L.A. in Peril of Another Rampart Scandal, Panel Finds

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L.A. in Peril of Another Rampart Scandal, Panel Finds

Postby Christina Marie » July 12th, 2006, 1:29 am

L.A. in Peril of Another Rampart Scandal, Panel Finds

A task force urges the department to add officers and replace 'warrior policing' with methods that are community-friendly.

By Patrick McGreevy, Times Staff Writer

July 12, 2006

Despite extensive reform in the seven years since the Rampart Division police corruption scandal, Los Angeles is at risk of similar crises unless the LAPD is significantly expanded and trades its "warrior policing" model for a more community- friendly problem-solving style, a city task force warned today.

The Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel set out to provide a final accounting of what city officials characterize as one of the most serious police corruption scandals in American history.


Nine officers were criminally charged and 23 were fired or suspended, 156 felony convictions were invalidated due to suspected police misconduct and the city paid $70 million to settle civil rights lawsuits brought by victims.

Yet even now, the panel found, police supervisors fail to provide adequate oversight and control of officers — a key problem in the Rampart scandal. And the panel faulted the criminal justice system in Los Angeles for lacking sufficient checks to prevent officers from lying or fabricating evidence.

The panel was appointed in 2003 by the city's Police Commission at the request of Chief William J. Bratton to examine the LAPD's response to allegations of widespread abuse by officers from the Rampart Division's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit, which was formed to crack down on street gangs.

The report represents a major challenge for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is already struggling to increase the police force by 1,000 officers over the next five years — but would have to hire three times that number to meet the goal set by Bratton's Plan of Action, which is endorsed by the report.

The findings — a three-part document including 117 pages of narrative and recommendations, plus a half-inch thick appendix — will be discussed in a special Police Commission meeting Thursday.

The panel of legal experts interviewed 270 witnesses, including current and former police officers, civil rights leaders, defense attorneys, prosecutors and police experts, according to Chairwoman Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney.

Perhaps the group's most surprising discovery, the report said, is that the Rampart Division has performed a dramatic transformation. Supervisors dismantled the gang unit, imposed strict standards and pioneered "a promising, community-backed crime-fighting model."

A new division captain began installing "the smartest, most seasoned and mature officers he knew from across the department." And intimidation tactics were replaced with "problem-solving" ventures with businesses and community leaders with the specific goal of cleaning up crime-plagued MacArthur Park. Within six months, crime in the park plunged 45%.

But turning that new Rampart model into a department standard could prove daunting, the panel said.

"The verdict from scores of officers is in: Most post-scandal reforms currently being implemented are useful, but they will be insufficient to lock in current successes, prevent another CRASH crisis, resolve LAPD's long-standing problems or begin to close the public-police trust gap in high crime areas," the report concluded.

"A significant number of LAPD's most knowledgeable commanders, officers and leaders of the rank-and-file interviewed by this panel concur with outside critics that these goals will require much deeper changes within LAPD — and a complete overhaul of the city's deficient 'thin blue line' public safety model," the report said.

If the LAPD and city leaders maintain the status quo, the panel warns, the city will be "on peril's edge" whenever there is a police controversy.

In an interview, Rice said the LAPD remains at risk of additional police abuse, corruption and even unrest in minority communities unless immediate action is taken to change the course for the department.

South Bureau, a district that abuts Rampart and extends south from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Port of Los Angeles "is hanging by a thread," she said. "I would not be surprised if something were to blow there this summer."

The panel was appointed after city officials and critics voiced frustration over the inadequacy of the department's own internal investigation.

The six-member panel was harshly critical of the LAPD's internal probe, saying that it failed to provide a comprehensive picture of what misconduct occurred in the CRASH unit.

"Due to inadvertence, incompetence and/or intent, LAPD did not design investigations capable of determining the true extent of corruption," the report found, faulting the City Council for twice rejecting calls for an independent investigation.

In response, one of the panel's 28 recommendations is that an outside group be given the task of investigating any future police abuse.

Other recommendations include overhauling the police disciplinary system, expanding the size and independence of the commission's inspector general office, conducting a performance audit of the county's criminal justice system and creating a task force to push police reform in the LAPD.

Rice said the 88-page report identifies a path toward a high road of policing that must be taken to avoid crises like the Watts riots of 1965, the 1992 riots ignited by acquittals in the Rodney G. King beating case and the scandal that erupted after the 1998 arrest of Rampart Division CRASH Officer Rafael Perez.

That scandal expanded when Perez, accused of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker, told investigators that he and fellow officers routinely planted evidence, shot and beat suspects without provocation and framed people for crimes they did not commit.

Declaring that Los Angeles is the most under-policed big city in the nation, the panel said the size of the LAPD is a major factor in tension between the police and some segments of the public.

"For decades, blue ribbon reports have noted that with too few officers to patrol the streets and to guarantee backup, officers use intimidation and fear to exert control over large geographic areas," the panel concluded. "And in high crime areas they counter increased danger with aggressive 'search and destroy' tactics that humiliate and alienate residents."

The report puts pressure on the mayor and City Council, who have endorsed a more moderate expansion that would boost the police force by 1,000 officers to roughly 10,200 officers in 2009.

The Rampart panel said the blueprint for improving the Police Department should be the Plan of Action written by Bratton that calls for adding 3,000 officers.

"Until the city ends the chronic anorexia of 'thin blue line' public safety — a 'safety on the cheap model' that delivers public safety in neighborhoods on the right side of that line and containment-suppression in neighborhoods that are not — there will be limits to what police reform can achieve," the panel said.

In looking at post-scandal changes at Rampart, one of 19 patrol sectors in the city, the panel was encouraged by what it characterized as the "community-savvy model" and called for other divisions to replace the "LAPD's traditional paramilitary intimidation policing with strategic collaboration."

If the model now at Rampart had been in place in 1999, the report said, "CRASH rogues would have been stopped because supervisors under this model do not indulge LAPD's traditional 'us versus them' and 'ends justify the means' outlooks that excuse misconduct and shield excessive force."

The Rampart scandal occurred, the panel said, because first-line supervisors, top police officials, the Police Commission, City Council, district attorney, federal authorities and the courts "failed to heed decades of warnings to change the police culture."

Warning signs still exist. Over one three-week period last year, crews performing maintenance on police cars found a replica gun and a "throw down" gun. In previous corruption cases, officers have planted such weapons on shooting victims who were unarmed.

"Officers reported that behaviors that were hallmarks of the CRASH crisis still fail to trigger sufficient response from first-line supervisors," the report said.

The report quoted one unidentified LAPD sergeant with more than 20 years on the force saying, "The culture hasn't changed. We have 'Rampart' brewing" in the Southeast Division.

The blue ribbon panel also faulted the criminal justice system, saying it has "anemic checks on police abuse," and called for an audit to assess whether there are sufficient safeguards against convicting the innocent.

The panel also said not enough has been done in the 40 years since the McCone Commission, created after the Watts riots, recommended an attack on poverty as a root cause of police-public tension.

"Forty years later in L.A.'s poorest high crime areas, the 'spiral of failure' that McCone noted as the petri dish of public-police hostility is even worse because of much more pervasive violence and dysfunctional poverty," the Rampart panel concluded.

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(INFOBOX BELOW)

Back story

The Rampart scandal exploded in September 1999 when LAPD gang Officer Rafael Perez, facing drug charges, implicated others in return for a lighter sentence. He said Rampart officers routinely planted evidence, beat suspects and covered up unjustified shootings. As a result of Rampart and other LAPD misconduct, city officials agreed to let a federal judge monitor a wide array of LAPD reforms. The blue ribbon panel's full report will be posted at http://www.lapdonline.org/police_commission

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Key players

The Officers

Rafael A. Perez — Convicted of stealing cocaine and covering up the shooting of an unarmed suspect. Identified 123 misconduct incidents. Served five years in prison.

Nino Durden — Perez's partner. Pleaded guilty to stealing drugs and covering up the shooting of unarmed man. Sentenced to five years in prison.

Edward Ortiz — Convicted of obstructing justice; conviction overturned. One of three officers who sued for malicious prosecution, he won a $15-million jury award.

Brian Liddy — Convicted of obstructing justice; conviction overturned. He shared the $15-million malicious prosecution award and was later fired for misconduct related to a narcotics arrest.

Paul Harper — Acquitted of obstructing justice, he shared the $15-million malicious prosecution award.

Michael Buchanan — Convicted of obstructing justice, but the conviction was overturned.

Manuel Chavez — Pleaded no contest to assault under color of authority for the 1996 beating of a gang member. Sentenced to 60-day jail term and placed on three years' probation.

Shawn Gomez — Pleaded no contest to filing a false report in the 1996 beating of a gang member. Sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to serve 400 hours of community service.

Ethan Cohan — Pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and filing a false report in the 1996 beating of gang member. Sentenced to one year in County Jail.

The Chiefs

Willie L. Williams — Presided over the LAPD when Perez began his misconduct but before the scandal became apparent; resigned in May 1997.

Bernard C. Parks — The scandal broke on his watch; served from 1997 to 2002 and is now on the City Council.

William J. Bratton — Called for Rampart review report after being dissatisfied with prior investigations.

Source: Los Angeles Times staff

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By the numbers

Some of the costs of the scandal:

156 felony convictions overturned.

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15 misdemeanor convictions overturned.

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9 officers criminally charged.

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23 officers fired or suspended.

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398 administrative complaints targeting 93 officers.

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214 civil suits against city (187 settled, 27 dismissed).

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$70 million paid by city to settle lawsuits from victims.

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Postby Christina Marie » July 13th, 2006, 1:15 am

Rampart's Redemption Rooted in Complex Forces
By Jill Leovy, Times Staff Writer
July 13, 2006


Big, bad Rampart is no more. Home to MacArthur Park, once home to the city's densest murder cluster, the Los Angeles police division has undergone a transformation so broad that for the last two years, homicides per capita have fallen to the citywide average.

Measured in murder, Rampart is now safer than Boyle Heights and is nearly as safe as the harbor area, a Times analysis shows. Although a blue ribbon report on policing in Rampart credited the LAPD for the turnaround, Rampart's crime has been falling in spurts for 15 years, with the most dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, before Chief William J. Bratton took over.

The change is especially striking because a high percentage of Rampart residents are poor minorities living in crowded and unforgiving circumstances — conditions linked to large homicide figures elsewhere.

Bratton can take credit for "broken windows" policing in MacArthur Park and the installation of surveillance cameras, but the broader story of Rampart is one of intercontinental migrations, wars, real estate booms and stock market crashes.

The protagonists are not just police, but tamale vendors and Orange County businessmen, draft dodgers and dry cleaners, big companies and small-time investors. Rampart's history crystallizes just how much has changed in Los Angeles in the years since a corrupt gang officer made its name notorious. And it lays bare the way chance and economics interact with police.

The LAPD's Rampart Division spans eight square miles of a once-graceful neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Normandie Avenue on the west and the Harbor Freeway on the east.

By the 1970s, Rampart was an entry point for Central American immigrants. In 1979, El Salvador's civil war broke out, in part over arbitrary, brutal law enforcement, said David Pedersen, UC San Diego anthropology professor and an El Salvador expert.

Salvadorans' distrust of police went beyond that of the typical immigrant. Det. Maritza Esparra, then a Rampart officer, recalled a high-risk felony traffic stop. Officers, following standard procedures, told a family to kneel. The family members wept and joined hands.

"They were saying to each other, 'Goodbye, I love you!' " Esparra recalled. She and her partner exchanged mystified glances. Then they got it. The family believed they were about to be executed. "I will never forget it," she said. "I felt so bad."

A second wave of Salvadorans flowed north in the 1980s: the lost boys, teenagers who fled their country alone to avoid being drafted. These boys organized into street-fighting groups, then gangs, said Rick Ramos, a longtime Rampart gang detective: Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street, Temple Street, the Playboys and the Drifters.

The gangs ruled black market businesses around the park. By the time the Salvadoran peace treaty was signed in 1992, MacArthur Park was divvied up like a Risk board. Even poor tamale cart vendors were shaken down for "taxes."

Police also heard stories of old political enemies meeting by accident, torturers meeting the tortured. People sought to do to others what had been done to them back in El Salvador — a perverse twist on the golden rule, whose text looms over the park, inscribed on the face of the Park Plaza Hotel. Said Esparra: "They would just kill each other on the street."

By the end of the decade, big corporate tenants, insurance companies and banks had fled the Wilshire corridor, buildings stood empty and investors were taking a beating. Transients squatting in abandoned structures caused much of the division's crime.

Partners Scott Schwartz and Michael Kamen bought an office building on MacArthur Park in 1989 that proceeded to lose 80% of its value. Not knowing what else to do, they held on glumly, bleeding money.

By the early 1990s, MacArthur Park was becoming "almost 'Blade Runner'-like," said David Marquez, a former City Council field deputy who is now a consultant to the nonprofit group Carecen.

The park wasn't merely the average open-air drug market. It was a regional crime emporium. Drugs, stolen goods, fake IDs and prostitutes — "anything and everything" illegal was available, Officer Mike Wang said.

In 1991 and 1992, homicides in Rampart peaked at world-class levels of savagery, with 138 deaths in 1992 alone. Bodies were found floating in the lake. At one point, detectives made their own grid map of the park showing every rock and tree, just trying to keep track of all the murder scenes.

Police were defeated by what Lt. Paul Vernon called "the overwhelming-ness of it all." Rampart officers were stretched to the limit. In 1991, they handled 50% more calls per officer than their counterparts would a decade later. It took them hours to respond to low-priority calls.

"I could never understand why the conditions I saw were allowed to exist in Rampart, where they wouldn't be tolerated for a minute in West Los Angeles or the Valley," said Lt. Brian Gilman, who worked in Rampart at the time. "Then it became obvious…. Nobody was voting."

Away from Rampart's embattled streets, though, a new set of geopolitical and economic forces were combining in the area's favor.


For years, poverty, repression and restrictive university admissions had driven Koreans into exile in neighborhoods just west and south of Rampart. They didn't have money, but they had education. They operated liquor stores in "the Korean way," said LAPD Officer Jason Lee, the child of such entrepreneurs: 24 hours, seven days a week, with family members sleeping in shifts. In the late 1990s, their efforts were starting to pay off.

Businessman Simon Lee, 40, immigrated at the age of 10 when his parents opened a small grocery store. Eventually, he went to Harvard Law School.


In 1995, he bought one of the cheapest shopping centers he could find — a mostly vacant two-story building on 8th Street east of Koreatown and just south of MacArthur Park.

The owner was so desperate to sell that he helped finance the deal. Three gangs were fighting over the shopping center's turf. "The DMZ," Lee called it.

The Harvard law graduate slept on the floor above the coin laundry to ward off burglars. Quarters shoved into detergent vending machines paid for security. Lee slashed the rents and painted the walls himself.

A few farsighted Korean business people were starting to see the potential of entrepreneurs like Simon Lee and his tenants. About 1994, another Korean-born entrepreneur, Dr. David Lee, decided to buy offices along Wilshire Boulevard, betting on immigrants to fill vacancies. Lee, 51, wasn't put off by the killings to the east. "I am used to this area," he said. "It doesn't scare me."

Dr. Lee was to show the city a model for reviving commercial real estate in the core. His company, Jamison Properties, would come to own some 6 million to 7 million square feet of Mid-Wilshire office space.

Koreatown banks were also on the rise. Nara Bank, for example, made small-business loans that no conventional bank would touch. In the mid-1990s, the bank had only $80 million in deposits and was roughing it. Bonnie Lee, chief credit officer, remembers a bullet zinging through a boardroom window during a meeting in a Rampart office.

But in July 1997, the Thai currency was devalued. By fall, the stock market in Seoul had crashed. Investors fled. A new wave of Korean immigrants, this time with money, combined with the old, Bonnie Lee said. Nara Bank's deposits would eventually swell to their current heights — $1.65 billion. People started using a new trendy nickname: "K-Town."

Also by the late 1990s, Rampart officers weren't as busy and responded more quickly. The immigrants had changed too. El Salvador had peace and police reform. The open-air drug markets gave way to pagers and car deliveries.

The decade had seen considerable effort by community groups, police and government agencies to clean up Rampart. The city aggressively wielded nuisance laws to address problem buildings and clear abandoned ones.

New buyers found Rampart's prices bargains.

In 1998, news broke that Rampart Officer Rafael Perez had stolen cocaine from an evidence locker.

For the next few years, the wider scandal would dominate headlines.

Esparra, the former Rampart officer, recalled that people on the street would threaten to call police as an intimidation technique — like calling in thugs. "You lost momentum, and an opportunity to work more strongly with the immigrant community," said Marquez, the consultant.

But earlier police-community ties held. As the 1990s closed, a group called the Institute for Urban Research and Development began organizing the tamale vendors in the park. Eventually, the vendors opened Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe on the south side of the park. Boats and children's soccer leagues also replaced drug dealing.

Larger market forces were beginning to close in on Rampart. The area was now lodged between two of the hottest development markets in the region: downtown and K-Town. A subway ran through it. It had new schools, classy old buildings and newly restored neon signs. Home Depot opened in 2001, then a Starbucks.

There was also the park — the mirror lake, the curving paths, the long shadows of palm trees striping the grass and the red-tailed hawks bathing at the crown of the fountain. In 2000, Schwartz and Kamen, long-suffering owners of the white elephant office building on Wilshire Boulevard, decided to turn the building into the American Cement Building Lofts.

Lofts were just catching on. This one had views of the park, and a hip, midcentury design. Schwartz and Kamen had looked like dupes. Now they look like geniuses. "One of the coolest buildings in the city," said Dan Rosenfeld, principal at Urban Partners, which is building a $105-million development to the east.

Other loft projects followed. People began to buy apartment buildings and renovate them. Apartments that once went for $500 a month were renting for $1,200.


"This area got battered by a 40-year cycle of neglect," Rosenfeld said. "But when people dusted it off, they found the bones were still good."

The tenant mix was changing. Evictions, renovations and higher rents brought new, commute-weary professionals. They reported crime. They voted. Rampart remained largely poor and Latino. But now the poor were being sorted and sifted.


Dennis Llanes, building manager of an apartment on Lucas Avenue, said new owners in 2000 slowly fixed the place up and evicted problem tenants. Now, he says, the occupants are mostly students at Loyola and USC.

In late 2002, Bratton became police chief. In New York, he had been credited with a turnaround. Now, "he wanted to put his name to something," said LAPD Officer Mike Wang. MacArthur Park was in the spotlight.

Wang was made one of three senior lead officers overseeing the park in 2003 under then-Rampart Capt. Charles Beck. Constant, consistent enforcement for all violations of the law were the marching orders, Wang recalled — classic "broken windows" policing theory.

But Beck also believed in giving officers more discretion — a risky strategy in a department that had moved steadily the other way in the wake of the scandal, tightening controls and standardizing.

Wang, a former accountant who was educated at UCLA, was among to whom Beck gave more rein.

He and other officers marshaled federal grants and secured a private partnership to install surveillance cameras.

The park was lighted. Trees were trimmed. Police conducted "reverse buys" to catch drug customers, arrested people over stolen shopping carts, wrote loitering tickets and enforced probation terms.

"We changed what was viewed as acceptable," Beck said.

Jerry Fink of the Bascom Group, which has bought Rampart apartments, put it differently. "What really turned around that area is not a magical force," he said. "It was that people saw they could buy properties, renovate them and make money."

Not too long ago, Donna Wong, formerly the city attorney's neighborhood prosecutor there, saw an astonishing sight: A jogger. He was white and was wearing athletic shorts and headphones, she said.

"He looked like a graduate student," she recalled with wonder. "He was jogging laps around the park in the evening."

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(INFOBOX BELOW)

A new rampart

Rampart Division, which at one time had one of the city's highest homicide rates, has experienced a dramatic drop in killings since the mid-90's. This year the homicide rate is nearly equivalent to the rate for the rest of L.A.

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Demographics

Rampart

Population: 231,282

% poor: 36%

% Latino: 72%

Rest of L.A.

Population: 3,461,506

% poor: 21%

% Latino: 45%

Sources: Los Angeles Police Department, 2000 Census. Data analysis by Doug Smith


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