Can you top this? seems to be the theme of the escalating police scandal in Los Angeles. What started as a story of corrupt cops now involves the Police Chief and District Attorney calling each other a liar, the Mayor calling them children, federal investigators learning that federal agencies are involved in collusion and mounting calls for an independent prosecutor, with no one knowing how to insure independence in a scandal that seems to touch everyone. What’s new is the realization that a decade of bipartisan law-and-order politics has created a new malignancy of police abuse from Los Angeles to New York. Police have used paramilitary tactics against an entire class of inner-city youth under the banner of a war on gangs and drugs. In their overkill against the underclass many cops have become gangsters and drug dealers themselves. It is time for a moral and political assessment of this quagmire in our cities.
LA’s Rampart Division scandal was discovered almost accidentally. None of the checks and balances–prosecutors, defense lawyers, police commission, the inspector general–detected or prevented a subculture of violent lawlessness in the LAPD’s anti-gang unit, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). It started to surface when a CRASH officer, Rafael Perez, was caught stealing and selling cocaine from the evidence room. He began spilling his guts in exchange for a lower sentence.
The story told by the officer was nothing new to the homeboys on the streets of Pico Union, East LA and South Central. But it stunned those citizens who, relying on television images of the “thin blue line” defending middle-class civilization, had blindly supported CRASH since its inception in 1979. Perez revealed that he and his partner shot an alleged teenage gang member, Javier Francisco Ovando, in the head, planted a gun on his body, then arrested him for threatening to kill them. When Perez’s story checked out, the wheelchair-bound Ovando was released, but that was only the beginning. It turned out that CRASH units engaged in self-recruitment like armed fraternities, “jumped in” (hazed) their own members and engaged in shooting, beating, framing, planting false evidence and turning immigrants over to the INS for immediate deportation and held awards parties at the police academy afterward. Like Ovando, some of these CRASH targets were never convicted of a crime. More than 3,000 convictions have been tainted by the dubious testimony of crooked cops, and the projected cost of lawsuits to the city is at least $200 million.
The CRASH scandal involves more than corrupt cops or police brutality against innocent people based on race. It is the inevitable result of gang profiling, a variant of racial profiling, a paramilitary-style counterintelligence program like those from an earlier era. Last year the LAPD campaigned to remove 2-inch plastic “homie” dolls from local stores on the grounds that they would motivate kids to join gangs. At the same time, an LAPD riot squad broke up a peaceful hip-hop concert at Venice Beach, arrested and prosecuted a young Asian woman for inciting the crowd and was eventually forced to drop all charges. The cost to taxpayers was $3 million. Few in mainstream society even noticed these outrages because they were aimed at a dehumanized enemy.
CRASH units routinely “jam” and strip homeboys on street corners, photograph their tattoos and arrest them for trivial offenses like loitering or warrant violation. A 1988 California antiterrorism law legalizes a dragnet approach to anyone who looks like a gang member. Any three of the following criteria are enough to classify a person as a “known” gang member, and any two define an “associate”: (1) admitting membership, (2) associating with gang members, (3) corresponding with gang members, (4) being identified by another police agency, (5) tattoos, (6) writing graffiti or (7) wearing “gang clothing.” According to the official LA coordinator of an interagency task force, “Only a very small portion of those arrested were actually hardcore gang members,” while an INS agent said the real target is a “whole race of people.”
The Los Angeles crisis is hardly an isolated one. In New York, for example, police have routinely stopped tens of thousands of blacks and Latinos on the basis of their profiles while actually arresting only a small percentage. The result of such dehumanization is evident in the obscene assault on Abner Louima and the sadistic killing of Amadou Diallo. Some 30,000 SWAT teams around the country are central to the emerging paramilitary culture in the law-enforcement establishment, a shadow police state for ghetto and barrio youth that would never be accepted in white suburbs. The routine collusion revealed in LA between CRASH and elements in the FBI and INS suggests that the “dirty war” is national in scope.
These repressive policies were given academic respectability by law-and-order intellectuals like James Q. Wilson, a key adviser to Mayor Riordan of Los Angeles and Mayor Giuliani of New York. In his book Thinking About Crime, Wilson denounces the liberal emphasis on root causes and approvingly quotes Princeton sociologist Norman Ryder’s warning of a “perennial invasion of barbarians [young people] who must somehow be civilized.”
By the nineties it had become the conventional wisdom that after thirty years of Great Society promises, the inner city was beyond repair by traditional liberal measures. Unemployment was left to the market, decaying schools to the budget cutters, and voters weary of liberalism turned to Republican mayors in our two largest cities. Riordan and Giuliani followed the whispered advice of consultants who cared only about soccer moms. Many white liberals were relieved at first, even enthusiastic at the emphasis on more police and fewer tattooed youth on the streets. Did they know that brutal abuses were being inflicted on minority young people so they could walk to Starbucks? Or were they in denial? Or did they consciously suspend their liberalism for a new and subtle brand of racism that accepted turning the police loose?
The LA liberal community was initially slow to respond to the Rampart scandal, in part because it was about police abuse of gang members rather than law-abiding persons of color. Then forceful calls for an independent outside prosecutor began to be heard. The question, Who will police the police? has rarely been raised so clearly. The Justice Department revealed that it has been secretly monitoring the LAPD since the O.J. Simpson verdict without making the results public. The FBI, and the INS itself, is investigating the INS on charges that it colluded with the police. LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti is blaming the LAPD’s failure to cooperate for his slowness to act. Police Chief Bernard Parks calls Garcetti a liar and insists that the department investigate itself without the DA and turn the findings over to the Feds. After months of silence, the Mayor-appointed police commission has announced plans for its own investigation. Riordan has remained invisible, and the City Council has finally awakened to the public dialogue after prompting by the Los Angeles Times.
The incapacity of Los Angeles to wash its dirty linen is shown by the history of police-reform efforts going back to the McCone Commission of 1965, the Christopher Commission of 1991 and the post-Christopher review of 1997. Calls for a tough inspector general and for tracking and removal of brutal officers have been stalled repeatedly by inertia and cowardice. To make matters more complicated, none of the previous reform commissions addressed the gang profiling at the heart of the current mess.
The fetishism of the market combined with the death of big government, as pronounced by President Clinton, leaves incarceration the emerging centerpiece of domestic crime policy. But there is an alternative to the garrison state for the poor. It would consist of greater community empowerment in both policing and investment decisions, with a particular focus on rescuing, educating and training at-risk youth. It would mean a major federal commitment of resources to the inner cities, already ruled out by neoliberal Democrats (who don’t mind throwing billions at basket-case economies abroad for the sake of private investment).
This is not the time for business-as-usual Democratic politics, which, because of a fear of being painted as the party of Willie Horton, has promoted more police and prisons for a decade. The crises in Los Angeles and New York mean that Clinton’s “bridges to the twenty-first century” are without on-ramps from the ghetto and barrio.