Thirty African-American community activists crowded into a small room in Nickerson Gardens, the Watts housing project where street gangs long have fought and forged peace treaties, to meet the attorney general of the United States on Thursday night.
Attorney General Eric Holder strode into the packed room along with police chief William Bratton, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and council member Janice Hahn. Unknown to the audience, the officials were privately pleased by the end of a federal court’s monitoring of LAPD reforms, which would be announced the following day.
The people of Watts were not so sure.
The first speaker was Noreen McClendon, a longtime community leader who spoke passionately about the importance of employing OG’s (former gang members) in bringing peace to Watts. She segued into a defense of the imprisoned Alex Sanchez, a founder of Homies Unidos, who was indicted the previous week by Holder’s own Justice Department.
It was important, McClendon said, for the federal government to stop the Bush administration tactics of “infiltrating the community and disrupting positive programs.” She then presented the attorney general with a folder of information on Alex Sanchez “which he graciously accepted,” according to a witness. “This made Bratton, Hahn and the Mayor very nervous,” the source added.
Hundreds of residents, clergy, and civil rights leaders–including the former head of the FBI Los Angeles office–are demanding bail for Sanchez, who they believe is the target of over-zealous prosecutors and police.
It’s a case of sweet revenge for the LAPD, seeing Sanchez locked up in the same week that the federal consent decree was lifted by US Judge Gary Feess. Sanchez, a former gang member turned peacemaker, was targeted by the LAPD a decade ago in the Rampart scandal. Rampart was the Pico-Union police precinct where antigang units routinely planted evidence, harassed, beat and jailed young immigrants in the streets.
The consent decree, based on a pattern and practice of police misconduct, never focused on the origins of the scandal in the gang wars. Instead, its focus became racial profiling, use of force and the LAPD’s culture of impunity. Over 100 reform measures were required by the court order, most of which were implemented.
In recognition of the Rampart scandal’s roots in unconstitutional gang sweeps like the one which resulted in Sanchez’s indictment, the federal judge this week added a new requirement to the transition from federal to local control. “Recalling that the consent decree started with abuses committed by gang suppression units, the judge ordered the [police] commission to report on any potential problems in the units,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The judge’s late amendment thus establishes a new forum for community grievances against the LAPD’s most secretive practices by its gang suppression operatives. The Sanchez case is certain to reveal the use of informants, who often provide incriminating evidence in exchange for lesser sentences, and the behavior of at least one LAPD officer, Frank Flores, who was involved in wiretaps.
The consent decree was not lifted in entirety but replaced by a transitional agreement transferring powers to the local police commission to oversee charges of racial profiling, ensure that patrol vehicles have video cameras to record all stops, monitor “problem officers” and prevent corruption when cash and drugs are seized from suspects. The monitoring of antigang units is the newest mandate for the commission.
A recent Harvard study, requested by Bratton, concluded that the LAPD has become more aggressive in its approach to less-serious crimes by youth, especially across the inner city. There are 395 arrests per day in Los Angeles, the vast majority for what the Harvard authors call “minor crimes.” The report notes that the number of juveniles arrested for Part Two (minor) offenses is twice what it was in 1990. 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 study also found a “troubling pattern” in the disproportionate use of force against blacks and Hispanics.
Whether these underlying problems will be addressed effectively by the local police commission is problematic. Unlike a judicial chamber, the commission process is open to the public airing of citizen grievances. But the commission and its inspector general lack the independent investigative powers of a federal judge. That’s why the Justice Department intervened in the first place.