialized units.”
PERHAPS CHIEF PARKS AND HIS INVESTIGATORS WERE looking for the wrong things. Or perhaps they weren't looking hard enough. But a Weekly investigation of the CRASH unit at 77th reveals a record of aggressive tactics and flimsy cases that rivals anything to come out of Rampart. We found criminals who had their rights violated, and innocent people treated like criminals. We found officers closing ranks to tell stories contradicted by evidence and witnesses, and ranking officers covering up for their subordinates. We found brazen beatings, hair-trigger shootings and, in the case of Terry Taylor, the mistaken, fatal shooting of an innocent man.
We also found cops who set out daily to do the virtually impossible job of keeping peace in a district ridden by poverty, crime and violence. Former 77th Officer Keith Rankins, now with the L.A. school police, describes it this way: “These guys are dangerous. They will kill you, they will turn and fight you.” Nearly everyone interviewed for this story made it a point to say that most cops follow the law as well as enforce it. But they also agreed, based on their own experience, that some cops go too far.
Along the way, we learned the toll that such hard-fisted policing can take on people's lives. We spoke with parents who can't say which is worse, the gangs or the cops, parents who realize that either one might take their children away for good. We spoke to young men poised on the brink, knowing that another bust could mean a life behind bars, still pissed off about prior offenses they say were trumped up in the first place, terrified that the cops would come at them again. We spoke with people who wonder who to call when they are afraid, because they no longer trust the police.
Sources for this report include a review of the department's own use-of-force reports for the years 1995 to 1998, filings from criminal and civil court, complaints filed with Police Watch for the same period, and interviews with people arrested and harassed by the CRASH unit. The sources do not include the officers themselves. That's in part because repeated efforts to interview principals in the story were rebuffed by Captain Harlin Ward, the top officer azt the 77th Division. It's in part because many of these cases are subject to litigation or criminal proceedings and officers are barred from making comments. And it's in part because this story deals with issues and incidents that LAPD officers do not want to discuss.
Our efforts to get the LAPD's side of the story began in September with a ride-along with Sergeant Lee Sands. However, Sands said he was unable to discuss the incidents and personnel covered in this story. We followed up with a request to speak with a supervisor who was assigned to the CRASH unit during this period, Sergeant John Radtke, the ranking officer at Holmes' arrest, but that request was turned down.
We then sought interviews by contacting each of the officers named in this story. One said no, one responded through his attorney, two did not respond, and the fifth, John Radtke, now agreed to an interview provided a supervisor was present. However, that supervisor, Captain Thomas Runyen, said he would bar Radtke from discussing the incidents and issues in this story. “I wasn't there then, and we aren't going to go back and talk about what may or may not have happened in the old CRASH unit,” said Runyen. He added that he could not schedule such an interview until after publication of this story.
Of course, the LAPD is notoriously reluctant to discuss allegations of misconduct. On that score, the department's Board of Inquiry into Rampart was unusually concise: “None of the employees interviewed recognized any particular trend toward a code of silence, which is certainly ironic, to say the least, given what we now know regarding events at Rampart.”
While there's no Rafael Perez to narrate the internal lingo and backslapping camaraderie that have so colored his Rampart revelations, the allegations emerging from cases like Shadron “Scatterbrain” Holmes' should not be ignored. The scandal of official misconduct and managerial neglect at the LAPD is not limited to Rafael Perez and “a few individuals.” Certainly, it extends beyond the Rampart Division. Certainly, it extends to the 77th Street Division.
REACHING NORTH FROM MANCHESTER AVENUE AND west from the Harbor Freeway, the 77th Street Division encompasses 11.9 square miles and more than 200,000 people, most of them black or Latino and many of them poor. It is home to the intersection of Florence and Normandie, flashpoint for the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, and routinely vies for the highest homicide rate of the LAPD's 18 divisions citywide.
There are two good reasons that 77th Street Division is among L.A.'s busiest, and most violent. They are the Crips and the Bloods, the murderous, homegrown street gangs that are a fact of life for anyone coming of age on the low-slung residential boulevards south of the Santa Monica Freeway. With the advent of crack cocaine and the spread of handguns and automatic weapons, life in the 77th became something out of the wild west, punctuated by drive-by shootings, random street crime and gang-turf wars. Through last October, police tabulated 765 gang-related crimes in the 77th, close to double that of any other division in the city except the Southeast, with 729.
Even the dogs are tough in the 77th. Pit bulls seem to be the preferred species, favored as watchdogs and for their fearsome record in basement-arena dogfights. Records maintained by the Police Commission are replete with cases of snarling dogs charging cops; in one instance, an officer J. Mastick fired six rounds from a shotgun to bring down a single vicious canine.
The police who patrol such tough neighborhoods develop a sensibility to match. Especially the young ones just out of the Police Academy. “Officers want to go to a place where they're going to get the most experience they can, as soon as possible,” says Monroe Mabon, a former sergeant with 22 years at the LAPD, now turned attorney. “You get your boots laced up, and you go where the action is.”
“They call it 'stick time,' because you get to swing your baton in those neighborhoods,” adds Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who gained insight into the LAPD by representing numerous former officers in litigation against the department. “Every client I've ever interviewed says that's what they were told. You go down there to get stick time.”
The problem is, the gangs are ubiquitous, meaning that most young men coming of age will hook up with their local set, whether they personally engage in violent crime or not. For the police, committed to a war on gangs, that means open season on an entire generation.
The Reverend Milton M. Merriweather, 75 years old, is a Baptist pastor who for decades convened his congregation on Hoover Street in the heart of 77th. Merriweather grew up in the segregated South, and to him the war on drugs and crime carries the same stigma. “It's like there's a conspiracy to make sure every black man has a criminal record,” Merriweather fumes.
“It's a siege mentality,” Mabon says of his former colleagues. “You've got officers with no ties or stake in the community. They're people on a mission — they're going to eradicate these gang members.” Adds Charles H. Hack, a lawyer who grew up in Compton and handles criminal cases out of South-Central, “The officers feel they have to put fear and terror in these guys' minds in order to control them.”
That uncompromising attitude translates into a lurid history at the 77th Street Division. With the Watts riots in 1965, and again with the Rodney King riots in 1992, the 77th was the scene for widespread violence, much of it in protest against the LAPD.
In 1988, it was officers from 77th who set out to raid an apartment building at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue and, in the ensuing frenzy, trashed the place, smashing toilets with a sledgehammer, punching holes in walls, even ripping an exterior staircase from the side of the building. Afterward, more than 40 “suspects” were taken to the station and run through a police gauntlet, where they were beaten until they consented to whistle the Andy Griffith Show theme song.
Anecdotal stories from inside 77th reflect a divisional culture much like what Rafael Perez described at Rampart. One story turns on Stacey Koon, one of the officers who beat Rodney King, who was a sergeant at 77th. Another former officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that when he was transferred to the 77th during the same period, he arrived with a reputation as a stickler for proper procedure. He says Koon decided to set him straight. “He knew I was somebody who would report misconduct, so he took me aside,” the officer recalls. “He started screaming at me, just screaming, about how I didn't understand how it was on the streets, how you had to beat on 'these people' because it's all they understand.”
Connie Rice relates a particularly harrowing incident from a client who left the department in the late 1980s: “She was telling me about the guys and how they did business at 77th. She went downstairs and walked by an interrogation room, and she saw one of the CRASH guys playing Russian roulette with a gang member. Had the gun in his mouth and was pulling the trigger. And the kid was, you know . . . urinated all over himself and defecated — you know, he was just scared out of his mind.”
Rice said her client was a black officer who resented the attitude of the division's more aggressive officers, and that this incident had made her snap: “She opened the door and pulled [the interrogating officer] out and threw his gun across the hall . . . She took him by the collar and banged him up against the wall. She said, 'If I ever fuckin' see you do this again, I will kill you.' So she got the kid cleaned up and took him upstairs and put him with someone who was, you know, not a sadist. And she quit CRASH the next day.”
Mark Furhman, the notorious detective from the O.J. Simpson murder investigation, is another 77th Street Division alumnus, having been stationed there briefly after graduating from the Police Academy in 1975. Furhman recalled that period in tape-recorded interviews with an aspiring screenwriter. “Most of the guys worked 77th together,” he said of a crew who invaded a Boyle Heights apartment building in 1978. “We were tight. I mean, we could have murdered people.”
THESE ANECDOTES PRE-DATE THE PERIOD INVESTIgated for this story, but documents show that the essential character of the CRASH unit in the 77th remained unchanged at least through the past year. And while the roster at the CRASH unit was fluid, with officers transferring out of the division or into other assignments, the documents reveal a core group of officers who seemed to embody the unit's hard-charging reputation.
One of those officers, Addis Simpson, was a hulking presence at 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds. A former school-bus driver who drove a black Corvette when off-duty and went by the nickname “Bart,” Simpson had a broad smile and a quick sense of humor. But he also demonstrated a sudden temper that led to beatings, including one that got him fired. Sam Paz, an attorney who sued Simpson and the LAPD, said he learned from the department that Simpson had more than 20 civilian complaints filed against him, though an attorney representing Simpson said that number is grossly inflated.
Andy Luong was another officer who seemed to have trouble restraining himself. A former bank teller and, before that, a clerk in the Air Force, Luong worked undercover narcotics and as a patrol officer at 77th before joining CRASH in 1997. Records show Luong drawing complaints for a pair of shootings, as well as several beatings. In one case which is pending in federal court, Luong is accused of corroborating another officer's report, allegedly trumped up, of events leading to an unprovoked shooting.
In another shooting, this one fatal, it was Luong who pulled the trigger. The victim was Terry Taylor, father of five, in his own back yard on New Year's Eve, 1998. According to court records and police reports, Taylor's brother had fired off a shotgun round to celebrate the occasion. Luong, part of a New Year's gunfire-suppression team, crept up a side driveway and opened fire when Taylor and his brother turned to run. Nobody identified himself as police; nobody shouted, “Freeze!” “It was a flash,” Luong's partner testified later. “They treated us like animals,” says Reda Taylor, Terry's widow.
James Jackson, a 21-year-old grocery clerk, was on hand for one of Luong's disputed arrests. According to a police report, Luong and nine other CRASH officers were conducting a “gang convoy stop” in 1998, pulling cars out of traffic on Crenshaw Boulevard, when a bystander named Dante Smart had the temerity to ask what was going on. According to the report, Smart ignored an order to disperse and was promptly arrested for obstructing a police officer. Smart says he obeyed the order, only to have Luong and two other officers jump him and beat him with a flashlight.
Jackson, in an interview, corroborated Smart. “I saw when they ran up to him,” Jackson said. “He had his back turned and went off to his car, and they jumped him. They swarmed like a pack of wolves.” Asked why he thought the officers chose to attack Smart, Jackson said, “Cops can do what they want to. They caught him, they cuffed him and they beat him outta his clothes.”
Several other officers turned up in questionable cases during the period reviewed for this story, but one who stood out for his “heavy-handed” approach to suspected gang members was Dean Vinluan, a veteran of the Southeast, Newton and Central divisions who spent four years assigned to 77th CRASH.
People who encountered Vinluan on the street describe him as a short, aggressive Asian officer who liked to make things personal.
Corey Jones admits that he was carrying a gun the night in 1996 that Vinluan caught him and several friends
playing dice in an off-street parking garage. But Jones, 17 years old at the time, denies the police allegation that he struck Vinluan as he was being searched and tried to run. Jones says he was handcuffed and facedown on the ground when Vinluan sprayed him with a blast of Mace. When Jones started hollering for help, Vinluan kicked him in the mouth, mashing his lips and breaking one of his teeth. In his police report, Vinluan said Jones was hurt when he was tackled.
Jones' mother, Annette London, recalls going down to the station that night in an effort to retrieve her son. She says she asked Vinluan what had happened. “He looked straight at me and said, 'You're lucky we didn't kill him.' He was so cold. He said it straight out. He didn't smile or anything. That was a nightmare.”
During one 20-month period in the mid-'90s, Vinluan was involved in four shootings, two of them fatal, as well as several beatings. Records show that in several of those cases Vinluan's victims disputed the officer's story of what happened.
One of those cases involved Dale Taylor, then 19 years old. Vinluan alleged that Taylor fled from a routine stop, then turned and pulled a gun on him. Vinluan responded by firing a single round. He missed, but the suspect gave himself up. During an ensuing criminal trial, Taylor conceded that he had been carrying a gun when he and three friends were stopped by Vinluan and five other CRASH officers. Taylor admitted he had turned and fled, but said he never attempted to confront the pursuing officers. Taylor said he had tossed his weapon, and was unarmed, when Vinluan fired.
On the strength of the officers' testimony, Dale Taylor was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer and sentenced to 18 years in state prison. The verdict still disturbs his attorney, Jonathan Mandel, of Encino. “There's no way in the world my guy would have turned and drawn on armed officers,” Mandel says now.
These incidents hark back to the heyday of the CRASH unit, when the crime rate and the war on gangs was near its peak, and before the revelations from Rampart. Since then, following career moves and adjustments in departmental procedure, most of the faces have changed. Addis Simpson was fired from the force, Andy Luong left the LAPD to take a job with the Buena Park police, and Vinluan is a patrol officer with the 77th Street Division.
In the meantime, in response to the Rampart scandal, Chief Parks disbanded the CRASH units, and abandoned their ugly acronymn, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. Department critics say the move was largely cosmetic, and note that the discredited gang-suppression details were promptly re-formed as “Special Enforcement Units” and retained many of the same personnel.
That continuity is represented at 77th by John Radtke, the sergeant in charge of the new gang unit. Before his promotion, Radtke had a long history at 77th Street CRASH. He distinguished himself as a savvy street cop and made a number of high-profile, high-volume drug cases. At the same time, Radtke established himself as a leader in CRASH, a tough officer who would always stand by his men. Two cases in particular raise questions over the decision to place him in charge of the new gang unit.
SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT ON JUNE 4, 1995, THREE squad cars from 77th Street CRASH were heading northbound in a caravan on Van Ness Avenue. Officers Simpson, Vinluan and Radtke were all on hand; according to a police report, they were “searching the area for a member of a local street gang wanted in connection with a murder investigation.”
As the officers reached 52nd Street, they spotted a tan car gliding through a stop sign. The officers in the lead car “opined that the occupants were possibly local gang members,” and the caravan set out in pursuit. Soon after, the officers in the lead car “saw the suspect seated in the rear seat holding a large handgun.” They alerted the CRASH units that their quarry was armed and dangerous.
The chase ended when the tan car slowed near Arlington Avenue. Two teenagers jumped out and ran while the vehicle was still rolling, leaving a third, identified later as Levar W., 15 years old, in the passenger seat. While the other officers headed off after the fleeing suspects, Radtke closed on the one who remained.
Since Levar W. was a juvenile, he is not further identified in the record and could not be located to give his side of the story.
Radtke stopped his black-and-white close behind where the suspect vehicle had come to rest against a curb. Radtke and his partner exited with their guns drawn, while Levar W. got out of his car and stood there. Radtke hollered at him to put his hands up, but according to the report, Levar W. failed to comply. He may have been confused — Radtke had left his siren on, and in the darkness, with the racket and flashing lights of the police car, the suspect failed to comply. From a distance of less than four yards, Radtke squeezed off a round and shot Levar W. through the right arm. He dropped and was arrested.
The shooting report suggested that Levar W. “appeared to be attempting to locate an object secreted in the front waistband area of his trousers,” then “moved to his right and appeared to grasp the object he had been seeking in his waistband,” and then “appeared to be removing the object from his waistband.” The report, however, notes that Levar W. had no gun, or anything else, in his waistband. Nor was the reported “large handgun” located in the car, or on the other “suspects.”
That was all right with the LAPD use-of-force board that reviewed the incident, but it was too much for then-Chief Willie Williams. In a report to the Police Commission, Williams overturned the internal panel and found Radtke's shooting “premature” and out of policy. In lay terms, Radtke was unjustified in shooting an unarmed teenager. Radtke was never disciplined, however, and his career advanced despite the shooting.
Even more disturbing, considering Radtke's post as the leader of the 77th's new gang unit, was the August 1994 arrest of Gregory Leon Young. Young was hanging out with three friends in front of his home, an apartment complex that fronted on an alley behind Florence Avenue. They were suddenly cast in shadow by the spotlights of two CRASH squad cars, occupied by Radtke and three other officers. In an instant, all four officers were out of their cars, guns drawn, and had them surrounded.
According to police, one of the “suspects” pulled a gun from his waistband and bolted from the scene, fleeing through Young's front door and then out the rear, leaving the door open behind him. At the same time, the police said, Young also produced a gun and tossed it through the open door before the officers could grab him. He then turned, put his hands up and said, “I don't have nuthin'.” Young was charged with a felony count of being an ex-con with a gun.
Radtke wrote the police report giving the official version, but when Young's case went to trial, that story — that an armed suspect, confronted by officers brandishing their handguns, would throw an unwieldy assault weapon 15 feet across an alley and into an open doorway — didn't carry the day. The jury came down on the side of Young and his friends, who testified that none of them had been armed that night, but that the officers had been enraged when one of their party fled, and had decided to make someone pay.
As Melvin Lucas, one of Young's friends, described on the witness stand, the officers at the scene produced a gun that none of the men had seen before.
“They said, 'Your buddy put you in a bad predicament,'” Lucas testified.
“What was your interpretation of that?”
“I guess they were going to stick one of us with the gun.”
It was a scenario strikingly similar to one of the incidents charged in the recent criminal trial of four Rampart cops. There, two gang members fled when the CRASH unit broke up a party in a parking lot. Five remaining gang members were taken to the station, and one was allegedly selected at random to take a gun charge.
In the Rampart case, the gun charge was overturned based on Perez's testimony, and the gang member was exonerated. In the 77th case, Young was acquitted of the gun charge and released that afternoon. But in those days before Rampart, nobody asked the question: If Young didn't have that gun, where did it come from? And nobody — not the D.A., not the public defender, not the judge — questioned Radtke about the veracity of the police report.
As the sergeant at the new gang unit, Radtke is now in a position to approve reports like the one he filed against Greg Young. In fact, it was Radtke who signed off on the arrest of Shadron “Scatterbrain” Holmes for assault on police officers. To Scatter, it seemed only natural the sergeant would approve the arrest: “It's his guys out there. What would you do if you was out on the streets and you got a high position where you got more power? You approve anything your homeboys say.”
CRASH OFFICERS FROM THE 77TH Street Division resort to some of their most aggressive tactics when working as a team. That was the situation the night of May 2, 1998, when the CRASH unit set out to break up a party being held in a rented South Western Avenue storefront by Five-Deuce Hoover Crips.
Johnny Lee, then 47 years old and a Hoover Crip for most of his life, had organized the party and was keeping an eye on things. “I was there to chaperone,” says Lee, who has done two stints in state prison and, in between, worked as a gang-intervention counselor. Lee says there was nothing to draw the attention of the police that night — he made sure the party was peaceful and didn't spill out onto the street.
The police first started talking about the party at roll call, according to a report. May 2 was an important date for the gang, as it corresponded to Five-Deuce, and the CRASH unit was determined to short-circuit any merriment. They located Lee's storefront around 10 p.m. and arrived ready for action, with somewhere between 25 and 30 officers clad in body armor and riot helmets, and two of them armed with shotguns loaded with non-lethal beanbag rounds. They blocked off the entire street, lighted the scene with spotlights, formed up in a “skirmish line” outside the party, and then ordered everyone inside to exit.
When he heard the order to clear the place, Lee stood at the door marshaling the crowd onto the sidewalk. According to a police report, Lee's brother began causing a scene. Officers handcuffed him, prompting Lee to become enraged. According to the report, Lee stripped off his shirt, clenched his fists and charged one of the cops. The two officers with shotguns fired their beanbag rounds, dropping him; when Lee got up and charged again, the officers fired another salvo. According to the report, “Lee doubled over, fell to the ground and crawled toward a wall . . . and screamed, 'I give, I give, I quit.'”
Lee tells a much different story. He says he was still standing in the doorway, helping clear the hall, when an officer yelled in his ear, “Motherfucker, this is the LAPD.” “Then all I heard was fire,” Lee says. “I was shot five times before I knew what was going on.” Lee was taken to a hospital, then released the next day, after being charged with incitement to riot. Rather than fight the charge, Lee pleaded guilty.
It isn't always a gang party that spurs the CRASH unit into action. In the case of Santos Medina, 59, the precipitating event was his son Santos Jr.'s quinceañera, or 15th-birthday celebration. The officers involved included Addis Simpson, Dean Vinluan and John Radtke.
A video taken during the October 1995 party shows what you might expect — a knot of children whacking a piñata, with their parents and grandparents milling around, some of the men wearing cowboy hats, some drinking beer.
Around 7 p.m., according to police and the Medinas, a tenant living in an apartment behind the house fired off several rounds from a rifle. The Medinas confronted him and demanded that he put the weapon away, and the party continued into the evening. More than three hours later, the CRASH unit arrived to investigate a report of shots fired.
The cops found more than 15 men gathered in front of the Medina home, and music playing in the back yard. Rather than approach from the front, the officers decided to enter through a side gate at the rear. When 16-year-old José Medina told the police to get a warrant, he was proned out, roughed up, Maced and handcuffed, with officer Radtke on top of him.
What ensued was a melee, with children screaming and officers shouting and pummeling the Medinas and their guests. Santos Sr. was kicked in the chest and, according to his family, suffocated with a pillow until he passed out. Santos Jr., who's birthday party was over, was clubbed in the teeth with the butt of a shotgun. Simpson said the 5-foot-6, 130-pound boy had tried to wrestle the weapon from him.
The fracas gave rise to criminal charges against Santos Sr. and Santos Jr. — both cases were dismissed — and then a civil suit that the city paid $125,000 to settle. Yet no officers were disciplined. The protests of the Medina family were not even recorded as complaints against the officers.
A similar incident the same year escaped the he-said/she-said credibility problems because much of the action was captured on film by a crew from the television show LAPD: Life on the Beat. In this instance, CRASH Officers Simpson and Tony Tejada were on patrol in the late afternoon when they noticed a small child riding a tricycle into the street. Simpson barked something out the window to the child's mother, Rose Miles, who was sitting on her porch with several family members. Rose Miles barked back, Simpson radioed for backup, and the altercation was on.
In the aftermath, seven people were arrested and booked, including Rose Miles; some were jailed as long as five days, two of them as far away as Van Nuys. Charges were lodged against a single juvenile defendant, who was acquitted after a brief trial. Before leaving the scene, Simpson hammed it up for the camera. “She was hitting me in the face,” he said, his clean-shaved head glistening with sweat. “Am I still cute?” He closed the interview by summing up the night's events. “No officers hurt, and the bad guy goes to jail.”
That tape was later reviewed by several officials from 77th, including Captain Thomas Maeweather, two lieutenants, two assistant chiefs and a deputy chief. “All agreed there was no misconduct and [that] the force used conformed to the test of reasonable and necessary,” Maeweather reported in an internal document.
The same videotape was reviewed by D.P. Van Blaricom, a former police officer and use-of-force expert retained by the Miles family in a lawsuit against the city. Van Blaricom's impression cost the city a settlement of $350,000. “What I see the officers doing is reacting to a challenge to their authority,” he testified in a deposition.
“You've got a contempt-of-cop situation. They call for help. Here comes the cavalry that happens to have a TV show riding with them, and it all goes to hell, and there's no reason for that,” Van Blaricom testified. “They are just charging, charging at these people and . . . pushing them around. That's what I see, and I don't see any justification for it except they're all hyped up when they get there.”
THE DEPARTMENT FINALLY TURNED against Simpson in 1998, firing him for an off-duty attack on two civilians. Simpson's appeal of the decision was rejected by a Superior Court judge the following year.
The alleged assault took place on the afternoon of June 3, 1997, at a San Pedro beach, when close to 100 officers from the 77th attended a “P.M. Watch Morale Booster.” Four Latinos, including Victor Sanchez and Jason Posod, were parked nearby and drinking beer. According to a police inquiry, they were approached by a Lieutenant Robert Tumas “because, he said, it looked to him like one of them had flipped him off.”
Within moments, somewhere between one- and two dozen officers, many of them swigging beer from plastic cups, surrounded the four young Latinos. Victor Sanchez testified before an LAPD disciplinary board that Simpson stepped forward, grabbed him by the neck and demanded, “What's the fucking problem?” Sanchez said Simpson then picked him up and slammed him on the ground. Several more officers jumped on him, kicked him and punched him, Sanchez testified. Simpson then circled the car and performed the same routine on Posod, who was likewise kicked once he was on the ground. Sanchez was then allowed to climb into the car, and the Latinos drove off. Later, believing the people he'd met on the beach were Sheriff's deputies, Sanchez reported the assault to the Sheriff's Department.
Nobody was charged with a crime, but nine months later, Simpson learned he was being investigated by Internal Affairs. When the case finally came to a hearing in October 1998, Simpson offered a novel version of the whole affair — that he'd been assaulted by Sanchez, Posod and their friends while he was alone in the parking lot. During the hearing and in his later appeal, Simpson and his attorneys emphasized the point that Sanchez and Posod were both alleged gang members, and that Posod had an outstanding warrant for assault on an officer. But the LAPD disciplinary board dismissed those arguments. After taking extensive testimony, the panel of two LAPD commanders and one civilian found Sanchez and Posod “spontaneous, forthright, and we believe credible.” In contrast, the board held that, “There's a preponderance of evidence to conclude that Officer Simpson's version of the incident is indeed false and misleading and appears to have been entirely fabricated.”
Robert Tumas, the lieutenant at the scene, was himself made the subject of disciplinary action as a result of the beach-party fracas, but retired from the department before the allegations could be heard.
Addis Simpson is now suing the department as part of a class-action suit alleging discrimination in hiring and promotions, and charging that much departmental discipline is retaliatory. Simpson's attorney in that case, Brad Gage, contends that Simpson was fired because he once had a personal quarrel with a member of Chief Parks' family, and that Simpson's use-of-force record was exaggerated by his looming physical presence.
That position is similar to that of Simpson's supervisors at the 77th, who stood by him to the end. During Simpson's Board of Rights hearing, Assistant Watch Commander Dallas Gibson described Simpson as “consistently one of the most outstanding officers at 77th Division.” Simpson himself acknowledged to the board that he'd had “a number of uses-of-force” but, as the board noted, no complaints of excessive force had been sustained.
Likewise, Gibson acknowledged that Simpson was “notorious” in the “gang community.” But Gibson had an explanation: “If an incident happened, and 10 officers from CRASH — they can't identify anybody else out there, they remember the big, black, bald man was there. 'He did this.' That's how he gets picked out of a lot of things.”
CELES KING III HAS BEEN RUNNING THE King Bail Bonds agency on Martin Luther King Boulevard for the past 50 years. He's the state chairman of the Congress on Racial Equality, and a longtime friend of Police Chief Bernard Parks.
Sitting in his cluttered, comfortable, wood-paneled office, King speaks about the influence police officers like Addis Simpson and Dean Vinluan have on the life of his community. “It must be recognized that keeping a city like Los Angeles as a reasonable place to live is not an easy task,” he says.
His round face wizened and owlish, his voice raspy, King chooses his words carefully. “They're doing a better job than they did in the past.” He pauses, but he's just catching his breath. “I don't regard Rampart as a completely isolated situation.”
Part of the problem is reputation and lingering memories, and part of it is just the nature of the relationship, but, King acknowledges, “There's a constant apprehension in most interactions they have with the police.”
In the case of Carl Populus, that apprehension is a mixture of fear and indignation. C.P., as he's known to his friends, is agitated and effusive. He talks about the problems of raising children in Los Angeles, what with the lousy schools, the hard street culture and the goading invective of hip-hop. Stalking around his disheveled studio apartment, his slight frame animated by memories and indignation, he talks about the gangs, and he talks about the police. “The cops in 77th, if they don't like you, they just give you a case. I know about them. I known about them for a long time.”
Populus' education began in May 1987, when he was busted for possession of a $20 rock. He got off with probation, but, in September of the same year, he was busted again. A rock in his sock. He was sent off to prison; once he got out, in early 1990, he had a new obsession. His wife. And his son, Rashad, then 11 years old. Carl wanted possession of both, or at least the boy.
When she ignored his entreaties he showed up at her apartment. He wanted his son back. He slugged her, then grabbed a kitchen knife. Then he threw it down and stalked out in disgust. In court a month later, Carl's wife took the stand. Her attorney queried, “Are you still having any pain?” Her answer was poignant: “Just my heart.” Carl was guilty again — four years, Folsom State Prison.
Carl was released in January 1994; now it was his son's turn. Rashad was tagging, hanging with the Five-Deuce Hoover Crips. He got the tattoos. He was practically illiterate. Carl Populus wanted to make up for lost time, coming through for a boy who had grown up without a dad.
He soon got his chance. In 1997, Rashad was arrested as a suspect in a rape. The victim described a Five-Deuce, with the same tattoos on his arms. Carl wouldn't believe it. He met with Public Defender Teri Teeling. He leaned on her: This was a case that mattered. She agreed.
The case was heard in juvenile court that March. Detective Virginia Rubalcava, just six months on the job, took the stand. Carl was in the gallery. The district attorney asked how Rashad had been identified: “Did you show the victim the Hoover Crip book?”
“Yes, I did. I assisted her in turning the pages,” Rubalcava testified. “At one point, without prompting her, [the victim] immediately started crying and pointed to a picture.” It was Rashad.
But Carl wouldn't let go. Neither would Teeling. For one thing, the victim said the rapist had the word “Angela” tattooed on his chest. Rashad had no tattoo on his chest. Besides, as Carl likes to say, “Rashad's a good kid.”
Teeling pressed the detective. What else did they have against Rashad? Well, he'd been seen in the car the suspect drove. “I know somebody who saw him in the car,” Rubalcava testified. “The individual who worked with me on the case. His name is Officer Vinluan. He actually wrote the search warrant, and he told me he'd seen him in the car before.” The CRASH gang expert had connected the dots, and Rashad was at the center.
Teeling was unimpressed. The rape had taken place at a residence — had the detectives run a check on the Five-Deuce Crip who lived there? She posed the question at a hearing the following day. Rubalcava: “I didn't find out the exact date he was incarcerated.”
Superior Court Judge Charles Scarlett was appalled: “Why didn't you want to know that? He was living there, a rape occurred, and it apparently occurred in his room. And you made no effort to check him out?”
Teeling already had. The resident, already in jail on another case, matched for height and weight, and had “Angela” tattooed on his chest. Judge Scarlett dismissed the case. “It's not right for you to keep this minor locked up when you have all these holes in your case,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
The rape case was over, but Rashad's problems with the police were not. He was busted twice the following year for possession of crack cocaine, and sentenced to three years in state prison. To Carl, it all made sense: “Seventy-seventh put him in jail. After the rape case, they started targeting him. They put a dope case on him. I don't know if it was true or not.”
At least it wasn't a violent felony strike. To Carl Populus, in the era of three strikes and welfare reform, every day is a battle. “What about the other ones out there?” he says. “They might be innocent or not, but they don't got someone like me, ready to go fight for them. What about those kids?”
WHAT HAPPENS IS, THOSE KIDS GROW up like Shadron Holmes, with monikers like “Scatterbrain,” dodging the CRASH unit, in and out of detention, in and out of trouble.
Scatterbrain is driving through the neighborhood, stopping by to see a friend. He wheels through residential lanes with small, cozy-looking houses tucked behind yards and low fences, or down boulevards that stretch to the horizon, flanked on both sides by rundown, makeshift storefronts. It's his home turf, and he knows all the shortcuts.
Scatterbrain is hard to keep up with — he cranks the stereo till you can feel the bass line throbbing through the roots of your teeth, then he kills it; he's all in a hurry, then he's got nowhere to go. He stops to point out a place where the cops pulled him over, laughing at the memory, laughing and grimacing.
He talks about how it is to always be looking over your shoulder for the cops. “You're out here, you're already struggling, you really don't want to deal with too many things that's out here, already having a bad time, and they just make it harder, 'cause they think you're doing what they think you're doing. They always right. You're not, you're never right. There's no beating them.”
Scatter talks about what happens once you're busted, how he came to take a deal in two cases, both of which, he contends, were frame-ups. Each time, he spent more than six months in jail awaiting trials that never took place. “Once they got you in jail, it seem like they got control,” he says. “Once they get you in jail, they know how to get that D.A. to talk to the public defender. Most of our people is poor, I mean, we ain't got no money to be affording no lawyer. They get with the public defender and all that, and they just get together. The D.A., the judge and the public defender, all in cahoots together. What kinda shit is that? How can you win? You ain't even done nothing. All you thinking about is to get back to the streets.
“So what you do? You just thinking about getting home, and these people talking about giving you two and three years, and you ain't even done nothing, and all you doing is thinking about the stress, about weighing the options, only thing is, the last option is a plea bargain. They gonna let you back on the street. That's the thing, they stress you out for a minute, and then they let you back on the street with a plea bargain. But next time they got you. Dang you did had to plead guilty to this case you didn't even do it, now they fuckin' with you on something else. Same officers. Same CRASH. You'll find millions of cases the same way. Same officers, same thing, same CRASH. They repeat the same thing for years and nobody ever looks at it.
“They stop so many dreams that these people be having in the ghetto, that's trying to get out, and they just stop their dreams.” Scatterbrain is rapping now. He slips into the lingo of power. He's talking cop talk. “'Fuck your dream. Fuck your dream too. Shit. Fuck your dream too. I don't like the way you came at me, I rule this shit, fuck you too. I'm gonna fuck your dream all.'”
Scatter says the cops will spell it out for you. “They'll tell you, 'I'll send your ass to jail. Don't fuck with me.' They'll tell you in a minute.”
Growing up fast: Kids at play in the heart of the 77th
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