International Educational Development/ Humanitarian Law Project April, 2000

The United States Government makes much ado over the many "wars" that it is waging within its own borders-the war on drugs, the war on crime, even the war on poverty. In Los Angeles, one of these wars receives special attention: the war on gangs. As an L.A.-based organization specializing in humanitarian and armed conflict law, International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project is particularly concerned with this war and the way in which it is being carried out by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Although the rules of armed conflict perhaps cannot be applied in this case, the universal standards of human rights must of course be respected. We wish to briefly examine the conflict and the attendant violations of human rights.

In September of last year, LAPD officer Rafael Perez of the Rampart Division's special CRASH anti-gang unit began to testify about police misconduct in his unit as part of a plea bargain agreement. The results of his testimony and the ongoing investigation have rocked the LAPD, in what has become known as the "Rampart corruption scandal." However, these revelations are anything but a "corruption scandal"; instead, they address a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights, especially the rights of Latinos, by the LAPD in its "war on gangs."

Defining "Gang Members"

The first element to be considered is the very definition of a "gang member." Officers of the LAPD have broad discretion in deciding who is a gang member and who isn't-discretion that was widened even further with the March passage of California Proposition 21, misnamed the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act." The factors used for judging who is a gang member-such as simply being on the street with two or more other individuals-are particularly geared towards incriminating young men of color. Proposition 21 also loosened standards so that people who were not even judged a "gang member" but merely spent time with gang members, could be prosecuted under anti-gang statutes. Police only have to declare someone a "gang associate" in order to criminalize them. Just about any male Latino is now fair game for police harassment and abuse, as police can decide to describe any Latino male can be described as a "gang member." The results of this broad definition can be seen in Rampart CRASH statistics, which state that the 18th Street Gang has 10,000 Latino members, an outrageously high number. Even an Immigration and Naturalization Service official has stated that, "They were targeting a whole race of people."

As the legal definition of a "gang member" and police discretion in deciding who fits that definition both expand, so too do the number of individuals who are prosecuted and sentenced under draconian "anti-gang" laws, which impose lengthy prison sentences for relatively minor crimes, such as mandatory sentencing of at least 180 days in prison even for gang-related misdemeanors. We only have to look to the fact that there are 160,000 alleged "gang members" incarcerated in California right now and 71% of all prisoners in California's Department of Corrections and 86% of wards in the California Youth Authority are people of color to see how racially selective the enforcement of law is in California.

The Tactics of War

The gang war effectively becomes a war on people of color, and this war, like most wars, is rife with abuses of human rights. Standard methods openly employed by CRASH anti-gang divisions include constant harassment, body searches, and threats against suspected gang members, gang "sympathizers," and their friends and families. What have come to public attention since Perez began testifying are simply the more extreme forms of these abuses by police. Perez has testified that the Rampart CRASH division is guilty of unjustified shootings, killings, beatings, torture, drug dealing, evidence planting, false arrests, witness intimidation, and perjury. CRASH officers would devise schemes to hide evidence of their brutality or to cover up their murders, planting weapons on dead bodies and threatening victims with further violence if they reported anything to superior officers.

It can't be known how many people were killed by CRASH using unnecessary force against them, how many hundreds have been tortured either on the street or back in the police station by CRASH officers, and how many innocent people have been put in prison because of false testimony, evidence planting, or intimidation by the officers. Perez estimated that 90% of all CRASH officers participated consistently in the abuses and their cover-up. By mid-February, more than 30 convictions had been overturned, 20 officers had been relieved of duty, fired, or quit, and more than 70 were under investigation. The District Attorney's office itself says that more than 3,000 cases will have to be looked into, and other sources estimate 800 cases will be thrown out as a result of the Rampart CRASH investigation alone.

One particularly insidious method CRASH employed to get rid of alleged "gang members" was to illegally turn them over to the INS for deportation, or else to command the INS to deny citizenship to those CRASH suspected of being gang members. These policies raise several problems. First, according to L.A. City Special Order 40, police officers "shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." In addition, officers may not turn in suspects accused of minor violations to the INS. However, these illegal procedures became a matter of course.

When CRASH officers could find no legal charges to make against an individual, they would check their immigration status, and if it were out of order, they would call in the INS to have them deported. As a result of this illegal collusion, at least 160 Latino immigrants have been deported and many more denied citizenship because they had complained about police abuse, were witnesses in cases against police, or just because they were inconvenient. The especially egregious case of Alex Sanchez is gone into below.

Specific Cases of Human Rights Violations

Some of the brutality and murder cases that are in the spotlight right now should be mentioned. First, on July 20, 1996, on South Shatto Place, Rampart division officers shot dead Juan Manuel Saldana, 19, and wounded Oscar Peralta and another man who was walking down the stairs with his children. None was armed or posed any serious threat to officers. CRASH officers then planted a weapon on Ovando and perjured themslves in court to cover up their act. In October, 1996, an unarmed young man, Javier Francisco Ovando, was shot by CRASH officers and paralyzed. After the officers framed him, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison, and then set free after serving three years when Perez admitted to the crime.

Reports were concocted to cover up instances of torture. In one case, in order to cover up an especially severe beating that had been doled out to a suspect, the Rampart CRASH officer's official report stated that the suspect, Rene Alfredo Canales, "attempted to dive out the [third] floor window, hitting the right side of his head [and] forehead on the window frame…[he] got up and again lost his balance and fell forward while [attempting] to escape and hit his head numerous times against the metal balcony, arm rail, and steps."

But the problems are certainly not restricted to the Rampart division CRASH unit. Abuses by the 77th Street CRASH unit abuses are coming to light as well-including a 1995 case in South-Central Los Angeles, where CRASH broke up a peaceful birthday party, beating the 15-year old whose party it was and sending his father to the hospital. The charges against officers were all dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

While the anti-gang CRASH units may be among the most violent and abusive, the LAPD as a whole is riddled with violent killing. The tally from the last week alone is telling: Richard Rodriguez, armed with only a knife, was shot and killed by LAPD officers on Monday; Cristobal Garcia was shot in the chest and seriously wounded by officers after stabbing his girlfriend on Wednesday; and on Friday, officers shot and killed Felix Chagolla and wounded three bystanders as Chagolla ran through a crowded shopping center with a fake hand grenade.

Investigations into Abuses

Investigations into reports of police abuse have been extremely lax, and the inquiry into Rampart is no exception. The beating of Rodney King by officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD and the riots that followed brought public attention to the brutality and abuses of the LAPD in the early 90's. In response, the Christopher Commission was established and issued a number of recommendations concerning the better handling of police misconduct and abuse charges. Practically none of these recommendations was implemented-it has taken the Rampart crisis to start to bring about such elementary reforms as keeping track of misconduct claims filed against police officers. The abuses by CRASH units have been reported for years but ignored or suppressed, and failure to follow up civilian complaints is epidemic. In many cases, excessive force claims are being settled with cash settlements, without any admission of wrongdoing and without any investigation into the officers' actions. Even when there was an attempt to investigate, as former Inspector General Katherine Mader states, they "were not authorized to pursue Internal Affairs investigations." Gil Garcetti's District Attorney office, which has a record of not prosecuting police officers, has been dragging its feet, which, coupled with the refusal by the LAPD to cooperate, has made the investigation move extremely slowly. The 362-page LAPD board of inquiry report that came out in mid-March blamed the entire problem on "mediocrity" and judged that only the LAPD itself was competent to investigate the matter.

Homies Unidos and Alex Sanchez

In the midst of the violence, there are groups that are working to solve the situation peacefully. Homies Unidos is an organization of ex-gang members that is working for peace between gangs in Los Angeles. Their primary purpose, in which they have had considerable success, is to stop the violence between gangs, but they also need to deal with police brutality and harassment, as they are daily realities for gang members and ex-gang members.

The LAPD, however, wants impunity to violate human rights in their war on gangs. Homies Unidos has made an issue out of holding police liable to California state law and federal law, and as a result, CRASH and other anti-gang units have gone on a crusade to destroy the organization. We have been provided a report by CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) concerning the case of Salvadoran immigrant Alex Sanchez, the L.A. director of Homies Unidos, who is currently in an INS detention center awaiting deportation. He was arrested illegally on January 21 by Rampart CRASH Unit officer Jesus Amezcua on an outdated INS warrant. As California State Senator Tom Hayden states, Sanchez was "threatened by individual officers of the gang suppression CRASH unit in Pico-Union, who clearly believe that the gang peace process is a threat to their all-out war on gangs." The immediate reason for the attempt to deport Sanchez is that his testimony is essential to clearing Jose Rodriguez, 15, another Homies Unidos member, of a double-murder charge. The case against Rodriguez has also been handled by Amezcua.

Alex Sanchez wrote in a recent open letter: "It seemed that police enforcement units do not believe in any sort of reform for these youth. Their solution to gang and youth violence is to lock kids up and throw away the key. The police have used this method for over fifty years and it has not worked. They are still trying by implementing laws like Prop 21, which will let 14 year old youth be tried as adults. …We all have to make sure that Homies Unidos and other organizations working for peace survive all these attacks by the police."

Towards a Resolution of the War

In fact, it is a matter of making sure that basic human rights survive the attacks by police upon the Latino community. That is why we, at IED/HLP, call for several measures to be taken. First, there must be a complete and thorough investigation by an outside agency into Rampart CRASH unit brutality and violations of human rights. Second, full investigations into complaints against other CRASH units throughout Los Angeles must take place, as we cannot let the LAPD pretend that the abuses in Rampart CRASH are only an anomaly. Third, rapid investigations must be launched into all possibly tainted cases in order to get innocent people out of prisons as soon as possible. Fourth, we join the call made by CHIRLA and L.A. City Council member Jackie Goldberg for an end to the collusion between the LAPD and INS, and for an end to the abuse of the human rights of immigrants. Fifth, Alex Sanchez must be freed so he can continue his work defending human rights. Finally, what is really needed is a complete independent review of the LAPD and its racial policies, as the criminalization of Latinos under the cover of the war on gangs must end.