Retaliation is so integral to LAPD culture that judicial notice of its role is in order. –Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, Rampart Reconsidered, 2007
Last week’s arrest of Alex Sanchez on gang conspiracy charges raises fundamental questions about whether the Los Angeles Police Department has reformed itself, or whether extralegal tactics are still being employed on the streets of the underclass.
The question is extremely pertinent as a federal judge, Gary Feess, ponders lifting the consent decree imposed on the LAPD in 2000 in the wake of the Rampart scandal. Chief William Bratton, the Los Angeles Times and many city leaders are proclaiming the department reformed, and campaigning for an end to the federal oversight.
A compromise being floated would be to transfer oversight authority from the current court-appointed monitor back to the LAPD’s own inspector general, a watchdog which is considerably weaker than the federal monitor. As a blue-ribbon commission concluded in its 2007 Rampart Reconsidered report, “the federal court is the only entity with the independence, power and sustained focus capable of ensuring that the City and LAPD maintain current reform efforts.” The LAPD inspector general, they concluded, needs greater independence from the department.
The LAPD has managed to fight off an effective independent watchdog since the Watts riots of 1965. Despite subsequent scandals, riots and blue-ribbon commissions, the department has yielded only gradual reforms, and never any real power.
But the arrest of Sanchez, carried out by antigang units of the FBI and LAPD at dawn on June 24 after a secret three-year investigation, reopens the question of whether reform has been successful. The case revives the very controversies that lay at the root of the 1999-2002 Rampart scandal, and that exposed patterns of extreme misconduct ranging from planting evidence to beating and shooting innocent people. As a result, 100 criminal cases were dismissed as corrupted by police misconduct, and $90 million in taxpayer funds were spent to settle civilian lawsuits. The Justice Department intervened, and the city and LAPD finally agreed to court-monitored reforms to avoid a jury trial.
Back in 1999 the LAPD antigang units argued, as they do today, that Alex Sanchez was a secret leader of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) while posing as a peacemaker in the streets. The argument failed to persuade US Attorney Alejandro Mayorkis, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler or immigration Judge Rose Peters. A national movement demanded that Sanchez be freed on bail. Eventually Sanchez was cleared of all charges and was granted political asylum, the first time an ex-gang member was ever awarded such protection.
Sanchez readily admitted he was a former member of MS-13 with tattoos to prove it, and plunged into building Homies Unidos, a network struggling to prevent gang violence and to turn young lives around. His work necessarily meant direct dialogue with MS members and rivals in the 18th Street gang, both of which had exploded in Los Angeles among refugees from Central America’s civil wars.