L.A.'S Dirty War On Gangs

The July 1996 raid on a gang-infested apartment building looked like just another skirmish between police and L.A.'s many street gangs. The address was Shatto Place, in a neighborhood of Latino immigrants west of downtown. The target was the notorious 18th Street Gang, now L.A.'s biggest gang and one of its most violent. The raiders were all members of an elite anti-gang unit from the LAPD's Rampart Division. During a wild chase up the stairwells and through the hallways of the apartment house, the cops killed one gang member and wounded another. A departmental investigation found nothing wrong and the shootings got little play in the local news media--until now.

The reason is a rogue cop turned whistleblower named Rafael A. Perez. Perez, who took part in the Shatto Place raid, has been telling LAPD investigators about police brutality, perjury, planted evidence, drug corruption and attempted murder within the Rampart Division and its anti-gang unit, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). His charges have cast what Mayor Richard Riordan calls a "dark shadow" over the entire police department, which is still struggling to recover from the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson debacles. The scandal has touched off the biggest internal investigation in decades and led the FBI to start looking for civil-rights violations. So far, 12 Rampart cops have been fired or relieved from duty and investigators are reviewing hundreds of past cases for signs of police misconduct. LAPD Chief Bernard Parks says much of Perez's story is credible, and he concedes that other officers may go down.

The scandal broke after Perez, himself a former Rampart CRASH cop, was caught stealing eight pounds of cocaine from police evidence lockers. After pleading guilty in September, he bargained for a lighter sentence by telling an appalling story of attempted murder and a "throwdown"--police slang for a weapon planted by cops to make a shooting legally justifiable. Perez said he and his partner, Officer Nino Durden, shot an unarmed 18th Street Gang member named Javier Ovando, then planted a semiautomatic rifle on the unconscious suspect and claimed that Ovando had tried to shoot them during a stakeout. (Durden was suspended; his lawyer refused to comment.) Their testimony helped get Ovando, in a wheelchair for life because of the shooting, a 23-year sentence for assault. Now Ovando has been freed from prison. Last week lawyers working on behalf of his baby daughter filed notice of a $20 million suit against the city, Perez and other cops.

The Shatto Place raid could be another throwdown incident. Although the LAPD's own report showed that police fired all the shots, the cops who staged the raid claimed the gangbangers were armed. Two pistols were found on the scene, and investigators are trying to determine whether they were planted. The suspect who survived, Jose Perez, initially denied having a gun but later pleaded guilty to assault, which was tantamount to admitting that one of the guns was his. Perez now says he pleaded guilty to avoid a long prison sentence and that he had no gun during the raid. Through attorney Jorge Gonzalez Perez, he told NEWSWEEK that one of the cops turned him over as he lay wounded and said with a smirk: "Too bad you're going to die, motherf---er." Two officers involved in the Shatto Place shooting have been relieved of duty and a third was fired on unrelated charges.

LAPD insiders say the Rampart Division has more than its share of problem cops and that CRASH was known for ultra-aggressive tactics. "They behaved like a gang themselves," says defense lawyer Dennis Chang, who represents some members of the 18th Street Gang. One case began on Feb. 26, 1998, when Rampart Officer Brian Hewitt brought alleged gang member Ismael Jimenez in for questioning. Jimenez told NEWSWEEK that Hewitt "slammed my head against the wall... and punched me in my chest" until he spat bloody vomit on the floor. An internal investigation found Hewitt culpable in the incident and he was fired last June. (Hewitt is appealing, and his attorney denies he ever struck Jimenez.)

The question is how deep the scandal runs. Supporters say Chief Parks is committed to weeding out bad cops--but they concede he faces an uphill struggle.