In the fall of 1999, Rafael Perez, a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime- and gangster-ridden Rampart Division, was arrested for stealing three kilos of cocaine that had been confiscated as evidence during an undercover drug deal. In exchange for a lighter sentence, Perez, who was assigned to the elite antigang unit known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), offered to tell investigators about other crimes he and his fellow Rampart officers had committed. The highest-profile crime Perez admitted to was shooting Javier Francisco Ovando in October 1996 and subsequently planting a gun on him to frame him for attacking him and his partner. Ovando, who was paralyzed by the shooting, was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison, but was released in September 1999 after Perez’s confession. Perez also told investigators that he helped cover up two other unjustified shootings by Rampart police officers, including one incident in which the victim bled to death while police officers delayed an ambulance’s arrival while they conferred on their cover story. He implicated more than seventy officers in such acts of misconduct as drug dealing, planting evidence, making false arrests, and covering up crimes they had themselves committed.
During more than fifty hours of interviews with authorities, Perez discussed how he went from a hard-charging rookie to a cynical and corrupt police officer. The first time he stole money from a suspect was in 1997 when he and his partner, Nino Durden, arrested a drug dealer. They confiscated a pound of cocaine and a pager from the dealer but kept them instead of turning them in. When the dealer’s pager went off, they arranged a meeting to sell the drug, initially intending to arrest the drug buyer. According to Perez, when they arrived at the meeting site Durden said, “‘Screw it, let’s just sell to him.’ And I completely agreed.” Perez and Durden made two other sales from the confiscated cocaine and netted about $10,000. After that incident, Perez said he and Durden broke the law almost as frequently as they enforced it.
Other officers beside Perez and Durden were also actively involved in acts of misconduct and corruption. Perez told investigators about officers who crashed a party attended by gang members. One officer had the gang members drop to their knees while he walked behind them and told them what fabricated crimes he was going to charge them with. Another officer repeatedly shot a suspect with a bean bag gun for sport. One police officer rounded up a gang member he believed was responsible for slashing the tires of his patrol car, stripped him naked, and dropped him in enemy gang territory. Perez told authorities that of the fifteen officers in his squad, thirteen framed innocent people for crimes they did not commit.
Following Perez’s confession, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office had to reexamine thousands of cases in which the implicated officers were involved to determine if the suspects had been unfairly accused and convicted. According to Perez, “90 percent of the officers who work CRASH, and not just Rampart CRASH, falsify a lot of information. . . . It hurts me to say it, but there’s a lot of crooked stuff going on in the LAPD.” As a result of his allegations, more than one hundred convictions had been overturned by the end of 2001, and Los Angeles officials are expecting to pay out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against the city.
Bernard C. Parks, chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), established a Board of Inquiry to investigate Perez’s allegations. According to the Board of Inquiry’s March 2000 report into the Rampart area corruption scandal, there were many breakdowns in the organization that allowed the police corruption to grow and spread. Chief among the report’s findings was evidence of mediocre performance by police officers throughout Los Angeles. The report claims that officers with integrity and those who were just coasting by saw that the offenses of mediocre officers were not dealt with, so they also began to allow their standards to decline. According to the report, “Rather than challenging our people to do their best, too many of our leaders are allowing mediocre performance, and, in some cases, even making excuses for it.” The authors continue, “Many of these officers allowed their personal integrity to erode and their activities certainly had a contagion effect on some of those around them.” Other faults that contributed to the corruption scandal were inadequate screening of new recruits and a failure to supervise officers in the field and monitor their misconduct. However, the board was insistent on pointing out that
the Rampart corruption incident occurred because a few individuals decided to engage in blatant misconduct and, in some cases, criminal behavior. Published assertions by . . . Rafael Perez that the pressure to produce arrests caused him to become corrupt, simply ignores the fact that he was convicted of stealing narcotics so he could sell them and live the life style of a “high roller.” Even the finest corruption prevention system will not stop an individual from committing a crime if he or she has the will to do so.
In addition, the Board of Inquiry found several problems in the recruiting, hiring, and training of police officers, as well as inattentive and ineffective managers and supervisors that contributed to an atmosphere conducive to police corruption.
The board discovered that four of the officers under investigation for corruption had a criminal record, problems with managing their finances, and a history of violent behavior and involvement in drugs. It also found that assignments to the Rampart Division were based on a sponsorship system in which new officers were nominated for inclusion rather than by a promotion system that awarded ability or experience. The report discussed the fact that few citizen complaints against Rampart officers were taken seriously by police supervisors and that management failed to recognize and correct officer misconduct. It concluded that many of the problems it found during its inquiry were due to the fact that police—from upper management down to patrol officers—were “failing to do their jobs with a high level of consistency and integrity.”
Shortly after the Board of Inquiry released its report about the cor- ruption scandal at Rampart, Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned legal ethicist and professor of public interest law at the University of Southern California, prepared an analysis of the report. He begins by arguing that the corruption scandal is
the worst scandal in the history of Los Angeles. Police officers framed innocent individuals by planting evidence and committing perjury to gain convictions. Nothing is more inimical to the rule of law than police officers, sworn to uphold the law, flouting it and using their authority to convict innocent people. Innocent men and women pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit and were convicted by juries because of the fabricated cases against them.
He adds, “Any analysis of the Rampart scandal must begin with an appreciation of the heinous nature of what the officers did. This is conduct associated with the most repressive dictators and police states.” In Chemerinsky’s opinion, the Board of Inquiry minimized the seriousness and extent of the corruption and the impact it had on the community. In addition, he contends that the Board of Inquiry did not discuss the notorious “Code of Silence” in which police officers refuse to discuss or turn a blind eye to their colleagues’ misconduct.
The issues raised by the Board of Inquiry and by Chemerinsky are common to all other police corruption incidents. Poor hiring practices and inadequate training and supervision are perhaps the biggest contributors to police corruption. In Police Corruption: At Issue, the authors examine these issues in more detail and also discuss how corruption can be prevented or detected once it occurs.