case that would eventually spark the most damaging scandal in the history
of the Los Angeles Police Department began early on the afternoon of Nov.
26, 1996, when Javier Francisco Ovando was wheeled on a gurney into a downtown
courtroom of the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice for a pretrial hearing.
"He was emaciated, frail, such a little man," recalled Tamar Toister, the
public defender who was assigned his case, one of seven she would have
that day. Ovando was charged with assaulting Rafael Perez and Nino Durden,
two Los Angeles police officers, with a semiautomatic weapon. Since the
Honduran-born Ovando then spoke no English and the Israeli-born Toister
didn't speak Spanish, they conversed through an interpreter. But Ovando
could barely talk in any language. A month and a half earlier, on Oct.
12, Perez and Durden, the two officers he was accused of assaulting, had
shot him in the neck and chest. Through the interpreter, Ovando softly
asserted his innocence and said he did not remember much of what happened
except that "bad cops" had tried to kill him.
No one believed Ovando, who had the number 18 tattooed on the back of
his neck, signifying membership in the 18th Street Gang, known in Los Angeles
for its narcotics dealings and brutal killings. Nor did anyone in the courtroom
except Ovando believe that Perez was a bad cop. To those gathered at the
hearing, Perez seemed composed and credible as he told how Ovando, brandishing
a Tec-22 semiautomatic pistol, had burst into a darkened fourth-floor room
of an abandoned apartment building that he and Durden were using as an
observation post to monitor gang activity in the street below.
According to Perez's account at the hearing, he and Durden had fired
first, dropping Ovando with four shots. When backup officers and an ambulance
arrived, Ovando was lying in a pool of blood, the weapon beside him. One
of the backups later recalled that Perez, who had fired three times, was
surprised that the man he had hit was still alive. But this did not trouble
the officer at the time. It didn't trouble Perez either. He and his partner
were warriors in Rampart, Los Angeles's toughest neighborhood. To officers
of the Rampart division of Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums,
called by its acronym, Crash, gang members deserved whatever fate awaited
them, whether it was death in the crowded communities they had made so
dangerous or prison sentences that would keep them behind bars until they
At the end of the 25-minute hearing, Ovando, then 19, was ordered to
stand trial on seven felony charges. Based solely on what Perez had told
them, prosecutors claimed that Ovando was a gang assassin out to kill police
officers. Toister, the public defender, did not question the theory. She
did, however, question the deal being offered by a deputy of Gil Garcetti,
the district attorney, who was waging a publicized war on gangs: 13 years
in prison. In Toister's view, that was way too severe. Ovando had no criminal
record. He had also been shot four times and was now paralyzed from the
waist down. Believing that Ovando had been punished for whatever he did,
Toister decided to try the case before a jury.
Lou Cannon is the author of "President Reagan:
The Role of a Lifetime" and "Official Negligence," an account of the Rodney
King trial and the 1992 riots.
At the time, neither Toister nor anyone else had any inkling that what
took place between the two officers and Javier Ovando would grow into the
Rampart scandal. It was hard to imagine that an apparently cut-and-dried
gang case would lead to the investigation of 70 police officers -- 4 of
whom are to go on trial in the next few days -- and the release of 100
prisoners framed by the police. It was even harder to envision that it
would result in an astonishing consent decree that for the first time in
history will put the fiercely independent L.A.P.D. under the supervision
of the federal government. Most inconceivable of all, perhaps, was the
fact that the widest, most damaging crisis in the department's history
would be brought about by the actions of one crooked police officer: Rafael
ampart, west of downtown, is a
compact warren of dense, dangerous neighborhoods that leads Los Angeles
in homicides, narcotics sales and violent crimes. Out-of-town visitors
to other poor sections of the city, even South Central, are often surprised
to find homes surrounded by tidy lawns and neighborhoods sprinkled with
parks and greenery. Such amenities are rare in Rampart, where open space
is scarce, crowded high-rises abound and trees do not grow easily.
Bounded on the north by Sunset Boulevard, on the west by Normandie Avenue,
and on the east and south by freeways, Rampart encompasses only 7.9 square
miles but has the highest population density of any urban area west of
the Mississippi, officially 36,000 people per square mile. Not included
in this count are thousands of illegal immigrants. According to an L.A.P.D.
report, "many of these people speak only Spanish and are not well versed
in the customs and laws of the United States. Some have a history of distrust
for law enforcement stemming from their perceptions of law enforcement
within their home countries. These factors have proven to be a challenge
for every new commanding officer assigned to the Rampart area."
said Javier Ovando when he was sent to prison after being set up by L.A.
police officers. 'I cried. What could I do?'
Beginning in the late 1970's, life on the streets in the Rampart area
was controlled by more than 60 gangs, often organized along ethnic lines.
Amid the gangs from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, Javier Ovando's
gang, the 18th Street Gang, was notable for its brutality and its multiethnic
and sometimes interracial membership. The gang terrorized neighborhoods,
sold narcotics and rented space to drug dealers. But it also functioned
as a haven for jobless Latinos who lived on the streets during the severe
recession of the early 90's. This is what brought Ovando into the fold.
Ovando said he joined the gang because he was on his own at 16 and without
a roof over his head. The gang, he said, became "mia familia." His family.
he family Ovando found was at war
with crash and the L.A.P.D. Gangs had been a focus of the Los Angeles police
since the late 1970's, when violence, sparked by immigration and a bad
economy, jumped alarmingly. The department, which traditionally relied
on technology and aggressive tactics to compensate for the relatively small
numbers available to police a vast area, responded in a multitude of ways.
One of its first initiatives was Crash, the elite antigang force. Another
was Operation Hammer, the brainchild of Chief Daryl Gates, which rounded
up suspected gang members en masse.
Javier Ovando was shot and framed by L.A.P.D. officers,
then sentenced to 23 years in prison. Photograph by Robert Yager/SIPA Press
for The New York Times.
The L.A.P.D.'s war on gangs soon led to a series of well-publicized
controversies. Operation Hammer, already under fire from civil libertarians,
was thoroughly discredited in 1988 when its officers destroyed four apartment
buildings they mistakenly thought were crack houses. Then, in 1991, came
the videotaped beating of Rodney King and the creation of a commission,
led by Warren Christopher, that proposed various reforms in the L.A.P.D.
In 1992, the officers accused of assaulting King were acquitted by a suburban
jury, setting off fearsome riots in which 54 people were killed. The police
department was suddenly on the defensive. Chief Gates retired. His successor,
Willie Williams, was not reappointed after his first five-year term. Bernard
Parks, the third chief in a decade, has been under fire practically since
his appointment in 1997.
Though sometimes criticized for excesses, Crash survived. Crash officers
worked in tough places and were expected to confront violence with violence.
Rampart Crash, which varied in size from a dozen officers in winter to
as many as 20 in summer, when gang activity peaked, was an especially tight-knit
group. Officers gave plaques to comrades who shot gang members. Rampart
members wore logos and patches, the most notorious of which was a skull
with a cowboy hat and a poker hand of a pair of aces and a pair of eights,
the dead-man's hand that the frontier outlaw Wild Bill Hickock was holding
when he was shot to death. "Rampart was home to a bunch of cowboy cops,"
said David Smith, an L.A.P.D. captain who had several encounters with the
Rampart Crash became even more independent in 1995 when, because of
overcrowding in the main Rampart station house, the unit moved to a substation
nearly two miles away. There, the cowboy cops were almost entirely on their
own, and they weren't shy about expressing their separateness. While most
of the city's Crash officers were required to work in uniform, Rampart
Crash members made a point of showing up in street clothes. Captain Smith
recounted that when he responded to a call from a Rampart resident who
had been roughed up by police officers, he was told to mind his own business.
"There were all sorts of warning signals coming out of Rampart," he said.
Notable among these was the "999 key." Along with a gun and a badge,
every Los Angeles police officer is issued what is known as a 999 key,
which allows him access to all the police stations in the city. When Rampart
Crash officers moved to their substation, though, they rekeyed the entrance
to 888. Rampart Crash was its own police department with its own rules.
And two of its star members were Rafael Perez and Nino Durden.
n Feb. 13, 1997, People V. Ovando
went to trial. in the days following the pretrial hearing the previous
November, Toister became suspicious about police conduct in the case. Had
Ovando been set up? she wondered. Why would the gang member, bent on assassination,
burst from a lighted hallway into a darkened room where the officers would
have had a much better view of him, silhouetted against the light, than
he would have had of them?
Speaking to Ovando and his girlfriend, Monique Valenzuela, Toister pieced
together a story that contradicted the L.A.P.D. account. Though his memory
was shaky, Ovando told the public defender that before he was shot the
officers handcuffed him and a friend known as Nene and questioned them
about a Pomona burglary that had supposedly yielded the gang an arms cache.
After interrogating them in the trash-strewn room, Perez and Durden let
Nene go. On the way out, Nene encountered Valenzuela, who asked about Ovando.
Nene told her that he was being questioned and would be released soon.
Then they heard shots from inside the building. Nene ran away.
Despite Toister's suspicions, she knew she had a weak case. With Nene's
disappearance, the public defender had only the inadmissible hearsay of
the girlfriend's statement and Ovando's shaky memory. Moreover, Stephen
Czuleger, the Superior Court judge who would try the case, told Toister
that if Ovando testified, he would allow the prosecution to cross-examine
him about graffiti in the building where Ovando was shot. One piece read
"L.A.P.D. 187" -- a reference to the California penal-code number for murder
-- and it meant, in gang lingo, "Kill cops." It didn't help that Ovando's
18th Street nickname was Sniper. Toister never called him to testify.
When the trial started, Toister tried to find out from Perez how Ovando
had known that the two officers were in the darkened upstairs apartment.
Perez, altering an earlier version of his story, explained that he had
not seen gang activity in the normally busy street below. The reason, he
suspected, was that a gang member had spotted his car, an unmarked blue
Taurus. Perez testified that he and Durden left the observation post, scaled
a 10-foot-high fence around the building, moved the car, then scaled the
fence again and returned to the apartment. According to Perez, Ovando supposedly
followed the officers into the building after seeing them climb the fence.
What fence? Toister wanted to know. It was not mentioned in the original
Toister asked the judge for a continuance to inspect the building and
see the fence. The judge refused. When Toister tried to cross-examine the
officers about discrepancies between their first report and their revised
account, the prosecutor objected and the judge sustained his objections.
Throughout the trial, Toister couldn't seem to catch a break. "What happened
was dirty," she told me later. "I did all I could but I wasn't allowed
to put on a defense."
Ovando, stoic in his courtroom demeanor, was becoming increasingly desperate.
To complicate things, Valenzuela had told him she was pregnant. "I became
very sad," he said quietly. "I cried. I admit I cried. What could I do?"
The trial lasted a week and ended on Feb. 20, with the jury finding Javier
Ovando guilty of all charges. Judge Czuleger sentenced him to 23 years
in prison, declining a request for leniency because, he said, Ovando had
shown no remorse for his crimes.
afael Perez, who was to become
a golden boy of the rampart Crash unit, was born in Puerto Rico in 1967
and came to the United States when he was a small child. After several
moves he landed in Philadelphia, where he was reared by his mother. His
lawyer, Winston Kevin McKesson, said that Perez remembers standing on a
street corner as a boy, watching drug dealers and imagining that he would
one day be the cop who arrested them -- just like the L.A.P.D. officers
on "Adam-12." Perez graduated from high school in 1985 and joined the Marines.
In 1989, he was hired by the L.A.P.D.
The reformer under fire: Police Chief Bernanrd Parks.
Photographb by Robert Yager/SIPA Press for The New York Times.
After starting out on routine patrol duties, Perez was sent to a narcotics
unit and, in 1995, was transferred to Rampart Crash. There, he quickly
established himself as a rough-and-tumble officer, valued for his fluency
in Spanish and his knowledge of gang ways. Ethan Cohan, who worked with
Perez in Crash, told me that officers from the unit sometimes bet on which
team would find a gun on a gang member that night. "Perez always won,"
said Cohan. "I just thought, This guy is really good."
Perez might still be in Crash -- and Javier Ovando almost certainly
would still be in jail -- if it was not for three events, all of which
conspired to put Perez and Rampart on the radar screen of the L.A.P.D.
The first of these occurred on Nov. 6, 1997, nine months after Ovando
had been sent to prison. That morning, two armed men entered a Bank of
America branch in South Central and demanded money from Errolyn Romero,
the customer-service manager. She gave them $722,000 that had been delivered
earlier that day by armored car. The detectives who investigated the robbery
soon learned that Romero had ordered delivery of the money. After questioning,
she broke down and confessed that the robbery had been planned and carried
out by her boyfriend, David Mack, a flamboyant and streetwise L.A.P.D.
officer who had served in Rampart and was a close friend of Rafael Perez.
Investigators soon learned that Mack and Perez had gone to Las Vegas
to celebrate together two days after the robbery. They were old friends
from pre-Rampart days, when they worked narcotics detail. Perez told investigators
that, while he knew nothing about the robbery, he looked up to Mack. The
older officer, he claimed, had once saved his life by shooting a drug dealer
who had pulled a gun on Perez. Police investigators weren't sure if the
story was true; two eyewitnesses claimed that Mack shot the drug dealer
without provocation, but an L.A.P.D. inquiry found the shooting justifiable.
On March 17, 1999, the 39-year-old Mack was convicted on federal charges
of bank robbery and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Because of her cooperation,
Romero received a sentence of only two and a half years. But the stolen
money has never been recovered and neither the other robber nor the driver
of the getaway van have been identified. Investigators thought that Perez
might have been the driver, but they had no evidence to prove it.
The second event occurred the night of Feb. 26, 1998, when two Rampart
Crash officers detained a young gang suspect. As another L.A.P.D. disciplinary
board reconstructed events, Officer Brian Hewitt entered an interview room
in the Rampart substation and choked and beat the suspect until he vomited
blood. When the gang member was released, he checked into a hospital and
reported the incident. Chief Parks ordered that administrative charges
be brought against Hewitt and two other officers accused of not reporting
the incident. Hewitt and one of the officers were fired.
A month later, officers in the L.A.P.D.'s property division, which is
responsible for storing evidence and impounded goods, discovered that six
pounds of cocaine had been checked out for a court appearance and never
returned. The officer who had signed for the cocaine was Rafael Perez.
When officers from internal affairs discovered that the case Perez had
obtained the cocaine for had already been adjudicated, a full-scale, secret
investigation was launched. It revealed that Perez had checked out cocaine
in other cases, including some in which he had not even been involved.
For weeks, internal affairs shadowed Perez, tracking his movements and
gathering evidence. Then, in the early-morning hours of Aug. 25, 1998,
police officers descended on his house with sirens blaring and led him
away in handcuffs as startled neighbors, who had been led to believe that
Perez was a wealthy contractor, watched in disbelief. He was arrested and
tried in December 1998 for possession of cocaine for sale, grand theft
and forgery. The jury deadlocked, though the vote was 8-4 for conviction.
While Perez was awaiting retrial, investigators examining his financial
records found unexplained deposits. They also learned that he had remodeled
his home extensively -- all on a police officer's $58,000 base salary.
Playing hardball, prosecutors threatened to file charges against Perez's
wife, a civilian employee of the L.A.P.D. whom they claimed knew of his
illegal activities. With a young daughter at home, Perez didn't want to
run the risk that his wife might end up in jail. He decided to cut a deal.
On Sept. 8, 1999, Perez's lawyer, Winston Kevin McKesson, a protege
of Johnnie Cochran Jr., negotiated an agreement in which his client promised
to expose misconduct within Rampart Crash in exchange for a five-year prison
sentence, immunity from further prosecution and total immunity for his
wife. With time off for good behavior, Perez faces only 16 months behind
bars, most of it in a secure Los Angeles jail rather than the harsher confines
of a state prison. District Attorney Garcetti realized that this was a
sweet deal for Perez, but he had been told by the officer's lawyer that
an innocent man was serving 23 years in prison for a crime he hadn't committed.
So Garcetti agreed to the deal, and Perez began talking. What he had to
say in more than 50 hours of interrogation shocked even the hardened L.A.P.D.
detectives who interviewed him.
hen the investigators asked Perez
about the cocaine thefts that had ultimately led them to him, the Crash
officer told them that he had started dealing drugs in 1997. That year,
he and Durden had arrested a suspect and found a bag containing a pound
of powder cocaine. They kept the drugs -- along with the suspect's pager.
When the pager went off, Perez pretended to be a dealer and took an order
for a quarter-pound of cocaine. According to Perez, the officers went out
to make the arrest, but Durden said: " 'Screw it. Let's just sell to him.'
And I completely agreed."
The two men kept the pager and made two more deals, netting $10,000.
Perez then turned his attention to the police evidence lockers, which promised
a much richer drug harvest. While Perez pleaded guilty to stealing the
eight pounds of cocaine, police investigators say it is very likely that
he took more, for some of the drugs he checked out and then returned had
been destroyed by the time of the plea agreement.
On the topic of the framings, Perez told investigators that in Rampart
Crash it was commonplace to set up gang members on weapons and drug charges.
He added that such tactics had the approval of his commanding officer,
Sgt. Edward Ortiz, who is due to stand trial. "Ortiz was the heart, and
we were the arteries," Perez said. "Ortiz had the final say-so on everything."
In his interviews with police investigators, Perez made clear that he
saw nothing wrong with setting up gang members. "These guys don't play
by the rules; we don't have to play by the rules," Perez said. "They're
out there committing murders and then they intimidate the witnesses, so
the witnesses don't show up in court. So they're getting away with murder
As Perez saw it, he was evening the score. "When I planted a case on
someone, did I feel bad?" he asked. "Not once. I felt good. I felt, you
know, I'm taking this guy off the streets."
One of the suspects Perez helped frame was Rafael Zambrano. In Perez's
account, a group of Crash officers invaded a gang party and ordered everyone
in attendance to their knees. Brian Hewitt, the officer who would later
be fired for beating a gang member in the substation, marched back and
forth, arbitrarily singling out gang members and telling other officers
the false charges on which to book them. Zambrano was charged with possession
of a gun; he pleaded guilty to avoid a longer sentence and served 16 months
Perez and his accomplices did not stop at false imprisonment. They also
shot unarmed people, then made up stories to justify the shootings. Running
after a group of gang members in 1996, Crash officers opened fire, hitting
Juan Saldana, 21, in the chest and back. Instead of calling an ambulance,
the officers planted a gun alongside Saldana and calmly concocted a story
to tell their superiors. By the time an ambulance arrived, it was too late
for Saldana, who died soon after being taken to a hospital. Afterward,
the officers celebrated at the Short Stop, a sports bar near Dodger Stadium.
Such celebrations became frequent in Rampart Crash, where officer-involved
shootings leaped from three in 1995 to a dozen in 1996.
f all Perez's confessions, however,
the Ovando shooting was the most disturbing to investigators. The truth
of the Ovando case emerged bit by bit in the questioning of Perez by police
investigators and Deputy District Attorney Richard Rosenthal. At first,
Perez said Ovando had entered the observation room and was shot by Durden.
Perez hadn't seen a gun on Ovando, but his view had been blocked by Durden;
he said he moved to one side and fired immediately, hitting Ovando.
This story didn't ring true to the investigators, who questioned Ovando
and then tracked down his friend Nene, whose real name is Alex Macias.
Though the two men had not seen each other since the day Ovando was shot,
they told identical stories about events prior to the shooting.
Ovando, Macias and Valenzuela had been camping out in the vacant building
where the shooting took place. On Oct. 11, the day before the incident,
they were rousted by Perez and Durden and ordered to leave. They waited
in a nearby building until Perez and Durden had left and then returned
to spend the night. The next day, while Valenzuela was away, Ovando and
Macias were rousted again, handcuffed and led once more into the dark room
the officers were using as an observation post. Perez told Macias to go
and said that Ovando would soon follow. Macias did not think Ovando was
in danger. As Macias and Valenzuela were talking outside the building,
they heard shots, just as she had told Toister.
When detectives presented Perez with this account, his memory improved.
His new version was that he had heard voices outside the observation room
and turned in time to see Durden shoot Ovando. Perez then fired three times.
Durden, now awaiting trial, has yet to tell his story, but defense lawyers
for other indicted Crash officers question Perez's claim that he shot reflexively.
A more malign explanation, as yet untested in court, is that Perez tried
to finish off Ovando so that there would be no witness to the crime. The
motive for the shooting remains a mystery. Ovando told me that he thinks
that he was handcuffed when he was shot and that he still has no idea why
the officers shot him. He agrees with Perez on the crucial point that Durden
Perez was most explicit in describing how Ovando had been framed. A
few days earlier, Perez said that Durden had taken the Tec-22 semiautomatic
from a gang member. Durden had filed off the serial number so it could
be used as a "throwaway" gun in emergencies. This was one of them. After
the Ovando shooting, Perez said, Durden took the gun from his backpack,
wiped it clean of fingerprints with a rag and placed it next to Ovando.
Perez said he remembered the backpack because he had kidded Durden when
it became tangled in the fence the two officers scaled to enter the building.
Oddly, the fence that had aroused Toister's suspicions was one of the
few matters on which Perez had been accurate. The rest of his testimony
was a series of lies, and the theory that Ovando was a gang assassin a
total invention. When Toister learned of the frame-up, she said that she
also felt like a victim. Judge Czuleger, who had prevented her cross-examination
of Perez and Durden, apologized to the public defender. In an interview,
Czuleger told me that he was shocked by the injustice that had occurred
in his court. "It was," he said, "the worst day of my judicial career."
But it was worse for Ovando, who spent three years in prison and remains
or Bernard Parks, the 56-year-old
Chief Of Police, Sept. 15, 1999, started well. That morning, he had presided
at a ceremony honoring 18 officers who were being awarded the department's
coveted medal of valor. A few hours later, Parks received a phone call
that banished his good mood. It was from the district attorney's office,
and it was about Rafael Perez. At a hastily called news conference that
afternoon, Parks announced the first confessions of this rogue cop.
Rampart was another challenge in what, for Parks, had already been a
bumpy ride as chief. A hardened 35-year L.A.P.D. veteran, Parks joined
the force in 1965 and worked his way up through the ranks at a time when
it was difficult for an African-American to rise above sergeant. In 1997,
with the support of reformers who wanted to restrain L.A.P.D. excesses
and officers who wanted the department to be run by one of its own, Parks
was named police chief by Mayor Richard Riordan.
His honeymoon was short. Early on, he alienated rank-and-file officers
with an order requiring investigation of every citizen complaint against
a police officer. Complaints soared, and the Police Protective League,
the police union, said officers were getting bogged down in paperwork.
Too bad, said Parks, who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. The
complaint system, he observed, was intended to serve the public, not the
Parks responded to the Rampart scandal with similar vigor. The day after
the news conference, he had Javier Ovando flown from a prison in Salinas,
Calif., to Los Angeles, where he was able to meet his 2 1/2-year-old daughter,
Destiny, for the first time. Parks also named a board of inquiry that produced
a thoughtful report critical of the lack of supervision in Rampart Crash.
The police chief then disbanded all the department's Crash units and replaced
them with antigang squads that have tighter supervision.
hile Rampart started as a police
scandal, it has rapidly exposed deep flaws in the entire Los Angeles County
According to Michael Judge, the city's chief public defender, "The criminal-justice
system in Los Angeles County is seriously out of balance." Corrupt police
officers have been protected by laws, ballot initiatives and court decisions
that have tipped the scale against defendants. "Taken together, these changes
in the criminal justice system have made it easier for police to lie and
get away with it," said Harland Braun, a defense attorney who represents
Michael Buchanan, one of the Rampart officers about to go on trial.
California's "three strikes" law, one of the nation's toughest, has
played a special role. The law carries a 25-years-to-life sentence. To
avoid being subjected to "three strikes," many defendants plead guilty.
Guilty pleas, in turn, reduce the chances of police officers getting caught
in lies. "Police officers aren't stupid," said Judge. "They know that less
than 5 percent of felony cases come to trial. So the odds are very good
they won't face cross-examination on what is in their report."
In those cases when Crash officers were compelled to testify, they were
often helped along by Los Angeles County judges. In an astonishing number
of Crash cases, these judges showed an almost total lack of skepticism
about whether the officers had made legitimate arrests. The L.A.P.D. Board
of Inquiry report on the Rampart scandal cites a case in which members
of Rampart Crash searched the cars of people attending a gang member's
funeral. Drugs were found in one vehicle, and the driver was tried and
convicted. Commenting on this case, Dan Koenig, the L.A.P.D. commander
who wrote the board of inquiry report, asked, "Where is the probable cause
in a case like this?"
Five Los Angeles County judges interviewed for this article said that
they have presided over trials in which they suspected police officers
of lying. "When police officers lie, it's usually about probable cause,"
said Judge Czuleger, who handled the Ovando trial. But another veteran
judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "An officer who will lie
about probable cause will lie about anything."
A Los Angeles judge with long experience, who also insisted that he
not be named, believes that judges were perhaps unwittingly complicit in
the Rampart scandal. "It's said we need to change the police culture, and
that's absolutely necessary," he remarked. "But we have to change the judicial
culture too. The judicial culture is hostile to the defense. You'll hear
judges talking at lunch about some stupid thing a defense attorney did
-- they rarely talk that way about a prosecutor. I don't think they're
aware how biased they sound."
Judges are also under tremendous pressure to keep their jobs. "If a
judge is labeled soft on crime, it's a sure ticket to no longer being a
judge," said McKesson, Perez's lawyer. A judge who doesn't seem tough enough
can pretty much expect an election challenge from an ambitious prosecutor,
a daunting prospect in Los Angeles County, where even a bare-bones campaign
can cost $100,000.
Taken together, these forces have conspired to create a situation in
which there is a presumption of guilt, especially for gang members. Those
who have tried to go against this trend have met with little success --
or worse. In 1997, Michael Kraut, a deputy district attorney, refused to
prosecute a Perez arrest because he thought the Crash officer was lying.
As a result, he was publicly criticized by his boss, Garcetti, and other
deputies in the district attorney's office.
In 1995, Evan Freed, a deputy city attorney, grew concerned about the
truthfulness of charges being brought against a young African-American
man accused of carrying a concealed weapon after an alleged burglary. As
a result of inconsistencies in the reports of Edward Ruiz and Jon Paul
Taylor, officers in the L.A.P.D.'s 77th Street Division, Freed urged that
charges be dismissed against the man, who had no criminal record. Judge
Kenneth Chotiner agreed, praising the attorney. A few months later, Freed
was fired by the city attorney for supposed professional weaknesses that
included "deference to statements made by defense witnesses, recommending
unreasonably low sentences and [a] low conviction rate."
The behavior of the officers in this case gnawed at Chotiner, who discussed
it with a civil rights lawyer, who in turn reported it to the U.S. attorney.
An F.B.I. investigation confirmed the suspicions of judge and prosecutor
-- the defendant was innocent, he had no weapon and there had never been
a burglary in the first place. The case took five years to play out. In
August, Ruiz and Taylor pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of
the man they had falsely accused. They are awaiting sentencing. Judge Chotiner
believes that the Ruiz-Taylor case and the Rampart scandal suggest the
need for "a thorough citywide investigation to see if such actions are
he citizens of Los Angeles are
not blameless. What distinguishes this scandal from other Los Angeles police
scandals is not just its scale (massive) but the sheer lack of public outcry
in response to it. The muted reaction may have something to do with the
fact that, unlike the Rodney King beating and the assault on the truck
driver Reginald Denny during the 1992 riots, the Ovando shooting was not
especially suited for TV. Nonetheless, the story has received vigorous
coverage from The Los Angeles Times and weekly newspapers -- and still
people remain relatively unperturbed over police abuses.
In interviews in the Rampart area this summer, I found residents far
more worried about emboldened gangs than police misconduct. Residents say
that officers, now concerned about being perceived as overly aggressive,
too often cruise down the street in their patrol cars -- a practice known
within the L.A.P.D. as drive and wave -- instead of engaging in aggressive
policing. "People have to make a choice, and most residents fear the gangs
more than the police," said Gregory Rodriguez, a Latino writer who until
recently lived on the edge of Rampart, where freshly painted graffiti attest
to the resurgence of gangs. Violent crime is up 9 percent this year in
poor neighborhoods after years of decline. Gang-related homicides are up
116 percent. Arrests and field interviews of suspected criminals are down.
The predominantly Latino community of Rampart has been supportive of
the L.A.P.D. "One reason the Rampart case hasn't produced the public outcry
of the King case is that this is not a case with white officers and a black
victim," noted Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law
professor who has reviewed the L.A.P.D.'s Rampart inquiry for the Police
Protective League. A 1997 poll by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles
at Loyola Marymount University found that Latinos had higher regard for
the police than any ethnic group; blacks had the least. After the Perez
disclosures, police supporters staged a well-attended pro-Rampart rally;
a protest rally scheduled for the following day never came off.
But the main reason for a noticeable lack of outrage may simply be that
Angelenos of all ethnicities tacitly condone harsh measures to suppress
the gangs. "For a long time, there's been a wink and a nod," said Gary
Fullerton, a former L.A.P.D. detective and a lawyer. "That's why we have
a war on crime. The people want the criminals caught. The chief wants them
caught. The supervisors of the officers want them caught. The politicians
want them caught. It's the system. But when something happens, it's the
officer. The system goes all out to get him."
ut the most immediate victim of
the Rampart scandal is not likely to be a police officer but Gil Garcetti,
the hard-hitting district attorney who made a point of prosecuting gangs.
Garcetti, who is up for re-election next month, lags far behind in the
polls to his head deputy, Stephen Cooley. Garcetti could find himself in
even worse shape if he loses what he acknowledges will be difficult prosecutions
of the four Rampart officers: Sgt. Edward Ortiz and Sgt. Brian Liddy and
Officers Paul Harper and Michael Buchanan.
Perez will be the principal prosecution witness in these trials. Harland
Braun says that Garcetti struck "a Faustian bargain" with Perez, who "knowingly
framed innocent civilians and is now trying to frame innocent cops." On
the first point, at least, Braun is persuasive. Instead of arresting gang
kingpins, Perez focused his energies on minor gang members like Ovando,
described by a prosecution source as "little more than a gang mascot."
Amazingly, no one who was framed by Perez and had his conviction set aside
has been arrested again.
Speaking in his 18th-floor office with a soaring view of downtown, Garcetti
concedes Perez made "mistakes" in some of his recollections. Perez also
flunked five polygraph tests. A judge has ruled that this information will
be admissible in the trial of the officers because Perez took the tests
as a condition of his plea agreement. "Perez is who he is," Garcetti said
philosophically in an interview. "He's a liar. He tells the truth, too,
but can you tell when he's telling the truth and when he's not telling
the truth? That's why it's important for us to corroborate what he is telling.
If we can't corroborate what he is telling us, then you don't have a criminal
Unlike Garcetti, Bernard Parks, the chief of police, isn't an elected
official, but he is also on the defensive. Parks has been faulted on every
aspect of the Rampart scandal -- for reacting too slowly and for overreacting,
for disciplining officers who were only marginally involved and for not
disciplining enough. He is engaged in a running battle with The Los Angeles
Times, which he accused on the L.A.P.D. Web site of waging "a holy jihad
against this department."
Parks expresses frustration at receiving so little credit for reforming
an "unhealthy" department. "We have not gotten the best balanced reporting
from our local press," he told me as he sat at a table in his memorabilia-filled
office. "Most people are not aware that the Los Angeles Police Department
found the misconduct and immediately took action."
Parks went on. "In three years, although people say the civil-service
system is very difficult to work with, we have disciplined over 800 officers
and terminated 113," he said in measured tones. "We have had 200 officers
leave the department while being investigated. We have had a number of
officers that we refused to promote because of their prior disciplinary
Parks's frustration is likely to grow, for his actions, however impressive,
have done little to mollify his critics. Relations between the chief and
the rank and file are rocky. A Police Protective League official claims
that Parks has tried to "reform by fear." A prosecutor compares Parks's
relationship with his officers to a strict parent who raises obedient children
who grow up seething with rage. Command officers are also in quiet rebellion.
The L.A.P.D. board of rights, composed primarily of captains, fired only
3 of the 14 officers whom Parks sought to discipline in the Rampart scandal.
Fifty-one other Rampart officers remain under investigation, but it seems
very unlikely that any will be disciplined based on accusations by Perez.
Critics of the L.A.P.D. are angry that Parks has not opened up the force
to civilian oversight. According to David Smith, the police captain, the
chief's attitude typifies "the arrogance of power that afflicts L.A.P.D.
leadership." Jeffrey Eglash, the city's inspector general, is frustrated
the L.A.P.D. has not been more willing to let the public play a role in
minding the police force. "It is unfortunate that the department seems
to view the inspector general's office as an adversary when a cooperative
and constructive relationship would better serve the L.A.P.D. and the city,"
The city has been hit by a barrage of civil rights lawsuits -- 68 at
last count, and growing -- arising from the scandal. James Hahn, the city
attorney, has estimated this could cost the city at least $125 million.
With the city's recent acceptance of the consent decree, though, the
focus now is less on the lawsuits than on reforms that can be accomplished
with federal oversight. The decree, administered by a federal judge, has
the potential to bring about many of the changes proposed by the Christopher
Commission after the beating of Rodney King. It will require the L.A.P.D.
to conduct computerized tracking of officers with a history of misconduct.
It will monitor arrests to see if officers are using racial profiling.
The consent decree will also expand the public's access to information
about L.A.P.D. operations.
Parks, for his part, has promised he will carry out the decree, which
is aimed at rooting out corruption and ending what the Justice Department
has called a "pattern or practice" of civil rights infringements. "We are
now committed," Parks told reporters late last month. "We are not going
to drag our feet."
Still, the chief may have heeded the call too late. "If Bernie had embraced
civilian oversight, he'd be a hero, but he just can't do it," said Katherine
Mader, the city's first inspector general and now a deputy district attorney
who has just been elected judge. "He's like a figure in a Greek tragedy
in which his need for total control is his fatal flaw." The same might
be said for Mayor Riordan, who fought tooth and nail against the decree
and now seems likely to claim it as part of his political legacy. Riordan's
surrender is an acknowledgment that control of the L.A.P.D. has slipped
away from both the mayor and the chief.
hile the Los Angeles Police Department
has always relied on aggressive policing, it has rarely been corrupt. This
is largely the legacy of William Parker, who led the force from 1950 to
1968. During his tenure, Parker remodeled the department in his stern image,
making corruption a firing offense. He also made the L.A.P.D. a political
power, saying "the future of America may well rest in the police."
Rafael Perez was never really part of that culture. Unlike most L.A.P.D.
officers, he came from out of state and was recruited at a time when the
department, in the opinion of Commander Koenig, was relying too heavily
on telephone interviews and not doing a good enough job screening candidates.
distinguishes the Rampart scandal from other Los Angeles police scandals
is not just its scale but the sheer lack of public outcry in response to
Perez's ethnicity also set him apart. "There aren't many Puerto Ricans
in Los Angeles, let alone the L.A.P.D," said McKesson, who is black and
was raised in South Central Los Angeles. "The Puerto Rican culture is closer
to African-American culture in some ways than it is to Latino culture in
Los Angeles." The lawyer believes that Perez never felt comfortable in
his adopted home. Within the department, his closest friends, including
Durden and Mack, were African-Americans.
To many of those who worked with him, Perez remains a mystery. "When
he wanted to be Latino, he was Rafael," said Officer Ethan Cohan, a former
colleague in Crash. "When he wanted to be black, he was Rafe." During an
early interrogation after he became an informant, Perez was asked if he
wanted to be addressed as Rafael. "Call me Ray," he responded.
Perez's criminal history is equally murky. It is unclear, for example,
when he went bad. Esaw Booker, whom Perez arrested in 1992 for cocaine
possession and whose conviction has since been overturned, has claimed
that he was framed by Perez and other officers. What's potentially important
about Booker's account is that it dates from when Perez was working with
Mack in the narcotics unit -- years before he entered Rampart.
While it's not clear when Perez first broke the law, there's no doubt
that he, like his friend David Mack, enjoyed the dual role of criminal
and cop. One Rampart officer, who declined to be named, told me that Perez
spoke admiringly of a book, "Point Blank," about corruption in the New
York Police Department; it includes a chapter relating how cocaine seized
in the famous French Connection case disappeared from a property room and
was replaced with bags of flour.
Perez, not surprisingly, claims that it was the aggressive L.A.P.D.
culture itself that corrupted him. In a tearful statement at his sentencing
earlier this year, Perez said he had become consumed by the "us-against-them
ethos of the overzealous cop" after he transferred to Rampart Crash. His
was a cautionary tale. "My job became an intoxicant that I lusted after,"
he said. "I began to lust also for things of the flesh. The end result:
I cheated on my wife, I cheated on my employers and I cheated on all of
you, the people of Los Angeles." Perez warned rookie officers not to be
seduced by the "pressure of status, numbers and impressing supervisors"
or by "flip, awful statements" like the one that appeared over the door
of Rampart Crash, "We intimidate those who intimidate others."
"To those mottoes, I offer this," Perez concluded. "Whoever chases monsters
should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself."
Monster or not, Perez has had a deeper impact on the L.A.P.D. than any
other officer in its acclaimed and troubled history -- even more than the
officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. While the King incident
was a public relations disaster, many officers dismissed it as an isolated
incident that occurred at the distant fringes of Los Angeles. Rampart is
in the heart of the city, and it is the division where many officers prove
themselves. The crimes described by Perez involved both blatant frame-ups
and corruption and demonstrate that there are fundamental problems at the
core of the L.A.P.D.
"Things need to be fixed," says Javier Ovando, the Rampart scandal's
most famous victim. The fixing will now be done at the direction of a federal
judge. Rafael Perez has guaranteed that power in Los Angeles will no longer
remain in the hands of the police.