Sometimes it makes me want to scream.
I refer to the misinformation that persists in the media — specifically in this case the Los Angeles Times — regarding the turmoil currently afflicting my employer, the Los Angeles Police Department.
In my most recent column here on Pajamas Media, I tried to shed light on some of the continuing pernicious effects of the federal consent decree under which the LAPD operated for the better part of the last decade. This week I found that still more light is required. I hope regular readers will forgive me if some of the following is repetitious.
Though the consent decree, which arose from the LAPD’s Rampart scandal of the late ‘90s, was lifted in July 2009, some of its provisions are still in effect and subject to monitoring by the U.S. Justice Department. Among these is one which requires officers assigned to gang and narcotics units to submit for inspection their personal financial records under the theory that the information might serve to reveal any among them who have enriched themselves illicitly or may be prone to doing so.
On Saturday, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks posed the question: “Will LAPD gang units’ turmoil lead to benefits later?”
LAPD officers charged with fighting gangs are walking away from their jobs en masse, because they don’t want to disclose to their bosses details of their personal lives. They consider insulting, invasive and potentially dangerous a rule aimed at ferreting out corruption by requiring gang and narcotics officers to submit for scrutiny their personal financial records.
All of which, as I pointed out in the previous column — as indeed I predicted three years ago — is true as far as it goes. But Banks goes on to put her naivete on exhibit when she delves further into the issues. For example, she discusses the gang problem in Los Angeles and the reasons gang-related crime has been declining. “Gangs have changed in the last decade,” she writes, “and so have the LAPD’s tactics. It’s no longer about banging heads and battering down doors but about enlisting others in community efforts.”
This might have her readers believing that the LAPD had adopted some sort of touchy-feely approach to gang enforcement, that cops are now “engaging” with gang members so as to reach a mutual understanding. She goes on to laud one such community effort and completely misinterprets its benefits.
It’s no coincidence that gang-related crime tumbled 40 percent over the last three years in neighborhoods where a city-funded summer program kept parks open until midnight, offering sports programs and counseling. High-profile raids of dangerous gangs and the sweeping reach of gang injunctions have made their mark on dangerous streets. But so have basketball games and free meals.
Very often it still is about banging heads and battering down doors, as any cop working in L.A.’s many gang-plagued neighborhoods would have told Ms. Banks had she bothered to ask. It is fanciful thinking to imagine that a hoodlum bent on gunning down a rival over some perceived slight can be deterred from doing so by a free hot dog and a game of pickup basketball.
Crime went down near those city parks that hosted the “Summer Night Lights” program not because the gangsters, sated from all that convivial grubbing and dribbling, put aside their differences (and their firearms), but rather because LAPD gang and patrol units were directed to show a heavy presence in those very same neighborhoods. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wanted the program to succeed, and he made sure the LAPD cooperated by beefing up patrols near the affected parks.
Had those same parks been deserted all summer long, crime would have fallen just as much if the same number of cops had been deployed around them. As it happened, the added police presence liberated the parks from the gang members who had occupied them and allowed law-abiding families to venture out and enjoy them as they hadn’t before.
Just as irritatingly, Ms. Banks repeats a common fallacy about the Rampart scandal, which, she writes,
shocked us into realizing that dozens of officers in the LAPD’s former gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, were conducting themselves like hoodlums: beating suspects, dealing drugs, planting evidence and lying to cover it up.
She further labels the scandal “[o]ne of the most egregious cases of law enforcement misconduct in national memory.”
A scandal should be measured by its true dimensions, not by the amount of press coverage it receives. The LAPD and the Los Angeles Times for years have had an uneasy relationship (see here and here for more on this), and no media outlet is more responsible for the widely held though erroneous belief that the Rampart scandal was as far-reaching within the department as Ms. Banks seems to believe.
The facts are these: The scandal’s central figure, former officer Rafael Perez, was not a cop who became a criminal, he was a criminal who became a cop. And when caught stealing cocaine from evidence storage, he did what criminals often do: he attempted to save his hide by deflecting blame onto his innocent peers. Perez indeed tried to implicate dozens of his fellow officers in wrongdoing, but like most criminal defendants in his position, he was revealed as an exaggerator in some cases and an outright liar in most others.
Despite Perez’s effort to tar his colleagues, the Rampart scandal, though certainly a stain on the LAPD’s honor, was confined to a handful of officers at a single police station. After years of investigations, a total of nine officers were charged with crimes. Of these, five pleaded guilty and one was acquitted by a jury. Three others, charged with crimes only tangentially related to the scandal, were convicted by a jury but had their convictions overturned. And when these three officers sued to restore their lives and reputations, they were awarded $5 million in damages each.
Eighty-six separate internal disciplinary panels were conducted, 54 of which found the accused officers not guilty on all counts. Six officers were fired (including the three who were later vindicated), one resigned, and 19 received suspensions ranging from seven to 110 days. Seven others were given reprimands.
A scandal to be sure, but hardly one of the most egregious in national memory.
That Ms. Banks still labors under this misapprehension is all the more surprising given one of the interviews she conducted for the column. She spoke with Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney long involved in local police matters and the chairperson of the Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel that issued a lengthy report on the scandal, a report that includes the figures cited above (available here).
And though Ms. Rice is as familiar with the LAPD as any outsider can hope to be, even she fails to grasp the simple facts behind the gang officers’ refusal to cooperate with the new financial disclosure rules. She contrasts their recalcitrance with the more accepting attitude of narcotics officers, most of whom have agreed to provide their financial information. Narcotics officers, Rice tells Banks, are accustomed to accountability. “Their mentality is ‘I’ve got to show I’m not on the take.’ Their whole lives are an open book.”
Still more rubbish. To suggest that narcotics officers in the LAPD are subject to more scrupulous accountability than gang officers is beyond preposterous. Since the Rampart scandal the exact opposite is true, with gang units being audited far more frequently and under far more exacting standards than their counterparts in narcotics.
The answer to why narcotics officers are agreeing to the new rules while gang officers are not is far more rudimentary: it’s about incentives. There are simply more inducements for a narcotics officer to provide his financial information than there are for an officer working gangs. Narcotics officers work in plain clothes and maintain regular work hours with weekends and holidays off. Some, like those involved in large-scale investigations, even have take-home cars. Whatever the risk there might be in providing personal financial information to department auditors, most are willing to accept it so as to continue working under such benign conditions.
Gang officers, though, work odd hours, including weekends and holidays. Moreover, their schedules are subject to change on short notice, imposing a strain on family life even beyond that experienced by most police officers. These burdens they gladly bore while they were compensated with extra pay for the overtime they worked when they made arrests or appeared in court, but now that overtime money is but a memory owing to the city’s fiscal crisis, the added demands of working a gang unit, coupled with whatever risk to their privacy might be inherent in the financial disclosure rules, just aren’t worth the bother for many of them.
The imposition of the consent decree on the LAPD was the final result of a long and bitter political battle, one which most LAPD officers — with very good reason — found distasteful. Now the politicians who brought it about are dismayed to learn that some cops are registering their distaste by declining to participate in the charade of financial disclosure. Politicians created this problem; let them live with the consequences.