The 1998 Rampart Scandal Continues to Reverberate in the LAPD

In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department investigated a staggering 1,092 murders, the most in the city’s history. The number had risen more or less steadily through the late ’80s and into the ’90s with the advent of the crack cocaine trade and the gang violence that accompanied it, but since that high-water (high-blood?) year of 1992, homicide in the city has declined in almost every year, with the LAPD recording 297 murders in 2010.

Last year was the first in which Los Angeles saw fewer than 300 murders since 1967, a time when the city had 1.5 million fewer residents. The only interruption to this long, steady decline came in the years 1998 through 2002, when the tally rose from 419 to 647. We may soon see another rise in killing on the streets of L.A., and for reasons very similar to those that engendered the one that began in 1998.

In August 1998, LAPD internal affairs investigators arrested Rafael Perez, at the time an officer assigned to the gang unit at the department’s Rampart Division, for stealing cocaine from evidence storage. After being arrested, Perez supplied information on what came to be known at the Rampart scandal, in which, Perez alleged, he and his fellow officers in the gang unit engaged in all manner of misconduct, including planting evidence, perjury, excessive force, and even unprovoked and unjustifiable shootings.

Though Perez implicated dozens of officers in misconduct, criminal charges were ultimately brought against only nine. Of these, five pled guilty, one was acquitted by a jury, and three were convicted at trial. And those who were convicted at trial were later vindicated when their convictions were overturned by the trial judge, a decision upheld through the appellate process. And it is worth noting that those same three officers were later awarded $5 million each when a civil jury concluded that they had been arrested and charged despite the absence of probable cause. That verdict has also been upheld through a long series of appeals.  (I wrote about this aspect of the Rampart scandal for National Review Online in 2008. You can read that column here.)

In addition to those officers who faced criminal charges, administrative charges were brought against 93 officers, most of whom were cleared. Seven officers were fired or voluntarily resigned, and 24 received punishments ranging from a reprimand to a suspension. In short, though Perez and another officer were shown to have committed some truly despicable acts, the so-called scandal was confined to a handful of officers at a single police station.

And yet, despite the lack of evidence of misconduct elsewhere in the LAPD, then-LAPD Chief Bernard Parks made the decision to shut down the gang units at all of the department’s 18 police stations (there are 21 today). One might speculate that the rise in murders that followed was coincidental, but such speculation is rebutted by the fact that murders resumed their decline in Los Angeles when Parks was ousted as chief and the gang units were re-established.

Though the Rampart scandal broke thirteen years ago, its effects are still being felt in the LAPD today. The scandal resulted in the imposition of a consent decree (.pdf) agreed to by the city of Los Angeles and Janet Reno’s Justice Department. The consent decree, intended to last five years, governed virtually every aspect of the department’s operation, subjecting it to inspection by a court-appointed monitor who demanded an impossibly high standard be met for the department to be found in compliance. It was finally lifted in 2009, though some vestiges remain, including a provision that officers assigned to gang and narcotics units be required to disclose their personal finances so as to detect any who might be deemed inordinately wealthy. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers (and of which I am a member), filed suit seeking to block this provision, but the effort failed in the courts and the financial disclosure rules went into effect in March 2009.