LA police rocked by new claims of brutality

SEVEN YEARS after police brutality triggered the worst riots in Los Angeles' history, the city's police department is being rocked by a massive corruption scandal. Former officers admit fabricating evidence against suspected gang members, assaulting and shooting suspects without justification, then framing them for crimes they did not commit.

Twelve officers have been suspended, suspected of crimes from drug dealing to failure to report flagrant abuses of the law. Glaring questions have been raised about city officials who gave police units carte blanche to crack down on gang-infested neighbourhoods without regard for basic human rights.

The affair has reached staggering proportions in a few days, after a former officer, Rafael Perez, convicted of stealing 8lb of cocaine at the police's Rampart Division west of downtown, spilt the beans on colleagues in an attempt to have his sentence reduced.

He said a young Latino man sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for assaulting police officers during a gang shoot-out three years ago was framed. Not only was the young man, Javier Ovando, unarmed, he was handcuffed, beaten and shot at point-blank range in the chest and head. Perez says his partner, Nino Durden, then planted a rifle on the 19-year- old, who had no previous police record, to make it look as though the officers had been returning justified fire when they inflicted the terrible wounds that left Mr Ovando severely paralysed.

The victim, now 22, was released from prison on Thursday and reunited with the daughter born after he went inside. He will probably spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

It is not known exactly what other evidence has been given by Perez and others in the past few days, but it is clear the growing circle of officers implicated by his testimony have themselves begun talking in an effort to minimise the impact of future prosecution.

The Los Angeles Times, usually a staunch ally of the establishment, carried allegations over the weekend that police shot the best friend of an alleged gang member in the back then tried to frame him for the incident.

Perez has described the episode as "dirty", but further details of his testimony remain unpublished. The highest-profile threat of the scandal is to city leaders who have sought to gain electoral popularity by cracking down on gang neighbourhoods and given the police a free hand to be as tough as they wish.

A city-wide police unit known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), has provoked widespread concern among civil rights groups, as has a policy of imposing injunctions on suspected gang members, effectively criminalising individuals and their families without due legal process.

One of the most sweeping gang injunctions in LA is in the Rampart district, an impoverished, densely populated area roughly divided between Koreans and Latinos. The new revelations suggest that much of the evidence behind this and other injunctions might have been fabricated. The man who dreamt up the injunction policy and turned it into a vogue across the United States is City Attorney James Hahn. He had hoped to run for mayor next year by trumpeting the success of his anti-crime initiatives. He is now fighting for his political life.

The scandal is once again shaking public confidence in the LAPD at a time when its reputation - left in besmirched ruins by the filmed Rodney King beating and other instances of brutality that led to the 1992 riots - was clawing its way back to respectability.

Police chief Bernard Parks, in office since 1997, won plaudits for stamping out abuse in his first year and a half. But there have been increasing signs of trouble, including a recent succession of questionable police shootings now being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although Chief Parks and his predecessor are African-Americans, the city's minority populations say they have had little reason to change their view of the LAPD as an overwhelmingly racist white force that shoots first and asks questions later.

Many people in poor, crime-prone areas complain that evidence-planting, harassment and police brutality are routine - an allegation supported privately by some people in the criminal justice system.

An attempt to impose civilian oversight of the force, introduced in response to the 1992 riots, has proved only half-successful because of the vagaries of city politics and because of a sharp decline in the crime rate as the Californian economy has swung back from depression to boom.

SORRY RECORD

OF THE LAPD

`Bloody Christmas'

After drinking heavily at a Christmas Eve party in 1951 officers storm into a cell at Lincoln Heights jail and beat seven young Mexican Americans so hard the walls are covered with blood. The incident, known as Bloody Christmas, inspired an episode in the book and film versions of L A Confidential.

Choke deaths

After the deaths of some African Americans caught in a police "choke-hold", Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates said in 1982: "We may be finding that in some blacks when [the carotid choke-hold] is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."

King beating

The beating of Rodney King, an African American stopped for speeding in 1991, is captured on videotape. The four white officers involved are absolved of wrongdoing in 1992. That sparks the worst riots in Los Angeles' history.

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