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.

Since the peace work was extremely hazardous, efforts were made to provide Sanchez and other urban peacemakers with a license to operate from both police and gangs themselves, steps which bloomed into a movement to recognize, professionalize and subsidize the ranks of so-called gang intervention workers in Los Angeles. Such efforts paid off in increased political support, grudging acceptance from the LAPD, over $20 million in city funding and the hiring of over 100 former gang members by the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Alex himself became a revered symbol of hope among thousands of young people. He developed his own “epiphany” project, a self-help transformation program that convinced young people to remove their tattoos, get an education and a job. He stepped in to quash rumors on the street, testified in trials as an expert witness, was interviewed repeatedly and spoke on college campuses and before United Nations panels. At age 27, he was defined as the improbable hero who beat the system. He was a thorn in the side of the LAPD, however, with many in law enforcement remaining skeptical that former gangbangers could be part of the solution. Among them were elements of the LAPD who sought retaliation, a function “so integral to the LAPD culture that judicial notice of its role is in order,” according to the voluminous, million-dollar Rampart Reconsidered report.

In the past decade, the officially designated US wars on gangs and drugs exploded across borders. A 2005 Foreign Affairs article was headlined “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” as if Mara Salvatrucha ran the region. El Salvador, according to the analyst, had 10,000 “core” members and 20,000 “associates,” though in reality there were no such organizational categories. In January 2005, the FBI “quietly” created an MS-13 task force; the following year they commenced the three-year surveillance project that led to the dragnet indictment of Alex Sanchez and twenty-three others. In addition, the task force began informing Central American police of the identities of new deportees. The Foreign Affairs article, citing the LAPD as its recommended model, advised that police “should focus heavily on hard-core gang members who refuse to give up their criminal lives,” while also endorsing the idea that “unconvicted” gang members should be included in a nationwide database. Echoing the run-up to the Iraq War, the article reported the sighting of an Al Qaeda operative in Honduras and cited “rumors” of meetings between Al Qaeda and Central American gang members. Terrorists might soon be smuggled into the United States by gang members, according to the article.

The charges against Sanchez reflect a complete throwback to the pre-Rampart mentality–despite LAPD reforms and a new administration in the White House. In order to prove Alex Sanchez’s secret status as an MS-13 shot-caller, the federal prosecutors have introduced a photo showing gang tattoos on his chest, a poem by Sanchez found during a raid of someone’s house, a 1990 photo of a smiling Sanchez throwing gang signs during a Barrios Unidos conference in San Francisco, and a recent field investigation (FI) card filled out on Sanchez for hanging at night on a street corner (there was no warrant or arrest). Sanchez’s appointed attorney, Kerry Bensinger, called these charges laughable and weak.

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.

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.

The Beat Goes On

A May 2009 Harvard University study, requested by Bratton, contains relevant evidence on the continuing disparities in policing under the LA consent decree. While very favorable to the LAPD, the sixty-eight-page report never mentions gangs. It is more concerned with the question of whether the consent decree has undermined police work. The authors’ answer is no: reform and “law and order” go hand in hand.

A careful reading reveals the following:

•On the issue of non-categorical force (stun guns, bean bag shotguns, non-lethal use of force to gain compliance, etc.), there was a 17 percent increase in the LAPD’s Central Bureau between 2006 and 2009.

•”A troubling pattern in the use of force is that African Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, are subjects of the use of such force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD.”

•Stops by LAPD officers rose from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 in 2008, a jump of 49 percent. Total pedestrian stops doubled in six years while the number of vehicle stops rose 40 percent.

•The greatest increases in stops took place in gang territories, the Central, Southeast, Newton and Hollenbeck divisions. Times columnist Tim Rutten tries to explains this surge as “the department’s attempt to ensure that black and Latino Angelenos have equal access to public safety.” But as Rampart Reconsidered points out, these are the zones where the gloves are most likely to come off. The LAPD inspector general, Andre Birotte, said last year that “they are still beating heads” in South Central Los Angeles, while police violence had declined in the heavily monitored Rampart precinct.

•Hispanics were 43 percent of all persons stopped in 2002 and 48 percent in 2008. Blacks made up 36 percent of all pedestrians stopped.

•Between 2002 and 2008, the likelihood of arrest “nearly doubled” for both pedestrians and car stops. The total number of LAPD arrests increased 18 percent from 2002 to 2008, from 147,605 to 173,742.

•Part One index crime offenses (non-negligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, car theft) declined to 15 percent of all LAPD arrests in 2007.

•”Steep increases” in arrests occurred in so-called Part Two (less serious) offenses such as disorderly conduct, prostitution, DUI, etc.

•In conclusion, “these steep increases in Part Two arrests represent police management decisions to use arrest powers more aggressively for less serious crimes.” This leads to 395 arrests per day in Los Angeles, including ninety-eight drug arrests, plus another 298 arrests per day for what the Harvard report deems “minor crimes.”

This innocuously phrased conclusion should set off alarm bells among decision-makers. The LAPD’s choice to crack down on at-risk underclass youth for minor infractions means the department is setting social policy. “The number of juveniles arrested for Part Two offenses…is about twice what it was in 1990.” Instead of funding youth programs like sports, tutoring, training, therapy, drug treatment and decent jobs, the paramount policy in the inner city is aggressive policing for the purposes of containment and populating the database. According to city figures, last year there were 93,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who were out of work and out of school. Aggressive policing without alternatives only aggravates their alienation. These are the neighborhoods where Alex Sanchez grew up.

As an example, two months ago, the LAPD made out a field investigation card on Alex Sanchez for simply standing on a street corner; the FI card made its way into the prosecution’s argument that Alex was leading a large racketeering organization. All is fair, apparently, in the war on gangs.

Rampart Reconsidered concluded:

In the most dangerous neighborhoods, children test at civil war levels for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Incarceration rates in these poorest communities are high. And with no rehabilitation, two-thirds will fail the parole gauntlet and return to prison–repeatedly. Not that there are many jobs anyway. The economy in these areas is largely underground with much of it illegal.

Bratton’s policing doctrine places a primary emphasis on numbers of stops, frisks and arrests, creating a further pressure on cops to pick up stray youth to meet their quotas. Police officers interviewed for Rampart Reconsidered emphasized the need to increase “the arrest numbers they believe are needed for promotion.” That meant numbers in the inner city, not among Westside youth.

Code of Silence Persists

While citizen complaints have fallen, according to the Harvard report, LAPD internal investigations upheld not one of 1,200 complaints of racial profiling between 2003 and 2008. Of 2,368 complaints of officer discourtesy, the LAPD sustained only 1.6 percent of them. Fully 85 percent of LAPD officers believe that most civilian complaints are “frivolous.”

The infamous code of silence has not been broken by the consent decree. Nor has the LAPD’s “doctrine of infallibility”, according to Rampart Reconsidered, which quoted one officer as saying “it gets to the point when we don’t even know when we’re lying anymore.”

These festering legacies could be resolved by an independent inspector general or a genuine civilian review commission, which the LAPD has opposed for three decades. The current Office of Inspector General (IG) was created only in 1996, and two the first IGs resigned in frustration. The office has gradually achieved “standing,” but only to speak, at the real decision-making meetings of the Use of Force Boards. “Adoption of the Inspector General’s recommendations and advice is optional and its formal powers are modest.” In a case involving police brutality, the IG cannot find the behavior “out of policy” unless it is “substantially” out of policy, a higher and undefinable standard. Moreover the IG “does not possess independent sources of routine information about Department practices,” cannot conduct independent or parallel investigations” and is forced to rely on information supplied by the department itself.

In conclusion, without the oversight of a federal judge and a consent decree road map, the system of police reform in Los Angeles will remain ad hoc, ineffective and even broken. The mayor, City Council, police commission and inspector general have lacked not only the political will but the mandate, the powers and the funding to perform independent oversight and enforcement. Beneath the layers of reform added to the department over three decades, it remains the fact that the police predominate in policing the police.

Whole generations of young people have been scarred by the police and by the criminal justice system in the process. Both the juvenile justice system and the state prisons–incarcerating over 150,000 people on any given day–have been placed under federal consent decrees for their unconstitutional abuses for years. Taxpayers have been hit with astronomical costs, usually hidden in undecipherable budgets. Using the available data from the state attorney general’s office, between 1997-98 and 2005-06, Los Angeles County taxpayers spent $101.8 billion on police, sheriffs, probation officers and jails. Throw in the prosecutors for another $2.4 million in the same years. Criminal justice budgets for Los Angeles County continued to rise every year between 1997-98 and 2005-06, from $4.4 billion to $6.3 billion. Statewide, criminal expenditures rose from $15.4 billion to $23.3 billion in the same period, for a total of $169 billion dollars, largely driven by incarceration rates in Los Angeles.

The odd thing about these budgetary numbers is that they rose over those eight years while crime kept going down. Before anyone leaps to credit either Bratton’s techniques or LAPD reform, a Harvard report footnote acknowledges that “rates of recorded crime decreased throughout the state of California as a whole in this period [the 1990s] by 48 percent.” While the number of recorded index crimes decreased 33.5 percent in Los Angeles between January 2003 and the end of 2008, there were sustained reductions in crime across the United States as well.

Long before Bratton became chief and before the Rampart scandal, gang slayings in South Los Angeles fell from 466 in 1992 to 223 by 1998. Drive-by shootings were down 27 percent citywide, and gang-related homicides by 36.7 percent compared to the previous five-year average. The Times gave partial credit to gang intervention workers in a 1998 article headlined “Ex-Gang Members Work to Bring Peace to the Streets,” at the very time Alex Sanchez was joining Homies Unidos. For whatever mix of reasons, gang homicides declined despite national rhetoric, from Reagan to Clinton, filled with warnings of a new generation of 6-year-olds who would become “superpredators.” Those predictions proved politically successful in justifying the war on gangs, but were simply false.

Bratton’s emphasis on using arrest powers “more aggressively for less serious crimes,” while popular with the public, shows little result in terms of the resources expended: ten years ago, gang-related crimes in Los Angeles totaled 7,053 incidents compared to 6,877 in 2008, a decline of 2 percent, or 183 incidents in a decade. The war on crime and gangs is not succeeding, or it is going to be a long war indeed.

The Numbers Game

A little-noticed police scandal is the danger of manipulating numbers when the police themselves are in charge of tabulating the results of their war. All the gang-homicide numbers are derived from officers on the scene. The term “gang-related,” used by the LAPD, is more elastic than the “gang-motivated” definition used in Chicago and other cities. A “gang-related” killing can be one in which someone is killed in a lover’s quarrel, or a liquor store is robbed, if one of the parties sports a tattoo. The number of “gang-related” crimes can rise or fall by making an accounting mistake or massaging the numbers. Just like fabricated evidence in a trial, numbers can be manufactured to create headlines about either crime scares or celebrations of crime declines, as the John Jay College researcher Andrew Karmen has shown. Karmen questioned the claims of Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York, writing that young men who had turned their lives around “were still treated indiscriminately as potentially dangerous persons by the NYPD,” a pattern that would repeat when Bratton came to Los Angeles. Both Bratton and Giuliani dismissed such questioning as coming from “intellectuals.”

The same arrogance has reappeared in Los Angeles. Bratton recently took to claiming that Los Angeles is “as safe as 1956,” an assertion sharply questioned by the dean of LA gang researchers, Malcolm Klein at the University of Southern California. Bratton replied: “That’s his opinion and what the hell do I care about his opinion. Nobody is listening to him anyway. I don’t know who he is, and if you walked down the street and asked the first 100 Angelenos do they know who he is, they’re not going to know.”

The most crucial step in police reform may be information reform. The federal court could order the city to contract with a reliable university-based research team to develop independent data on gang-related crime patterns in Los Angeles. The inspector general could be empowered to conduct independent or parallel investigations. In the current fog, police budgets go up automatically whether crime rates rise or fall, based on pre-set budget formulas that are mostly Xerox-based.

Alex Sanchez and the Globalization of Gangs

California now leads America, and America leads the world, in locking people up, holding an astonishing 25 percent of all inmates on earth. That’s more than any dictatorship, and rather resembles our disproportionate military budget, which vastly exceeds that of any comparable country. The war-on-gangs-and-drugs paradigm is being fused with the “war on terror” into a template for suppression-first policies without end. Despite these military expenditures, the globalization of gangs is proceeding apace, with street gangs mushrooming everywhere that neoliberal policies have left a hopeless underclass behind. The lack of real checks and balances guarantees that the voices of “law and order” will dominate the discourse. Ending the consent decree in Los Angeles, if it happens, will allow the LAPD to resume its antigang wars unmolested.

The epicenters of this new war are the border regions of the United States, Mexico and Central America, where Alex Sanchez comes from along with tens of thousands of immigrants who are deported and return again every year. To break the cycle, the paramilitary model of war will have to be replaced with a model that includes space for ex-gang members that want to help restore the communities they once ravaged. But the politics, for now, favor the police. The Alex Sanchez case will open a window into practices that police, politicians and the public have avoided or denied for a decade.