By his own account, Javier Francisco Ovando was not one of Los Angeles’ angels.
Ovando was a member of one of the city’s violent street gangs, and thus, had come to the attention of the police before he was shot and critically wounded while unarmed during a confrontation on Oct. 12, 1996.
Four years later, he has become a symbol, authorities say, of what has gone wrong in the nation’s third largest city police force, behind New York and Chicago.
“People in the African-American and Latino communities have been saying for years and years and years that the police plant evidence, that the police are not truthful, and nobody believed them,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents District 9, which covers some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“When the Rampart [case] broke, people said ‘Oh, my God, do the police really do these things?’”
Largely as a result of the case — involving endemic corruption in one Los Angeles Police Department division — the city of Los Angeles is expected as early as next week to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, giving the federal agency sweeping oversight and monitoring powers over the 9,300-member force.
It would be the fourth police force nationwide, after departments in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Steubenville, Ohio, and the New Jersey state police, to agree to federal monitoring since a 1994 law gave the Justice Department greater legal authority to intervene in cases of widespread police corruption or abuse.
The federal government is also in court to bring Columbus, Ohio, under its wing, and has had ongoing discussions with officials in New York City, where the police department has been under fire in recent years following the torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house and the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. And in Detroit, Mayor Dennis Archer said last week he sought a federal review of fatal shootings by police in that city.
Officers Charged, Cases Overturned
Ovando’s case is the centerpiece of an investigation into widespread corruption into the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The case began unraveling a year ago when Officer Rafael Perez, caught stealing cocaine from police evidence, agreed to testify in what has arguably become Los Angeles’s worst police corruption scandal in decades.
Ovando served three years of a 23-year sentence for assaulting the officers before prosecutors figured out he had been framed and released him last fall (see story below). Perez’s partner, Officer Nino Durden, faces charges of attempted murder of the Honduran immigrant. He has pleaded not guilty.
“God is doing justice now,” Ovando, sitting in a wheelchair, told reporters at a press conference after Durden was arrested in July.
Since the corruption case was made public a year ago, nearly 100 prosecutions in Los Angeles have been overturned or set aside because authorities believe the actions of the arresting officers to be corrupt.
Four other police officers have been charged and dozens of others are currently under investigation for stealing drugs, lying in court and planting evidence in the far-reaching probe. City and federal authorities continue to investigate.
Beginning with the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, the past 10 years have brought an intense of focus on police brutality at the same time crime has dropped dramatically in the United States.
A History of Racial Bias, Corruption
Like most major cities in this country, Los Angeles has tales of police corruption dating back decades. Many of them involve race.
On Aug. 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop during a heat wave in the Watts section of South Central L.A., turned violent when the family of a black motorist jeered at police as they were attempting to arrest him on charges of drunken driving.
The incident unleashed years of tension between the police and the minority communities of Los Angeles, sparking riots city wide. Thirty-four people, mostly black, were killed and hundreds were injured. Six days after the riots began, they ended with the Watts neighborhood in charred ruins.
A special commission headed by the former CIA chief, John McCone, urged that the police department improve its relations with the community and find a more efficient way to address complaints of abuse.
The city would explode again into deadly rioting more than two decades later after Los Angeles officers caught on videotape pummeling black motorist Rodney King were acquitted of wrongdoing. Two of the officers were later found guilty in a federal civil rights trial. Again, a special commission, headed by Warren Christopher, who would later become the U.S. Secretary of State, recommended widespread change in the department.
An ‘Overly-Aggressive’ Culture
Erwin Chereminsky, a professor at the University of Southern California who was asked by the Los Angeles police union to study the most recent scandal and the department’s internal investigation of it, said the LAPD has missed opportunities over the years to implement reforms.
“This is the worst scandal in Los Angeles history,” Chemerinsky said “You have police planting evidence to frame innocent people and then lying in court to gain convictions. This shows a tremendously serious problem in the police department that has to be dealt with.”
In a report released earlier this month, Chereminsky criticized the department’s internal review for not going far enough in identifying the scope of the corruption problem and pointed to the “paramilitary, overly-aggressive policing” culture as a root of the problems.
Chereminsky, who interviewed several dozen police officers for his report, said he found that poor morale among the officers was also a systemic problem.
“When [Former Chief] Willie Williams was here, we thought morale could not go any lower,” said Ted Hunt, president of the Police Protection League, the officers’ union. “But it is so bad. I can’t compare it.”
Hunt said the department’s troubles can be traced to a lack of management oversight and accountability, the absence of effective community policing programs and the inability to attract and retain good officers because of poor working conditions, pay and benefits.
While the investigation in Los Angeles has primarily focused on the Rampart Division, which covers an eight-square mile area west of downtown and home to many new immigrants, some question whether the problem is more widespread.
James Fyfe, a Temple University professor who consulted on police corruption cases in Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, said he found evidence of wrongdoing in several different units of the department. He said certain units seemed to have “a specific license to do what they did and no one ever seemed to do anything about them.”
“Most cops are fine people who never do anything wrong,” said Fyfe, who is also a former New York police lieutenant. “But there are a group of scumbags in that department that have caused the problems and who have been supported from the top. They think it is their birthright to go out and brutalize people.”
Officials with the LAPD acknowledge that their department has been steeped in controversy, but they insist the recent scandal will not prove to be a systemic problem. They say they are trying hard to root out the corrupt officers.
In all, 45 officers who once worked in the department’s Rampart division, including the five already indicted, have been relieved of their duties and remain at home while the internal police investigation continues.
“We had some cops do some bad things and we’ve had overzealous officers, who for the most part broke the law by trying to put some bad gang members in jail,” said Sgt. John Pasquariello, an LAPD spokesman. “That is wrong, definitely wrong.”
But Pasquariello says he believes the investigation will prove in the end that corruption in L.A. is far less serious than problems in other cities, like New York, which has seen a number of corruption scandals in recent years.
“We are going to make mistakes,” he said. “We will learn from our mistakes, but we are one of the most scrutinized police departments in the world.”