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.”