L.A. police mired in misconduct scandal

Mexican-Americans numb to the violence

March 13, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- Police bullets crashed into the spine of Javier Francisco Ovando, and only the judge who sent the paralyzed 19-year-old to prison had any harsh words about the shooting. He admonished Ovando for being a danger to society.

When police shot Juan Salana, officers left him unattended long enough that he bled to death.

The events weren't big news in East Los Angeles, a poor, immigrant-populated area just a five-minute bus ride from the high-rises that mark the city's skyline.

But in September, the stories of Ovando, Salana and their like suddenly began dominating headlines, newscasts and frantic meetings at City Hall.

The two men were shot not by police defending themselves while trying to bring order to a troubled area but by officers who threw their fists and fired their guns as indiscriminately as the gangs they were to eradicate. The officers of the city's Rampart Division, most of them in an anti-drug squad known as CRASH, attacked not only drug dealers but innocents as well.

Ovando and Salana are victims in the biggest scandal ever to hit the Los Angeles Police Department. Thousands of convictions are in jeopardy, state and federal investigations are under way, and lawsuits have been filed against the department and city.

New revelations, exposed when an officer caught stealing drugs turned on his cohorts in exchange for leniency, have come almost daily.

For residents of this patch of poverty and violence, though, the biggest scandal in Los Angeles Police Department history has barely raised an eyebrow.

For years, the mostly Latino population has been well aware of the uncontrolled violence of the police officers, who have been given the moniker of "gangsta cops."

"Look, this is L.A.," says David Thomas, 47, whose lives just down the road from the Rampart station house. "We've become numb to it all. We've had Rodney King, the riots, we've had O. J. This is supposed to surprise us?"

Six months after the conduct of dozens of officers was publicly exposed, there have been no citizen demonstrations, no grass-roots demands for reform. Rather, many residents -- especially the Mexican-Americans who bore the brunt of the police misconduct -- seem resigned to the fact that many Rampart Division members were rogue cops who stole money and drugs, beat innocent people, tried to deport witnesses to their actions and might have committed murder.

Official Los Angeles has reacted with outrage -- and not merely because the city and the Police Department have been taking a public relations beating. The most intense outrage has come because Los Angeles, which is to receive $300 million from a tobacco liability settlement, is being forced to put the money into a fund to pay off the scores of lawsuits that are sure to be filed.

About 40 convictions have been overturned because of police misconduct, ranging from the planting of evidence to "confessions" obtained through beatings, making the characters in "L.A. Confidential" look like a band of school guards who bullied the small kids.

Officials say up to 4,000 cases could be affected. Ovando, paralyzed, was released from prison after serving 13 months of a 23-year sentence. Police shot him while he was unarmed, officials determined, then planted a rifle on him to cover their actions and secure his conviction.

In at least four other cases, officers are being investigated for unnecessary killings, including that of Salana. He reportedly lay bleeding to death while police -- rather than call an ambulance -- worked with supervisors to concoct a plausible reason for shooting him.

As out-of-control as Rampart Division was, the situation would likely be continuing if one officer hadn't gotten increasingly greedy and reckless.

Rafael Perez, a four-year veteran, was caught stealing 8 pounds of cocaine from the division's evidence locker.

In exchange for a reduced sentence, he has been spilling the secrets of Rampart, exposing fellow officers with tales that have left official Los Angeles aghast even as the neighborhood that was most victimized has taken the beatings and the other forms of corruption as nothing more than a fact of life.

"You can look at it like there's two cities here," says the Rev. Richard Byrd of the Unity Center of African Spirituality. "You have the mayor and his type reacting, then you have the community that's -- I don't want to call it apathy -- it's much more like, `OK, here we go again.' "

But this case, the minister says, should be different. If police are stealing drugs from suspects and planting them on others, he asks, if those with badges are shooting people and leaving them to die while they concoct a story, who's protecting Los Angeles? Who's policing the police?

"I think we need to stop calling this a scandal," Byrd says. "A scandal is when the police chief is sleeping with the mayor's wife. This is murder. This is planting evidence. This is beating people. These are not scandals. These are crimes."

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