Has Bratton's LAPD Really Reformed? | The Nation


Has Bratton's LAPD Really Reformed?

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During the same bail hearing, the prosecutors also introduced an LAPD detective, Frank Flores, to testify that multiple federal wiretaps in 2006 included the voice of Sanchez saying "It's gonna be a war" as proof that he conspired to kill a hostile gang member in El Salvador in May 2006. Prosecutors supplied no copies of the tapes or transcripts as required under normal discovery procedures. There was no context or link provided between the recorded statement and the subsequent murder.

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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From a legal viewpoint, that evidence is thinner than someone on a Pritikin diet. Yet criminal charges of conspiring to violate federal racketeering laws remain on Sanchez, and bail was denied. He now sits in an isolation chamber in federal prison twenty-three hours a day. Such high-security cells have been denounced as cruel, inhuman and psychologically destabilizing by many human rights groups.

The Sanchez case recalls the statement by disgraced LAPD officer Rafael Perez that "I would say that 90 percent of officers that work CRASH, and not just Rampart CRASH, falsify a lot of information, they put cases on people." It also recalls the "thin blue line" policing denounced by the Rampart Reconsidered report and by other blue ribbon commissions going back two decades:

In low crime neighborhoods, the public enjoys relative safety and the absence of brutality. In the high crime hotspots of LA's underclass, the public receives crime suppression and violent containment:...persistent pretextual stops of residents, sweeping dragnets, repeated roundups, put down and prone out stops, random searches, constant questioning, entering names into the gang data base, photographing tattoos, ordering people off their porches...

There is no question that the LAPD has vastly improved its image since Chief Bratton took over in October 2002. Current approval ratings for the LAPD are 77 percent citywide, including 68 percent in the black community and 76 percent among Latinos. A recent Los Angeles Times op-ed headline implored "Set the LAPD Free," as if the cops were slaves and the judge was Pharaoh.

The changes were substantive, not simply symbolic. Bratton supported the consent decree and even served as a consultant on the process before becoming chief. Incidents of "categorical force" (use of a firearm, choke hold, head strike with a weapon, injuries requiring hospitalization) have declined over the past eight years--a good thing. The department became notably more interactive with the leadership of the black and Latino communities. Gang intervention workers gradually were brought in from the cold, though their acceptance by police varied from precinct to precinct and the LAPD was provided with no policy directive to cooperate with them.

But there continued to be another side to the LAPD, only occasionally revealed. When the LAPD's Metro unit abruptly stormed into a large immigrant rights assembly on May Day 2007, beating, gassing and using rubber bullets, even trampling on many in the media, for a brief moment it appeared that the "old" LAPD was back in full force, coupling overreaction with overkill. But the blossoming public relations problem was contained and framed as an "isolated" one--as if the huge paramilitary Metro unit had been overlooked in the march to reform. So powerful was the civic desire to believe in reform that the May Day episode gradually faded away. Yet it could not have been a clearer indication that the "old" LAPD lurked below the surface. In the aftermath, a deputy chief was removed and quickly retired, but none of the nineteen officers originally accused of using excessive force were fired.

The riot by Metro was a visible suggestion that the LAPD pursues a two-track approach, a velvet glove toward the public and an iron hand toward the underclass. Bratton privately calls those sympathetic to ex-gang members "thug huggers," while still endorsing the city's funding for gang intervention work. The analogy is a stretch, but the policy is akin to the Pentagon's effort to distinguish between "reconcilables" and "irreconcilables" on the battlefield. In defending these policies, Bratton often has spoken of "the head that needs to be cut off," street gangs as "much more of a national threat than the Mafia was" and a menace requiring "an internal war on terrorism." That perspective allows little, if any, police tolerance of constitutional rights of accused gang members. They are the new untouchables.

This policy is illustrated in the gang injunctions that blanket most of Los Angeles, and that are based on building secret databases and providing jail penalties for mere "association" or loitering between gang members, the use of cellphones, possession of alcohol, wearing of "gang attire" and other lifestyle crimes. The state Senate recently approved a bill to allow suspected gang members to remove themselves from the lists if they remain clean for five years. The measure is opposed by law enforcement and stalled in the Assembly.

The two-track approach by the LAPD arises from the nature of the federal consent decree itself, which says remarkably little about the gang issues that were at the center of the Rampart history. The CRASH units were dissolved and repackaged with more supervision. Otherwise the decree was based on a civil liberties model, not opposition to the "war on gangs" model. Based on a 1993 Congressional amendment to a tough-on-crime bill, the 191 mandates of the consent decree are aimed at "patterns and practices" which lead to constitutional violations. It is focused on racial profiling while the Rampart issues were about gang profiling. Similar to McCarthy-era laws, the consent decree provides little protection to gang members, who form the core of a new suspect class. The ACLU, in calling for the consent decree, looked only for plaintiffs who were clean, young inner-city youth without records, not young people with criminal records or immigrants like Sanchez who were the chief targets of CRASH policing.

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