Lawmen Armed and Positively Dangerous

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A couple of weeks ago, a bankrobber led a phalanx of black-and- white police cars on a chase down a crowded Los Angeles freeway in afternoon commuter traffic. Eventually forced to abandon his vehicle, he stood on the tarmac in helpless despair, waving his handgun above his head. He seemed too distraught to pose a real threat to the fearsome array of police sharpshooters who were massed against him, but he was stupid enough not to discard his weapon when ordered to. Result: the police shot him dead at point-blank range. He had not fired a single round.

A month earlier, a crack unit of Los Angeles police known as the Special Investigations Section stalked a gang suspected of robbing 25 travel agencies. As the crew made its getaway from the scene of its latest crime, two of the robbers ended up getting shot in the back and killed. The police claimed that they had been forced to return fire, but neither of the dead men was found to have been carrying a weapon.

In a less jaded city, such incidents would no doubt raise anxious questions about the limits of police authority and the appropriateness of shooting, and shooting to kill, under such questionable circumstances. But in Los Angeles neither case has caused more than a murmur, despite being given plentiful, albeit uncritical, coverage on the local television news and in the papers. In both instances, the police officers involved were deemed by their superiors to have behaved "in policy", meaning that the fatal shootings did not violate the official rulebook. And that, barring the objections of a small band of civil rights campaigners, was that.

Police violence in Los Angeles has become so common - and so generally accepted as part of the risks of the job - that it takes little short of an earthquake to make the general population sit up and take notice. One such earthquake was the savage beating meted out to the black motorist Rodney King by four white officers in 1991, all of it captured on videotape by a nearby homeowner. The tape brought LA's scabrous racial politics into sharp focus and fuelled much of the anger that spilled over into full-scale rioting after the four officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in court the following year.

And now, seven years later, another earthquake has struck. A few days ago, two apparently promising, much-decorated officers from the police's Rampart Division - a squad overseeing some of the city's poorest and most densely populated streets just west of downtown - were convicted on charges of armed robbery and drug-dealing. Shocking enough in itself, one might have thought. But then one of the men, Rafael Perez, decided to spill everything he knew about police corruption in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and all hell broke loose. Perez, who was caught stealing 8lbs of cocaine from his own station, has told hair-raising stories of police beating and shooting suspects, systematically planting incriminating evidence and covering their own tracks by framing their victims for crimes they did not commit.

In particular, he has admitted handcuffing an unarmed 19-year-old man with no previous police record, Javier Ovando, and, along with his partner, shooting him at point-blank range in the chest and head. Ovando, who suffered permanent paralysis but survived, was subsequently tried on assault charges concocted by the two officers and sentenced to more than 20 years in jail. He was released at the end of last week after Perez's confessions were made public, and is now being kept at a secret location for his own protection.

It is not known exactly what other revelations Perez has made, but a dozen officers at the Rampart Division have hurriedly been relieved of their duties. And there is no knowing how much further it could go. Others are likely to talk to try and save their own bacon, and the scandal could reach right up to the higher echelons of political authority.

What makes the revelations so damaging is that they strike at the very heart of Los Angeles' crime-fighting methods. The Rampart Division covers a notorious nexus of gang neighbourhoods, and has been at the forefront of the city's sledgehammer approach to eliminating gang violence. The city attorney's office has imposed sweeping injunctions on suspected gang members, severely curtailing their freedom of movement and threatening them with long jail terms for misdemeanours as minor as littering the pavement. A city-wide police unit called Crash (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) has been given wide-ranging powers to stop and search in gang neighbourhoods in what has amounted to an imposition of something approaching martial law.

These measures, up to now, have suited the city and the bulk of the electorate just fine. The crime rate is down and gang activity, while continuing, has at least become less visible to good middle-class citizens. But now all bets are off. If the police evidence driving the injunctions is fabricated, and if sworn officers are simply taking over the drugs and other rackets from the gang leaders - as Perez appears to have implied - then the whole edifice comes crashing down. Already, the two injunctions in place in the Rampart Division have been suspended pending further investigations, and across the city voices crying out against similar police abuses are being given unprecedented attention.

The revelations may come as a shock to conservative, middle-class Angelenos, but for the city's poor - and especially the African-American and Latino poor - the only real surprise is that they have been made public in such a clamorous way. It is impossible to underestimate the seething anger poor blacks and Latinos feel about their treatment at the hands of the police. Ask almost anyone in South Central, epicentre of the 1992 riots, or the Mid City area covered by the Rampart Division, and they tell you stories of young people being framed for crimes they did not commit or else charged with fabricated evidence.

Priests and journalists have testified how police will storm a party and beat up the guests for no reason, or else will terrorise a group of bystanders queuing up for ice cream by slamming them against the side of a car and slapping them in handcuffs for several minutes. District attorneys who prosecute low-level drugs and other gang-related crimes will occasionally admit that they do not trust the evidence the police presents to them.

To these people, the police shootings presented on television are no media abstraction, but a terrifying reality. This year has seen an epidemic of shootings, including the killing of a frail, black homeless woman who supposedly scared the life out of two duty officers with no more than a screwdriver. Although police work in LA is undoubtedly dangerous, with two officers, on average, getting killed each year, the policy appears to be to shoot at even the slightest sign of danger. This is especially true of the Special Investigations Section, a unit of just 20 officers that alone has managed to kill more than 30 suspects since its formation in the 1960s.

Periodic federal investigations and crises such as the 1992 riots have led to some changes in the LAPD, notably a far greater diversity in the ranks - with 32 per cent of the force now Latino, 14 per cent black and 18 per cent female. But the history of the LAPD has at every stage reflected the history of Los Angeles itself - unfathomable, riven by vast socio- economic gulfs and tinged by the gunslinger mentality of the Old West. Crime as a whole may be down, but gangs, drugs and racial violence - all the product of poverty untouched by the Clinton economic boom - are very much in evidence. If the police have taken advantage of a political desire to brush the evidence under the carpet, by whatever means necessary, then it is an embarrassment for the entire city's power structure.

It is early days, but police scandals in LA have a habit of devouring the powerful. The 1992 riots terminated the careers of both Darryl Gates, the police chief who was notorious for his openly racist remarks, and Tom Bradley, the long-serving black mayor who had failed to see the crisis coming. The current police chief, Bernard Parks, has a reputation as a progressive reformer to defend, while the political class is gearing up for a mayoral election next year. Everybody had better watch out.