Los Angeles Times
June 11, 2000
Inside LAPD’s ‘Us vs. the World’ Culture
A professional, aggressive approach to policing long ago made the department a global model. But with it came a stubborn insularity and periodic excesses that have left the force painfully out of step with the times.
By TERRY McDERMOTT, Times Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Police Department, renowned worldwide for its spit-and-polish professionalism, has over the last 25 years repeatedly engaged in activity that has brought disgrace and embarrassment to the department and the city.
A South-Central woman named Eulia Love is shot and killed in a dispute over an unpaid gas bill. A four-plex apartment house on Dalton Avenue is destroyed in a rampage by 88 police officers armed with sledgehammers and crowbars. An intoxicated motorist named Rodney King is clubbed and kicked by a handful of police officers while a posse of others watches. A detective named Mark Fuhrman brags about being a racist and a sexist. A bike patrol officer shoots and kills a tiny, deranged street person named Margaret Mitchell, who the officer said threatened him with a screwdriver. Finally, anti-gang officers in the inner-city Rampart Division are accused of routinely framing and beating, sometimes even shooting, unarmed suspects.
The department in these situations defended itself in one of two ways: by declaring the actions appropriate responses to dangerous situations–Love, Dalton, King and Mitchell–or the aberrant behavior of rogue cops–Fuhrman and Rampart.
Often, an investigation is undertaken, followed by recommendations for sweeping change, which are ignored or halfheartedly implemented. The cycle is so habitual that one steadfast aspect of each new report is a section wondering why the recommendations in past reports haven’t been carried out. These notorious cases are not by any means the only instances in which the LAPD has engaged the public with inopportune results. Just last month, police in Hollywood shot and killed a man armed with a pair of scissors. The month before, officers in San Pedro shot and killed a man armed with a butcher knife. In the last five years, the LAPD has shot and killed 88 people, not all of them obviously dangerous.
The thousands of individuals who make up the police force are not all–or even mostly all–bad. Almost everything they do is welcomed by the community. So how come this stuff keeps happening? Why doesn’t anything change? Is there something in the way the LAPD goes about its business, something deep in its bones, that causes it to go seriously astray?
The defining values of the Los Angeles Police Department were formed 50 years ago in a different era to address vastly different circumstances. The organization has been remarkably adept at maintaining those values and transmitting them to generation after generation of recruits. The values have been, if anything, strengthened.
The result is a law enforcement agency skilled at doing what often turn out to be–to outsiders–inexplicable things, yet an agency that insists with its every breath that no one outside has standing to challenge what it does. In dozens of interviews with people in and out of the department, in the examination of litigation and the LAPD’s own data, statements and policies, the department is described as an institution caught painfully out of time, a department in transition between two very different and very difficult ideas of how to keep the peace, paramilitary professionalism and community engagement; a department riven by internal dissension; a department accustomed to shrugging off external criticism now drowning in a torrent of it.
Operating in the particularly difficult and dangerous environment that is Los Angeles, most of the time the LAPD is not embroiled in scandal. Its officers are broadly seen as a strong, physical, authoritative presence–tough, honest cops, cops who can and will take command of a situation, who do not sit and wait, but the kind of cops, as they like to say in the department, who go looking for trouble.
That they should so often find it is not an accident. And if it is an accident that they find it now more than ever, then it is an accident 50 years in the making.
Founding Father: Bill Parker
LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks is a notably stern man. His most influential predecessor, Chief William H. Parker, would make Parks seem like the class clown.
“Parker never smiled. Never,” says Tom Reddin, one of Parker’s deputies and his successor. Parker was a workaholic–first into the office and last to leave. He trusted virtually no one–with good reason, given the number of crooked cops who populated the department as he climbed its ranks.
The LAPD for much of Parker’s early career was little more than a handmaiden to organized crime and corrupt politicians. By 1950, when Parker became chief, another reform movement had swept local government and he was to become its agent in cleaning up the department.
He did much more. In his 16 years as chief, Parker remade the LAPD. In the process, he popularized a new style of policing that would eventually become the standard not just in Los Angeles but across the country.
Parker, who could quote whole pages of Scripture–sometimes at the top of his lungs–brought an almost religious commitment to reinventing the LAPD.
“Parker rebuilt the department, establishing everything from organized crime units to the blue wool uniform,” Reddin says. “People would come from all over the world to study us.”
“He started a planning and research division,” says Daryl Gates, another former chief. “What police department ever had planning and research?”
In an era when police training in much of the world consisted of an occasional visit to the target range, Parker turned the Los Angeles Police Academy into a civilian version of a military boot camp. He added boats, helicopters, Breathalyzers and portable radios to the department. He built a new headquarters with a research library.
But for all the gear with which Parker equipped his officers, his two most enduring achievements had little to do with the physical stuff of police work.
First, he built a political base for the department, assiduously courting politicians and going around them to the people when he needed, making hundreds of speeches a year to civic organizations. Parker’s persistent and winning argument was that in order to keep the department free of pernicious corruption, he needed to keep it free of political encumbrance.
Unmentioned in his crime-fighting speeches, he also employed an intelligence unit within his department that routinely collected incriminating material on local politicians. A change in the City Charter before he took office had given him virtual life tenure, and he used his permanence to build a power base surpassing that of any other local official.
“The police became a power unto themselves, unregulated by the democratic process. From the inside, everybody on the outside was an enemy or potential enemy. If politicians–instruments of the will of the people–tried to intervene, the police dismissed it as political meddling,” says David Dotson, a retired deputy chief.
Abetted by the movie industry and then TV, and what amounted to his own personal propaganda department headed by Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” series, Parker made the LAPD a national force in policing and used the celebrity to cement his political power at home.
His second lasting achievement was to change the very definition of what a cop was.
The prototypical cop had been the beefy, not entirely ambitious, not particularly bright sort more likely to be an adornment to a coffee counter than an active agent of law enforcement. Parker institutionalized the idea of a police officer as a professional–highly trained, specialized, fit and above all assertive. He emphasized hyper-aggressive, proactive policing.
Like so much else in Southern California, this was shaped in part by the boundlessness of the place. As Bayan Lewis, a former interim chief who joined the department at the height of Parker’s reign, expresses it: “Because there were so few of us with such a large area to cover, we were hunters, hunter-killers. We were not a community-friendly organization, because we didn’t have the time. The feeling was: I don’t have time for the touchy-feely stuff.”
The notion of a highly mobile police force, armed and equipped to the teeth, was born.
Reddin recalls that Parker so wanted his officers to be active, he voluntarily cut an already small force to increase their responsibilities.
“Parker wanted it to be small,” he says. “Once, when budget cuts were proposed, he stepped forward and offered to cut 600 officers.”
Parker brought social science into the squad room, treating the department like a factory. He began measuring officer productivity, ranking officers by the number of arrests they made, interviews they conducted and traffic tickets they wrote.
These rankings, called the recap, are still posted monthly in roll call rooms throughout the department. “Just keep the numbers up to keep the folks off your ass,” says Dotson. “It’s a relentless push.”
Says Rich Andert, a patrol officer in the West Valley Division: “If your recap numbers are down, you hear about it. They don’t look for a certain number. But they praise the ones who are productive, and they let you know if you’re not.”
Before Parker, most police work was done in reaction to crime. Somebody did something bad, police tried to catch them. Parker turned it around. He made crime suppression part of the police lexicon. Forty years before New York declared a law enforcement revolution with a new zero-tolerance program built largely on aggressive police stops, Los Angeles cops were frisking anybody they felt looked capable of committing a crime.
Parker’s officers would in many years make double or triple the arrests made in New York, which then had three times as many people and four times as many cops.
As remarkable as the transformation of the LAPD under Parker has been the persistence of his changes. Parker died in office in 1966. Since then, the department–with only brief interludes, most notably Willie Williams’ misbegotten five-year term–has been run by three direct Parker descendants: Ed Davis, Daryl Gates and Bernard Parks.
Davis as a young lieutenant was handpicked by Parker to write the department’s now 621-page manual. Gates was Parker’s driver. Parks as a young officer was a Davis acolyte and still consults him. All career LAPD men, they are different in many respects but fully committed to Parker’s central notions of a proactive police led by a politically powerful and independent chief with unquestioned authority.
On Patrol In South L.A.
Randy Cochran seems out of place in the 21st century, as if he slipped under the millennial curtain without a ticket. He has an open, uncomplicated quality about him–not a shred of cynicism or irony. He’s guileless, by every account an honest man. He’s also a big man, not buffed-out big, but stout big, big enough in any case that you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with him. You wouldn’t run from him either. He has an unguarded, welcoming face. Whatever he’s thinking is written there to see.
Cochran is a cop Bill Parker would have loved: a straight arrow, proud of the department and of himself–a producer. He and a longtime partner used to consider their day a failure if they quit their shift without answering at least 20 calls and making a felony arrest.
“I got this arresting thing down to a science,” Cochran says.
He has been on the force for 26 years, almost all of them on patrol in South Los Angeles. The LAPD is divided into four broad geographic bureaus, and each of those is subdivided, for a total of 18 geographic divisions. Each of the divisions serves 150,000 to 270,000 residents.
Southwest is one of four divisions in the South Bureau. It is bounded roughly by the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways, La Cienega Boulevard and 52nd Street. Its most notable landmark is USC. It is further divided into 10 patrol districts, called “basic car” areas, which are the department’s smallest geographic unit.
Southwest, with 164,000 residents in 10 square miles, is one of the smallest, and busiest, divisions.
Cochran is just back on patrol after four months on what they call “soft duty,” behind a desk recuperating from an eye operation. “It was absolutely killing me,” he says, referring to the desk job, not the surgery.
Police work is highly stratified, varying greatly according to rank, specialty and place of assignment. Many street cops don’t have high regard for inside work. Squint jobs, they call them. Wanting to advance in rank–promoting, they call it–is seen not as a destination or an activity, but a state of being and an indication of low character.
Cochran’s partner today is a young patrol officer, Irma Garcia. Garcia is about a foot shorter, a hundred pounds and 30 years lighter than Cochran. Cochran loves partnering with her nonetheless because, like him, she wants to work hard and put people in jail. Generations apart, they are quintessential LAPD cops.
The LAPD at the moment is experiencing a sort of maturity crisis. As the generation that filled the ranks after Vietnam retires, the department is getting younger. Almost three-quarters of the patrol force has 10 years’ experience or less. Fifty-six percent have five years or less. The result is that the police officers who deal most with the public have the least experience doing that.
Overall, almost half the total force (46%) has been hired since the Rodney King beating in 1991. In that hiring, the department has done a remarkable job of diversifying what was once criticized as an overwhelmingly white male force. A majority are now people of color, with Latinos making up a third. The force is still heavily male, but women now constitute about a fifth. About one-fourth have college degrees. One-fifth served in the military.
At roll call, computer printouts of crimes reported in the division are passed around. Every division now has people assigned to computer crime analysis. The squad rooms are plastered with their handiwork–maps, graphs, increases, decreases and goals.
It’s part of Chief Parks’ campaign for a data analysis system called FASTRAC. This particular system is new to the LAPD but is no different in concept from the pushpin maps the department has used since the Parker era.
Today’s handouts deal with gangs and cars. In the Southwest Division, as in the rest of the city, there has recently been a resurgence in gang activity. Police think the disbanding of the department’s anti-gang units after the discovery of abuses in the Rampart Division caused this increase. Coincident with the gang revival has been another surge in car thefts, late-model Toyotas in particular.
Cochran and Garcia check out equipment–Ford Crown Victoria patrol car, 12-gauge pump shotgun, riot helmets, radios. Some cars also carry military assault rifles, added to the LAPD arsenal after officers found themselves outgunned at the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery. Neither Cochran nor Garcia is qualified to use the rifle, so they don’t carry one.
The radio cars themselves are another LAPD innovation, first deployed in the 1930s. Cops call them shops. A group of eight officers is assigned to each car: two patrol officers per eight-hour shift, plus a sergeant and a senior lead officer. Theoretically, the officers are assigned to work with the same partner all the time, but in practice there is a constant shuffling because of vacations, schedule conflicts or training.
Cochran is the senior lead, or SLO, for Basic Car 3A57, the patrol district that includes USC. He treats his assigned area as an old-fashioned beat, makes it a point to know people and their habits, in part out of natural friendliness, in part to be aware of who belongs and who doesn’t. He cruises the district with the window down, calling out, “Hello,” and “How ya doin’?” People wave back, call him by name, or say, “Hey, Sarge.” Whatever his actual rank, he looks like a Sarge.
Cochran has been on patrol for 20 years. He’s never even taken the sergeant’s exam.
Afraid of failing? he’s asked.
“Afraid of passing,” he answers. “If I go up any higher, I’m off the street.”
Cochran is a minor legend within the LAPD, a career patrol officer who excels at the single activity most prized within the department–making arrests. People tell stories about arrests he’s made, like the time he tracked down a felony suspect with an outstanding warrant. The guy told Cochran he’d be happy to get arrested tomorrow, but today he had to pick up his son, who was himself just getting released from jail. If he weren’t there to meet him, the father said, no one would.
Cochran, to the chagrin of his partner, bought the guy’s hard-luck tale and told him to turn himself in after he got his son. The next day, sure enough, the guy showed up at the station and asked for Crocker, which was the name of a street in the neighborhood and which residents gave Cochran for a nickname.
“What for?” the man was asked.
“I come in to get arrested,” he said.
Cochran and Garcia are moseying through their district when they pick up the first radio call of the watch–a residential burglary alarm, one of the most common and irritating calls police get. Ninety-nine percent of the calls turn out to be false alarms, but there is no way to know without checking. They roll on it.
It’s in a nice neighborhood but at a house that has seen better days. Cochran goes to the door, raps and hollers, “Po-lice.” He repeats it, louder, and the door opens on a grizzled old man, standing back in the semi-dark. He has some sort of twine draped over his shoulders.
Cochran tells him they came to check out the alarm. The guy responds unintelligibly.
Cochran asks what he’s doing in the house.
Packing, he says.
It’s not clear at first if this means he’s getting ready to move or what.
Packing what? Cochran asks.
This, the guy says, and follows the twine down from his shoulders to his waistband, where it is attached to a .38-caliber Beretta.
“Whoa,” says Cochran.
Garcia reaches for her pistol.
Playing It By the Book
Police preach that every situation, every call, has a potential for danger. Most involve none. Those that do can be grave.
Several weeks ago, Harbor Division police were called to a residence in San Pedro where they found a woman and her son, both seriously wounded by a knife. The woman’s boyfriend had attacked them, they said. An ambulance rushed them to a hospital, and police went looking for the boyfriend.
They found him not long after and cornered him in the backyard of an empty house. The search took awhile, and by the time they found him, more than a dozen cops were on the scene. The man still had what appeared to be a butcher knife.
In such a situation, LAPD officers are trained to use what they call escalating force. They begin by trying to talk the person into putting the weapon down. That failed in this case, and they moved up a notch to a nonlethal weapon–a shotgun that fires beanbag-like projectiles designed to stun their victim. The officers fired the beanbags several times to no apparent effect. The man refused to drop his knife.
The other officers played it by the book and deployed an electronic stun gun called a Taser, the same sort of weapon used against Rodney King. An officer prepared to fire the Taser. It jammed. The man took a step toward the officer who had the Taser.
The officers played it by the book, opened fire with their handguns and killed the man.
Unlike many violent confrontations involving the LAPD, this shooting was noncontroversial. It merited a single story inside the next day’s newspaper, then disappeared.
The next week, a senior detective spoke about the incident with regret–not for the man who had died, but for the man who had done the shooting, a Harbor Division sergeant.
“The officer did the right thing,” said Lt. Faryl Fletcher, the sergeant’s supervisor. “This man wasn’t going anywhere. It had to stop.”
Why? Why not wait?
“You could,” Fletcher said, pausing to consider it. “You could wait, but that’s not what happens.” He paused again. “Unless SWAT is called out. That’s what they do. SWAT waits.”
But why couldn’t your officers have waited?
“Waiting is not looked upon favorably,” he said.
Fletcher is not a cowboy. He’s a career officer, worried about his daughter’s grades, a man who has thought long and hard about what a cop is, what it has meant to him to be a cop. And he is right about this.
The LAPD habitually does not wait. A top command officer in the department, asked afterward about this incident, said with some exasperation, “Look, we carry guns for a reason. It’s not there for ballast.”
Written LAPD policies explicitly authorize the use of deadly force to protect officers or others from “an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury. . . . Deadly force shall only be exercised when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impracticable.”
Among those things that are “impracticable,” the department maintains, are shooting to wound or shooting to disarm a suspect, like in the movies. The LAPD teaches its officers to shoot to kill, or, as it is more neutrally put, to aim for a “center mass hit.” Center mass on a human being is the chest.
Chief Parks is asked about the shooting, and about the LAPD’s general lack of patience.
“Spontaneous events will always be the Achilles’ heel of police officers,” he says. “Because they must act immediately. They can’t retreat. We would be offended if we turned on the TV and saw police officers retreating down the street, running from a crime.”
Asked why LAPD officers have repeatedly shot and killed people armed with knives, screwdrivers or other frequently less-than-lethal weapons, Parks says: “There is nothing in the manual that says an officer has to take a stab wound for LAPD. We train officers not to go into hand-to-hand combat with somebody with a knife. We tried the tools that were available–the Taser, the beanbag.
“Officers are looking at the worst scenario,” he says. “You have him cornered in the yard. Do you let him then go running down the street or through the house? If he had gone, if we would back away and let him simmer down and he kicks in a door and takes a hostage, what would the story then be that day if he kills a person in the house?”
But there was no one in the house. There was the guy with the knife and a bunch of police officers, all more heavily armed than the guy.
“Which one do you decide that we lose if he charges one of them and stabs him?” Parks asks.
If You Lose, You Die
So what the hell is Randy Cochran doing standing there chatting with this slightly loopy citizen who just happens to have a Beretta on his hip?
Cochran asks the guy his name–which corresponds with the homeowner’s–asks about the alarm again, then wishes him a good day.
“Be careful with that,” he says, pointing to the pistol. Then he and Garcia let out big breaths and walk away.
Once back in the squad car, they use their computer to run the license plate of a car in the driveway of the house and recheck the man’s name. It all matches. It’s his house, and there’s no law against wearing a gun inside your home.
How did Cochran know not to challenge the man?
“He looked like he belonged,” Cochran says.
Garcia, who stood to the rear and side of Cochran during the incident, says it was a tricky situation. The book says to ensure safety. How do you do that? For an LAPD officer, that usually means to take charge.
Ted Hunt, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League–the police union–and a former instructor at the LAPD academy, says the crux of that training is to be in command of a situation.
“You will take command. You better take command, or you’ll go back out there and run the track some more,” Hunt says.
It is maybe the hardest thing an officer has to learn on the job–when to back off, how to reconcile formal training with the real world. Patrol officers say almost without exception that this comes only with time on the street, five to 10 years. Younger officers typically carry what’s called “a heavy badge,” meaning that they are too insistent on asserting their authority. They haven’t learned that hard charging can be more dangerous, not less.
By the time most officers learn this, most of them are no longer on the street.
If it had been she at the door, Garcia says: “I think I would have handcuffed him. If you don’t, if something goes wrong, it’s going to go bad. If you take the gun away, nothing bad is going to happen.”
That would have been precisely by the book. The man was a bit scary, he had a weapon, he wasn’t completely coherent. Exactly because of that, however, trying to disarm the man could have provoked a catastrophe.
“If I had Irma’s time on the job, I would have laid the guy out. I woulda had my knee in his back,” Cochran says.
“They teach you stuff,” he says, “to the point it’s second nature. And that’s good. They get you to that point where self-protection is the primary concern. If it’s not, he could kill you.
“The costs of doing a police job wrong are just deadly. If you lose, you die. It’s not like you break a No. 2 pencil and you go get another one. You’re dead.”
Cochran killed a man several years ago, choked him out. He had been called to a robbery in progress at a restaurant, which as in today’s incident, turned out not to be a robbery but a disturbed man making a commotion.
“He was a great big guy who didn’t rob anybody, but he was clearly disturbed,” Cochran recalls. “Got into a great big, honest-to-goodness knock-down-drag-out. I choked him. Or at least that’s what they said. I gave him the first choke and the last. There were several others in between. They said mine killed him. It had a profound impact on me. You go through those kinds of things. One minute you’re talking to him, the next he’s dead. How do you handle that?”
Cochran has since been restrained in how he handles people. But this sort of “soft policing” is not held in universal high regard in the department.
Dave Smith, a recently retired division captain, says there is a constant push for aggressive behavior.
“Compassion is a weak word. It’s worse than soft. It’s almost communist,” Smith says. “At roll call once I praised somebody for not shooting a robbery suspect. They had every right to, but waited that extra second and didn’t. Several sergeants came up to me later and said, ‘Cap, you’re sending the wrong message out there. Somebody could get killed.’
“The worst thing is to sit around with a bunch of cops watching a barricade situation. They’ll all be grousing, ‘Shoot the son of a bitch so we can get home.’ ”
Randy Cochran came on the LAPD after he was discharged from the Army Airborne. He was working at a refinery when he joined up, in Ed Davis’ eight-year run as chief. Tom Reddin had followed Parker as chief, but stayed only two years before taking a high-paying job as a TV commentator. Davis was next.
Davis didn’t shrink from Parker’s model of the chief as king of his domain. He embraced it–enshrined it, in fact, so that those who followed him took it as a prerogative of the job, even when in later years the community insisted that the chief be more of a public servant than a benevolent dictator–or now, when the federal government insists that Bernard Parks yield to its authority.
Davis was a far more flamboyant figure than either Reddin or Parker and, in a different way, as innovative as Parker.
He became chief just three years after the 1965 Watts riots and needed to repair community relations. He says now that he wanted to bring the community so close it couldn’t tell where the cops ended and the community began. He started the country’s first Neighborhood Watch organizations and
assigned some of his best cops to be community liaisons. He developed the Basic Car Plan still in use. The cops themselves weren’t completely sold on his approach. Davis didn’t care.
“Any good CEO has to kick some ass. I did,” Davis says. “You can’t want to be loved like Tom Reddin or cater to them like Daryl [Gates]. You need a chief of police who has balls, who will establish authority.
“I believe in believing. I believe in making sure the belief goes through the organization. A lot of guys in an organization have no organized religion. They believe in nothing but themselves. So you have to be a leader. You have to be a preacher.”
For all his innovation in dealing with the good citizens, Davis was unapologetic about how he dealt with those he thought were bad. And he was resolutely sure he could tell the difference. The God-fearing middle class was good; homosexuals, Black Panthers and a wide variety of other radicals and pornographers were bad. Davis spoke fervently about scrubbing the city clean.
He was an unusual combination of innovator and conservator. He left at the peak of his popularity to make an unsuccessful run for governor. He was succeeded by Gates, Parker’s young protégé.
By Davis’ judgment and that of many others, Gates virtually reconstituted the department the way Parker had left it. Both Reddin and Davis made changes, and Gates undid them. Reddin and Davis tried to bring the community into the department. Gates shut it out.
Proposition 13 arrived virtually at the same time Gates became chief, and he was forced to begin cutting budgets almost immediately. He says he wanted to do it by attrition, got into a fight with Mayor Tom Bradley over the plan and from then on he was on his own.
He and Bradley went years without speaking. The separation was more than symbolic. During Gates’ time in office, the LAPD’s resources shrank, and Gates insisted that the department nonetheless do more. He fostered an intense pride within the department, pitting it against not only crooks and criminals, but the mayor, the City Council, the Police Commission that was supposed to be his boss.
Dave Dotson recalls Gates chewing out commission members who dared to challenge him. Gates himself relishes recollections of threats against City Council members who opposed him.
“I’d challenge council members; told them, ‘I’ll go into your district and tell them you’re wrong, and I’ll tell them the reason why you’re opposing me is the police union contributes money to your campaign.’ ”
“You wouldn’t do that,” they’d say.
“Oh yes I would,” Gates says he would reply.
“Gates saw he wasn’t going to get the money to grow the department,” says Bayan Lewis, then an LAPD command officer. “He really fostered the military aspect, created an occupational army, the Hammer, anti-gang task forces, sweeps in which we’d arrest 1,000 people, arrest anything that looked or spoke like a gang member. Few of them were ever charged, but it was effective. By God, if you even look like a gang member, you’re going to jail.”
Gates says he did all of that to maximize his limited resources, following Parker’s philosophy of doing more with less.
The net result, as everyone came to understand too late, was a huge divide between the community and the police that culminated in the Rodney King affair and the riots that followed.
“We started losing our way in the ’70s,” says Joe Gunn, a former LAPD cop and current executive director of the Police Commission. “People would say, ‘Your cops are having a hard time differentiating between the good people and the bad people.’ We started becoming over-aggressive.”
Whatever his faults, which by consensus were many, Gates built a pride within the department that overrode almost everything else, including any outside criticism. Gates is said by people who were with him at the time to have received his copy of the Christopher Commission report issued in the aftermath of the King beating and tossed it dismissively to the floor.
The Gates era was the formative period for most senior members of the LAPD, including virtually all the command staff. He did not leave behind an institution eager to accept change.
The short and unhappy reign of Willie Williams came next and is important now in illustrating the lengths to which the LAPD would go to reject outside advice, even if the outsider was the chief.
Williams was by every account a flawed leader. Whether those flaws or his outsiderness was the primary cause, his authority was compromised by a long internecine struggle to subvert and be rid of him. One of those who led the successful insurgency was the man who succeeded him–Bernard C. Parks.
The Unpopular Mr. Parks
Bernie Parks is tall and erect as a statue, and, critics say, about as flexible. Expressions of disdain for him within the ranks are so common and passionate, it seems impossible that he has earned them in just three years.
In any organization with such large differences between the work performed by its field and office operations, rifts inevitably develop. In the LAPD under Parks that rift has grown into an abyss.
It’s not all Parks’ doing. This is a singularly bad time for department morale. The Rampart scandal, following as it does the Simpson scandal and the King scandal and so on, has sapped the department’s strength. For the first time in decades, the LAPD is having a hard time finding enough recruits to replace record numbers of people leaving.
“People are leaving for other forces in the area,” says Ed Diot, a senior patrol officer in the Harbor Division. “When I came on, it was unheard of to go to another department. LAPD was the ultimate in law enforcement. There was no place to go from here.”
Rich Andert, another patrol officer, says he has heard mutterings of the unthinkable. “I’ve heard people actually wishing we had Willie back,” he says. “I can imagine someone sitting where I’m sitting saying, ‘He [Parks] is the stupidest man alive and should not be allowed to run this department.’ I can imagine someone saying that.”
What exactly has Parks done to earn such enmity?
Faced with a growing shortage of patrol officers, he gutted the senior lead officer program, which went all the way back to Davis. He needed the bodies on patrol more than neighborhood liaisons, he says, and besides, community policing should be the work of the entire force, not just 168 people.
He refused to implement a compressed three-day work schedule of 12-hour shifts favored by patrol officers.
He has instituted a discipline system that many officers find oppressive and trivial at the same time.
The LAPD for decades has been accused of being lax in its discipline. One of the reasons the U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue L.A. is because the department has been unable to implement a system of tracking which officers get in trouble the most. Community members have charged repeatedly that their complaints are thrown out without so much as a cursory investigation.
This produces the paradoxical situation in which a chief attempting to deal with one of the worst scandals in LAPD history is being attacked within the department for trying to discipline wayward officers.
None of Parks’ internal critics think he should go softer on people like Rafael Perez, the chief informant in the Rampart scandal. But they think Parks has used Rampart as an excuse to impose his will on the entire department.
The issue of control is not an idle one for cops, especially not for LAPD cops. In many ways, it is the single issue that unifies the department.
Most cops, according to profiles constructed by LAPD psychologists, go into police work in large part because they like to have control over their lives. They like to be left alone to do their jobs. If not princes of the city, then they would be knights at least.
It goes through the entire department, from the chief’s desire to resist outside intrusion–“There’s no logic to it. It’s a belief,” says ex-Chief Reddin–to the beat officer’s notion that his patrol car, his shop, is his castle.
There is the additional pervasive and often troubling issue of controlling crime suspects, both physically and psychologically. Whatever personal venalities were involved, control of gangs was the overarching cause of the Rampart scandal.
Parks has waded into this thicket and offended almost everyone.
The field cops hate him because they feel he is trying to control every breath they take. As a result, many have, in effect, quit breathing. Although it isn’t reflected in departmental data, numerous officers say they have stopped trying to make arrests, for fear that somebody will file a complaint against them and Parks will investigate it.
One patrol veteran of 30 years says he was warned to buy new shoes because the soles on the ones he had were too thick.
Supervisors resent Parks for usurping their authority. This happens in big ways and small. One of the broadest is Parks’ top-down administration of his FASTRAC crime analysis project. Every month, area commanders are called downtown and grilled over the specifics of what they are doing about particular crimes in particular neighborhoods.
The commanders hate it. It’s like being called out in front of the class when you haven’t done your homework. The result is that they all have assigned people to analysis units, even if it meant pulling officers off the street to do it.
Deputy Chief Maurice Moore, who runs the program, says it doesn’t matter if people like it or not. The chief wants “command accountability,” he said.
Parks says being popular with the rank and file has “never been my goal, so if I don’t achieve that, that’s not something I care about.”
Jeffrey Eglash, the Police Commission’s inspector general, speaking more broadly of the department’s desire to be free from oversight, said: “Control really is the big issue for this department. I think for them, control is not a means to an end. I think control is an end in itself.”
A Question of Who Belongs
“I know they want a kinder, gentler police force, but it’s not a kinder, gentler society,” Randy Cochran says.
It’s a routine midweek day watch. He and his partner, Irma Garcia, had to make a trip to the other end of the division to check on a report of a transient living in somebody’s garage. The report had been filed a month ago, but the man who was supposed to follow it up is on the promotion list for sergeant and is afraid of getting into a dispute that would lead to a complaint.
Complaint avoidance is the order of the day.
Cops constantly talk about their “package,” what is or isn’t good for their package, how thick or thin or beef-ridden it is. The package is their personnel file, what in high school would have been called your permanent record. In an organization that has so many varied assignments and so much movement among them, having a bad package, one with too many complaints, is like losing your passport–you’ll go nowhere without it.
Tracking complaints is a central point of the recent discussions between the LAPD and the U.S. Justice Department. The feds want a computerized system and had previously allocated money for one to be developed. The LAPD has yet to do so, for reasons that have never been clearly articulated.
Critics see it as yet another example of the department’s resistance to outside suggestions. But that does not mean citizen complaints are ignored as they were in the past, cops say. They complain that nowadays the opposite is closer to the truth.
Garcia has applied to work on the narcotics squad and seemed set to be accepted when she received a complaint from a citizen who alleged that she had cursed at him. Fortunately for Garcia, she had tape-recorded her confrontation with the man–as many officers routinely do now–and the tape disproved the complaint.
The complaint, however, won’t go away and, with her package clouded, her move to narcotics is on hold. She’s still learning how to be a cop, and she has acquired a level of uncertainty that isn’t helping.
She got in a fight with a transient the week before and was almost choked to death. Her partner saved her. She still isn’t sure if her hesitation almost cost her her life.
“I tried everything. Tried to use our verbal judo to handle him, like we’re taught. Nothing worked. Given my size, I need to be aggressive. I’ve asked myself, ‘When should you be? When should you back off?’ That’s a difficult choice. I’m frustrated. Society is violent. I’ve experienced a level of violence I’ve never seen or anticipated.”
She grew up in the Hollenbeck Division, which is on the Eastside. (Cops often tell you where they live or where they used to live by naming the police division.) She went to Catholic college to become a teacher. She received a degree but decided she couldn’t bear the thought of being locked in a room all day with a bunch of kids. She came on the LAPD four years ago.
Cochran has been driving through a Latino neighborhood near USC. Suddenly, a 3-series BMW with a ski rack zooms through an intersection ahead of him. Cochran immediately guns the Ford to follow.
“Those don’t look like your average skiers to me,” he says. In the brief moment the BMW had taken to pass by, Cochran, who is white, thought he saw two young African Americans inside. The BMW is clipping along and Cochran follows while Garcia runs the plate. The car is registered to a man with a Spanish surname.
“I suppose this could look like one of those ‘driving while black’ things,” Cochran says.
Yes, in fact, it sure could.
“It’s not,” he says. “I see two young blacks in a BMW with a ski rack in a Hispanic neighborhood. The LAPD takes the little bitty things and uses them. Adds them up. I’m a product of LAPD. I see it as maybe a stolen car. I look at it as good police work.”
But who’s to say black people don’t ski?
Cochran’s point, he says, is that the BMW does not seem “to belong” in the neighborhood.
This is, almost on the face of it, explicitly what the courts have said police cannot do–make such judgments solely based on what the people look like.
On the other side, the fact that “he looked like he belonged” was the reason Cochran gave for not trying to disarm the man who earlier had answered his door with a handgun at his side. In that instance, Cochran used the same criterion to defuse an incident. How do you later not use the same intuition?
“I don’t know the answer to all that stuff. You gotta go with your life’s experiences,” Cochran says. “I’ve been doing this so long, anything other than aggressive patrol seems bad.”
The BMW pulls into a post office parking lot. A young black woman gets out of the passenger side, and a tall Latino gets out of the driver’s side. Cochran asks if he has keys to the car. The guy holds them up quizzically. Cochran says thanks and rolls on by.
This leads to a discussion of how you tell who is a gang member. Cochran and Garcia decide: baggy clothes, hanging out, attitude, tattoos, making gang signs.
But couldn’t one or more of these criteria apply to thousands of people who aren’t gang members?
“If you dress like a duck, act like a duck, quack like a duck, then you probably are. If I don’t think this way as a police officer, I’d be dead. And I’ve seen way too many dead people,” Cochran says. “It’s fine and dandy if all of this is on paper, drawn out. Out here, there’s a gray area that just keeps moving.”
Garcia agrees. She and Cochran are people of action. That’s why they took this gig in the first place. “Citizens are suffering out here because we’re not doing enough. The neighbors are tired. I’m here to serve this community,'” she says.
The words sit there, dead on arrival. She sighs. “Oh, I know everybody says that, but I really am. There’s been 13 homicides here in the last three months. That’s horrible. The gangsters have this attitude they can do whatever they want.”
It’s a fine day. The jacarandas are in bloom. The partners have been in one or two dangerous situations and, except for Cochran’s mental health, there were no injuries.
“I got a headache just from talking about this,” he says. “People say, ‘You’re doing it all wrong. You don’t have a clue.’ Well, bullshit. My whole life is in this. I know what I’m doing.
“This isn’t just something I do,” he says. “It’s part of who I am. And I wouldn’t know how else to be.”
We Run Toward the Bullets
The LAPD’s culture has triumphed too completely.
“Culture” is a neutral term, implying neither good nor bad. Most human organizations–countries, businesses, chamber orchestras–have cultures, which means simply that people within them learn ways to behave, how to speak, move, interact with one another and with outsiders. What distinguishes culture from other group characteristics is that it is learned.
The LAPD’s culture is not different in most respects from those of other police organizations. Many police departments in fact closely model the LAPD. They have grown alike in large part because other organizations have copied Los Angeles. But L.A. remains distinctive.
“The special culture of the LAPD is their military nature and their absolute resistance to outside scrutiny of any kind,” says Samuel Walker, a criminologist.
Inside the department, especially in the upper ranks, few concessions are made to the idea that something is dramatically askew. But the entry of the U.S. Justice Department into LAPD affairs and the apparent acceptance of that intrusion by much of the local political establishment illustrates the broad agreement outside the department that something has gone very wrong.
The LAPD’s command staff, almost in spite of itself, confirms the legitimacy of much of the outside criticism. The critics and the cops generally agree on what the department does. They disagree on whether it ought to be doing it.
Parks says those critics are a distinct minority.
“The general public has a much more balanced view of the department and human nature,” he says. “The general public does not view every incident as a scandal or corruption. They view it as they view their families, as some individuals do well and some don’t do well, but it doesn’t mean you throw the whole organization out.”
The LAPD, in fact, has a long history of popular support. City Councilwoman Laura Chick says that support is one of the reasons the department has been able to avoid change.
“We got more calls on the dog licensing, spay and neuter thing, than on Rampart–all of us did,” she says.
When they’re feeling particularly defensive, which is often these days, conversations with members of the LAPD often circle around to a scene in a movie–this is Los Angeles, after all.
The movie is “A Few Good Men.” In the scene often cited, an angry Marine colonel played by Jack Nicholson berates a lawyer who has questioned his judgment.
“Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?” Nicholson says.
There remains in the LAPD a general feeling that anyone unwilling to stand in the line of fire is discredited as a critic of those who do. As numerous officers put it: “We’re the only people in society, when we hear shots being fired, we run toward the bullets.”
Bayan Lewis, public safety chief of Los Angeles County and the interim LAPD chief between Parks and Williams, says the department’s insularity is abnormal.
“All police departments tend to be inward-looking,” he says. “But LAPD is worse than anybody. It’s us against the world. We see ourselves as the last bastion of good people in a world that’s crumbling.”
Smith, the recently retired captain, says, “The hierarchy of the LAPD down to the patrol officer believes the people who know how to police Los Angeles are the police and no one else. If we continue to say we know better than everyone, we’re never going to change.”
Flying Low, Flying Blind
Think of it this way.
Hundreds of commercial airliners carry people thousands of miles on thousands of flights a day. They are designed with so-called triple redundant safety systems. Every critical system has a backup system; and the backup systems have backup systems. A lot has to go wrong all at once for them to fail, and, in fact, they rarely crash. When they do, however, scores of people can die.
Are they unsafe? By any measure, commercial flight is one of the safest means of transportation ever devised. It is inherently dangerous only because airliners operate miles above ground. On those rare occasions when a lot does go wrong, a crash is inevitable.
Imagine the LAPD as an airliner, a complex system that somehow manages to perform thousands of difficult and often dangerous tasks without incident every day. Backup systems are built into it to attempt to ensure that it doesn’t crash. But sometimes, when the right combination of things go wrong, it crashes spectacularly.
What makes the airplane susceptible to crashing is the fact that it is up in the air in the first place. LAPD commanders argue that, as with an airplane, danger is inherent in what they do.
But the department’s most fundamental beliefs–aggressive, proactive policing and a fiercely guarded political independence–are things that people in the department have chosen to believe. These LAPD core beliefs are not inherent, they’re learned. It’s the equivalent of an airliner taking off in heavy fog. If you choose to do so, every once in a while you are going to go down in flames.
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, December 31, 2000
Perez’s Bitter Saga of Lies, Regrets and Harm
Nicknamed ‘the Preacher’ for his seriousness as a youth, he became a role model for LAPD colleagues. Now, as he sits in jail, he and others try to explain what happened.
By TERRY MCDERMOTT, Times Staff Writer
Whatever else he was, is, or ever will be, for most of the 10 years Rafael Perez was in the Los Angeles Police Department he exemplified the hard-charging ideals the LAPD promotes. He was a good cop–a very good cop, even–who at some point became one of a certain, distinctive other kind of cop.
Not an outlaw cop. Not at first. It started, as it usually does, more subtly than that.
One of Perez’s old bosses, talking not long ago about the secret pleasures of a policeman’s life, recalled how he and friends would think nothing of ending a night shift at 1 a.m. in, say, Foothill Division, far northwestern Los Angeles, then driving 50 miles to Anaheim for a beer. They knew a tavern there that stayed open late.
“If you have a badge,” he said, “you can drive real fast.”
In addition to the thrill of speeding across a sleeping landscape of 12 million people, this recollection hints at a vital aspect of life as some cops live it. They inhabit–or think they do–a world apart from normal men and women.
This belief is not unusual in the Los Angeles Police Department, where insularity has been raised to a sacramental rite; it is particularly pronounced in the department’s special units, distinct segments of the force that operate with virtual autonomy.
Cops in these units are, by definition, set apart–even from other police. For most of his career, Perez, the man at the center of the LAPD Rampart scandal, worked in two of these units: gang suppression and undercover narcotics.
It is common, particularly among the hardest charging cops in these units, to come to believe they reign over secret domains, that they are governed by codes of behavior of their own devising, liberated from normal life and its bothersome rules. In this shadow world, they can come to feel like royalty, true princes of the city and masters of all they survey.
They drive real fast.
What we know now about Rafael Perez, of course, makes breaking the speed limit look like a missed homework assignment.
What we know, in summary, is this:
Perez has admitted to hundreds of instances of perjury, fabrication of evidence and false arrests. He has admitted stealing drugs from police evidence lockers and reselling them on the street. He has admitted stealing drugs, guns and cash from gang members.
He has alleged that the Rampart Division’s anti-gang CRASH unit sought to send neighborhood gang members to prison or to have them extradited, whether or not they actually committed crimes. He has said he helped put hundreds of innocent men in jail–innocent, in any event, of the crimes with which they were charged.
Included among these men was one gangster, Javier Ovando, whom Perez said he and his partner framed for allegedly attempting to murder them. In fact, Perez said, when they shot and paralyzed Ovando, he was unarmed. Perez has said he routinely observed police officers beating innocent people. Rampart CRASH became, Perez has said, a “brotherhood,” a gang in its own right.
The scandal Perez unleashed caused the temporary disbanding of all the LAPD’s anti-gang details. The scandal has so far caused more than 30 officers to be disciplined and five to be fired. Nine others resigned. In addition to Perez, three have been convicted of crimes, based in large part on information he provided. Those convictions have since been reversed and the officers await a retrial.
The scope of the scandal has caused millions of dollars to be spent investigating it. It played a key role in the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to force the LAPD to surrender its vaunted independence to the oversight of the federal courts.
Perez has called himself a monster and warned of the dangers of the corruption of power. Others have been harsher. He has been variously called the worst police officer in the history of Los Angeles, lying scum, a traitor, a career drug dealer, a gangster.
He has also, to less notice, been regarded by a few as something of a Los Angeles Serpico, a cop dedicated to rooting out wrongdoing in a department he loves. In return for his confession to drug thefts and cooperation with investigators, Perez was given a five-year sentence and immunity from other charges.
He is currently in County Jail, where he spends most of his time locked down, alone in a cell, reading, and, when able, watching police dramas on television. He also spends a considerable amount of time testifying against his former fellow officers, many of whom now revile him.
Assuming he is not charged with new crimes (not necessarily a safe assumption, given the zeal with which federal investigators are pursuing allegations against him) and with time off for good behavior, Perez will probably walk out of jail a free man early next spring. Given the low regard in which he is held by both outlaw gangsters and his former law enforcement peers, he presumably will resettle with his wife and family in another city.
Wherever he goes, he will spend much of the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Wherever he goes, he will leave behind a criminal justice system staggering beneath the weight of his allegations.
Perez cooperated to a limited degree in the preparation of this story, participating in slightly more than two hours of interviews by telephone. The interviews are his first extended public comments since his conviction. He speaks forcefully, often eloquently, and with remorse about what he has wrought.
Upon the insistence of his attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, he declined to answer any questions about his own criminal activities. His willingness to speak was often much greater than McKesson’s willingness to let him. Perez has, however, as a condition of his sentence, spoken extensively to investigators about those activities. Transcripts of those interrogations were also used for this story.
* * *
Well, sir, make no bones about it, what we did was wrong–planting evidence, evidence on people, fabricating evidence, perjuring ourselves–but our mentality was us against them.
. . . We knew that Rampart’s crime rate, murder rate, was the highest in the city. And people come, lieutenants, captains and everybody else would come to our roll calls and say this has to end and you guys are in charge of gangs. Do something about it. That’s your responsibility.
And the mentality was, it was like a war, us against them, and they didn’t play fair, and we went right along with it and didn’t play fair. If they ran from us and discarded the narcotics in the gutter, it was no big deal to us. We’ll just put dope on you. We know you had it. . . . You run and toss a gun in the gutter or throw it behind a tree and we can’t find it, no big deal. We’ll get you on our own. Didn’t matter what the crime was. We knew that you were getting away with it, either by intimidating witnesses or one way or another.
We’d arrest them for legitimate arrests, legitimate robbery or murder. Two, three days later, couple weeks later, they were out in the street laughing, and we took it upon ourselves, and I think it just, it was the way of Rampart. They were not going to get away with it. We were going to make sure.
–Rafael Perez, Los Angeles County Superior Court, Sept. 21, 2000
A Promising Beginning, Then Disgrace
There was a time when people would have expected the opposite of Rafael Perez, who as a boy was so averse to misbehavior that he refused to ride the bus to school because kids on it acted wild.
For most of his 33 years, Perez was the antithesis of a thrill seeker. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1967, the second of three children of Luis and Luz Perez. Perez didn’t know his father, didn’t see so much as a photograph of him until he was 30. The permanence of their separation was assured when Luz moved to Brooklyn, taking the kids with her. Luis stayed on the island. Rafael was 5.
The young family stayed in New York briefly before settling across the river in Paterson, N.J., an industrial town that Perez remembers with affection. While there, his mother attended college, graduated, taught English as a second language, remarried and had a fourth child.
The school the Perez children attended in Paterson was run by a no-bones-about-it disciplinarian principal named Joe Clark, who wielded a baseball bat to enforce points of order and became famous as the subject of the film “Lean on Me.” The strictness was fine with Perez, whose brothers and sister called him The Preacher for his sternness.
“I was very strict,” Perez recalls. “I was the one that would catch my sister or my brother cutting class, and I’d have to sit there and explain to them why they should go to school and if they cut again I’m gonna tell mom so they better go.
“I was protective of my sister, especially protective of her. I was protective of my older brother because I was always worried about him doing something that would hurt my mom. It was strange, because I was not the older one, not the oldest in the family, but I acted like I was.
“By the time I was 13 I was pretty much, I considered myself like the man of the house. I sort of had those growing spurts. I all of a sudden grew a goatee. I was taller than my older brother, more responsible than my older brother, or even my older cousins.
“I sort of just grew up. My mind started telling me what I wanted to do, what I wanted my future to be like. It just didn’t seem I was at the same level as kids my age. Maybe I was a nerd. I don’t know what you want to call it. I was just a lot more responsible than the other kids in my neighborhood.”
He was also shy. He remembers losing his first girlfriend at 13 because he refused to slow-dance with her.
When Perez was about to enter high school, the family moved to Philadelphia, specifically to North Philadelphia, one of the toughest neighborhoods in a tough town. Paterson had been gritty. North Philly was mean. The family stayed initially with Perez’s uncle, who Perez says was a drug dealer.
“That was my first exposure to Philadelphia, waking up one morning and people coming up to his house picking up stuff, hanging out at each corner,” Perez says. “Quickly, I realized what was going on and I had a real passionate disapproval of what was going on and from time to time I’d let him know about it.”
The uncle’s vocation strengthened Perez’s resolve to become a cop.
“As far back as I can remember I knew I wanted to be a police officer; I just didn’t know how I was going to get there,” he says. He watched all the TV shows: “Starsky and Hutch,” “T.J. Hooker,” “Baretta,” even “Adam Twelve,” which eerily used the exterior of Rampart Division headquarters for the show’s weekly opening shot.
Perez worked as a stock boy at a publishing company and played baseball in high school. Otherwise, he kept to himself and bided his time until graduation.
He knew he couldn’t join a police force fresh out of high school, so he did the next best thing. Three days after graduation, he flew off to Marine boot camp. In the Marines, he found an organization whose seriousness of purpose matched his own. He also found, for the first time, the camaraderie he would come to treasure, both there and later in the LAPD.
“The togetherness in the Marine Corps–you’re on the same page. You’re on the same agenda. School was more like just a bunch of scattered kids doing every possible thing, from smoking marijuana, drinking, cutting class, just everything you could think of, and I wanted no part of it,” Perez says.
“In a sense, I always told myself I just grew up too quickly. . . . I didn’t see myself as a kid, you know, 14, 15, 16, running around. I just didn’t see it. I saw my future and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to risk a chance of messing it up by hanging out with the wrong person or just doing the wrong thing.”
After boot camp, Perez was sent to the Marine barracks at Portsmouth, N.H. Not long after he arrived, he met a young California woman who was stationed at the nearby Air Force base.
Lorri Charles was 21, an Air Force enlisted woman fresh off a failed romance the day she went with a friend to visit the Marine base. They hung out in the rec room, where Lorri dodged inquiring glances from a young Marine wearing a fierce scowl and a red jacket with his name written in script on the front.
Perez has a coffee and cream complexion and Lorri, an L.A. native, assumed that he, like her, was African American. What’s a black man doing with a name like Rafael? she wondered. Before he had a chance to do anything more than sit down next to her, Lorri warned him off.
“Don’t even think about it,” she remembers saying.
“He had that Marine look. He had that look 24 hours a day–in uniform or out.”
Perez, now as then, is a striking figure with near matinee idol handsomeness. He is kept from that mainly by a heavy, dark brow that runs almost uninterrupted across the bridge of his nose. The brow can give Perez a hard look that is difficult to differentiate from anger. You can see, even in photographs from back then, that the look would suit a cop well.
“I wouldn’t go out with you if you were the last man on Earth,” Lorri told him. “You look too mean.”
They were married six months later.
When Perez married (in his dress uniform) he was 18, afraid at first even to tell his mother. In other ways, though, Perez was his usual, preternaturally responsible self. He handled all the couple’s finances and knew what every dollar coming in had to do on its way out. It was weird, Lorri said, how he knew in November how much money they had to have for taxes in April.
She was looser, more easygoing. She relaxed him. They did everything together, even wore matching outfits.
When Pease Air Force Base, where Lorri was stationed, was slated to be closed, Rafael and Lorri were offered options on where they wanted to go. To Lorri, it was an easy choice. “I wanted to go home,” she says.
She took a discharge and Rafael was transferred to the Marine Corps Air Station at Tustin in Orange County. They took an apartment in Santa Ana. Lorri’s family loved Rafael. He became the man everybody would go to if they needed help or advice.
At one point Lorri considered enlisting in the Marines, the two of them making it a career. Rafael, a fitness nut, trained her in preparation for Marine boot camp. But Lorri discovered that Rafael had cheated on her; they separated, reconciled, and separated again.
In the meantime, Perez applied and was accepted into the LAPD academy in the class of June 1989. He finished his enlistment and went off to become a policeman.
Lorri filed for divorce, withdrew the petition, then eventually split without formal proceedings. They stayed in touch, even dated some. When her sister’s car was stolen, she called Rafael. He found it, repaired damage to the dash and had it returned within a week.
“He’d drive by my mom’s to make sure she was OK,” Lorri says. “He’d say, ‘If you ever need anything, anything in this world, call me.’ We were his family.”
Eventually, they divorced and each remarried. Lorri is now in the process of divorcing again, in part, she says, because she constantly compared her new husband to Rafael. He didn’t measure up.
To this day, she says, “Rafael was the nicest man I ever met.”
* * *
I’ve always been responsible when it came to things. I’ve always had this insatiable appetite of wanting to please the ones I love. If there was something somebody wanted. My mother, my wife or whoever. I knew how to save. I knew how to know I’m not going to get that or I’m not going to do that because I want to save for this. I want to save exactly this amount.
–Rafael Perez, interview, Dec. 18, 2000
Coming to Grips With What He Became
The single thing that most distinguishes members of the Los Angeles Police Department from police elsewhere is their relentless sense of mission, an aggressive, proactive style of policing that has more in common with military patrolling than with the archetypal big city cop stuffed in the back booth of the corner doughnut shop.
From the beginning, Perez, the gung-ho Marine, lifelong would-be cop, embraced this aggressive model.
Russ Nasby met Perez on Perez’s first week out of the academy. Both were rookie probationers in Harbor Division. Nasby wasn’t long out of the academy himself when he responded to a call for assistance. Perez was on foot, chasing a suspect in Wilmington, and asked for backup. Nasby responded.
Together, they chased, caught and cuffed the guy. It would be the first of many chases.
“Ray loved it. I loved it,” Nasby says. “Look, you drive down the street, you’re spit at, you’re [cursed], you get rocks thrown at you. When you finally see that kid two weeks later, the kid who [cursed] you, a 20-year-old dealing crack to some 14-year-old, or using the 14-year-olds to distribute it, that’s what you wait for. You move in and take him. As a rookie, you look at it as, ‘I saved the day.’
“That’s why Ray joined. That’s why I joined,” Nasby says. “I wanted to save the world. It is also an adrenaline rush. It’s dangerous. We liked that, too, the rush. We had guys pull guns on us. It’s not like you’re scared; it’s like, ‘OK . . . me and you.’ ”
Nasby and Perez hit it off. They teased each other about who caught the most bad guys, who ran the farthest, the hardest. Perez taught Nasby to dance. Nasby offered Perez half his apartment. They shared the two-bedroom townhouse in Hawthorne and continued their hard charging around the clock.
“You’re 24 years old. You’re single. You’re living in L.A. You’re making three times as much money as you need. What are you going to be interested in?” Nasby asks. The answer is obvious: women, of whom they met more than their fair share.
“They were wild in those days,” Lorri Perez says. “They ran hard.”
When his probation was up, Perez worked patrol in Wilshire Division. It was everything he imagined, he says, and more.
“One of the first things I learned in the academy. I forgot which instructor told me this, but police work is a lot about acting. . . . Even in the academy I was shy, but when it came down to going to a radio call where it was domestic violence, a business dispute or a family dispute, I found myself being able to stand in front of these people explaining why they shouldn’t be arguing, why they shouldn’t be fighting, how they’re going to settle this dispute.
“I found myself sort of acting. I was telling people, trying to counsel people on their relationships where I didn’t really have the experience to be able to talk about it. But I pretended like I did. I talked to kids, tried to explain to them certain things, even though I had no kids. . . . That acting, that command presence, is what gets you out of your shell. You become two separate persons.”
In some ways, this is true of most people. They adopt different personas, depending on where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing. It’s exaggerated with cops, because their work life is so unlike usual life. With Perez, it seems to have been exaggerated still more. As a cop, he even took a different name. He’d been known to everyone his whole life as Rafael. In the LAPD, everybody called him Ray.
Until the scandal broke and Perez became a well-known figure, few people in the LAPD even knew Rafael Perez existed.
* * *
The simplest of things: Things that you go, “Really, that sounds too idealistic.” But it isn’t. Right down from helping that lady whose child is missing, and finding that child and bringing it back to her and watching her expression. Watching her hug you. Right down from saving someone, right down to all of it. It’s the gratitude that you feel. Sometimes it’s a thankless job. It’s not often someone’s going to come up to you and say, “Thank you so much.” But it’s what you feel inside. At the end of the day, when you did something, you helped somebody and that person walks away and that person is real happy and you sit back and go, “Boy, that felt good. That felt really good.”
. . . When you can meet someone and you’ve made a difference in their life. When you look at their refrigerator and know they have three kids in the house and no food in there, no food in the cabinets, you take yourself after work, buy several bags of groceries and you take it to her and she looks at you, “Why is he doing this?” And you just do it, no explanation. “Just make sure you feed the kids.” And she’ll never see you again, ever. But that feeling can never be replaced by anything, any chase, any foot pursuit–none of that can ever replace it.
–Rafael Perez, interview, Dec. 18, 2000
On the Buy Team
In part because of his age and Spanish fluency, but mainly because he was regarded as a good, aggressive cop, Perez was transferred after a year on patrol to an undercover narcotics assignment, where he spent the next three years making drug buys.
The West Bureau Buy Team was composed of from eight to 10 young cops who could most feasibly pose as drug buyers, a couple of junior detectives and a senior detective. It’s police work as you see it in the movies.
The squad would deploy undercover near the site of a prospective deal. As many as half a dozen uniformed patrolmen–the chase team–would be waiting nearby to swoop in and make the arrest. The man whose turn it was to make the buy would be wired for sound, both for safety and tactical reasons. He would approach a seller, negotiate a purchase, then signal over the wire that the deal was done.
The basic routine seldom varied: Make the buy, chase the guy, fight. In those days, 1991 to 1994, some Los Angeles streets might as well have been drug trade swap meets. It wasn’t a question of whether you could find dealers, but where you chose to find them. Most nights, the team would easily “fill up,” every member making a buy. When they worked certain areas–Hollywood, for example–it was routine for the team to fill up twice.
Street level drug trafficking is, by its nature, more dangerous than major narcotics dealing. With untrained, uncertain, often unstable people selling drugs to other uncertain, often unstable people they often don’t know and don’t trust, every deal has the potential to explode into violence.
The real danger, police say, is not that the dealer will think you’re a cop; it’s that he’ll believe you’re not. If he knew you were a cop, you’d lose the deal and the arrest with it. If he thought you were the wrong somebody else, you could easily lose your life.
For most of the time that Perez was on the team, Det. Bobby Lutz ran it. Lutz took seriously his responsibilities as a supervisor and de facto guardian of his young charges.
“Just by its nature, there is constant danger, a constant go, go, go. A constant rush,” Lutz says. “Those guys were on the edge all the time. It’s a real rush. Every time you make a buy, it’s a rush. They lap it up. They relish it.”
One night, Perez was up to make a buy in a neighborhood off Western Avenue where the team hadn’t worked before. David Mack, a streetwise young cop who had become good friends with Perez, was supposed to drive Perez to the buy site in a ratty Datsun B210. He had a headache and tried to beg off.
“Cops look at work ethic,” Lutz says. “In a unit like that, you can’t afford to have people who don’t work. The requisites for this were that you work hard, that you do what you say you’ll do; the other guy’s safety relies on it.”
He made Mack go, a decision that almost cost Mack his life.
“I went out and scouted the location,” Lutz says. “It was dark down there. I went and got set up and called them in. Before Perez could even get out of the car, the guy came up to the car. Ray, on the wire, said, ‘Bobby, I think he’s got a gun.’ ”
Lutz could hear only bits of conversation, which sounded more like an interrogation by the presumptive drug dealer: ” ‘Where you from? Who are you?’ Like a gang thing,” Lutz says.
“The guy is at the window and two juveniles . . . took up positions behind the car. I hear the conversation sort of intermittently. Ray is wearing the wire and the guy is at the other window talking to Mack.
” ‘I got mine,’ he says. ‘You got yours?’ ”
Mack and Perez said later the prospective seller had a handgun as he approached the driver’s side of the car. Mack told Lutz that the man put the gun to Mack’s head.
“The guy had the gun right up against his temple,” Lutz says. “Mack turned away so he’d take the bullet in the back of the head, ‘So I’d look pretty in the casket,’ he told Lutz. ” ‘I know I’m dead, but I’m going take him out before he takes out Ray.’ ”
Perez carried his gun behind his back. In the tiny compact car, he couldn’t get at it. Mack carried his under his belt in front. He reached down, pulled the gun and fired from his waist.
On the wire, Lutz heard gunfire. “I had no idea who was firing. Those were the scariest three or four seconds of my life. I came screaming down in my Explorer. I had my lights on and I could see the gun smoke.”
The man died, Mack got a medal, but in the light of later events–Perez stealing the drugs, Mack holding up a Bank of America branch for three-quarters of a million dollars–the event has been regarded suspiciously by some investigators.
Mack is in federal prison and is not talking. Perez swears by the account the two officers gave at the time. So does Lutz, who thinks the significance of the event can’t be seen out of context with the constant danger, and thrill, of day-to-day life on the team. On the rarest of occasions, guns were fired. On every occasion, they might have been.
“You’ve got this power, this authority; you blend it with this youthfulness, it’s powerful stuff,” Lutz says. “You start carrying yourself differently. It’s an exalted status.”
Lutz tried to warn Perez and his other young charges not to concentrate on the physical risks at the exclusion of the psychological.
“I knew Perez was a player. He got married when I was there. That didn’t slow him down. My only way to counteract that was to work them to death. I demanded they make all their court appearances. Work all night, in court all day.
“I told them, ‘You’re going to get in trouble. It’s not worth it. I’ve been divorced and it ain’t worth it.’ ”
“Ray would say, ‘I know, I know, old man, I know.’ ”
“They were probably living the time of their lives,” Lutz says.
They were. So much so that friends worried.
Russ Nasby says: “I used to tell him, ‘Ray, you gotta get out of narcotics.’ He liked it too much.”
Perez during this period met, dated and married his current wife, an LAPD dispatcher named Denise Aubry. They bought a house in Chino Hills and in 1994 he applied for a job with the Chino Police Department.
This was in the aftermath of the Rodney G. King beating; disgruntlement was widespread in the LAPD. Neighboring departments were cherry-picking the best officers. For Perez, the Chino job would have been more like a career change than a job change–more pay, but dramatically less exciting.
So certain was he of getting that job that Perez started giving away his LAPD gear. Perez now, under advice from his lawyer, refuses to discuss what happened in Chino, why he suddenly changed his mind about taking it. Lutz, his boss at the time, was so taken aback that he called Chino to find out what had happened. Administrators there declined to discuss Perez, leading Lutz to surmise that he had failed some test–perhaps a polygraph, or, as others have suggested, a psychological test.
Chino officials decline to comment.
Whatever the reason, Perez finished out his tour of duty on the buy team and waited for reassignment. Lutz says: “The Ray Perez that I knew walked out of the West Bureau buy team into a different world.”
That world was Rampart.
* * *
Have you ever watched a documentary of, say, an undercover officer buying some drugs? Have you ever felt your adrenaline pumping up just watching it? Imagine living it every night. Imagine imitating those people who are out there every night for three years. Every night I imitated a drug user or a drug dealer; I’d go out there and walk the worst of the worst alleys. Meet people that were carrying guns or knives and wanting to sell drugs to them. So every day I went out there, I had that adrenaline. They say it’s one of the most dangerous jobs there is. . . . You didn’t live a normal life. I lived in Hermosa Beach at the time. I used to wear a stocking cap and every night on the way home I’d get stopped by another Hermosa Beach officer wondering what I was doing. I’d always explain to them I work undercover. They’d go, “You look dirty, man. You look dirty.”
. . . You never knew when something was going to happen, when somebody was going to pull a gun on you, when people were going to start running. . . . I guess as a police officer you strive for that adrenaline, you feed off of it. There was more than enough adrenaline to go around in that job.
Me and Mack, we were the ones chosen to go into the worst neighborhoods. They’d save the beach and the Rastafarians and the acids for the other kids who worked the unit. But me and Mack would work all the high-profile gang neighborhoods or the projects. We were the ones that had to go in there and walk it.
–Rafael Perez, interview, Dec. 17, 2000
Coming to CRASH
Perez arrived at Rampart Division in 1994 when he was 27, working first in patrol, then narcotics and within a year moving into what amounted to the inner sanctum: the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums team–CRASH.
Los Angeles was in the full bloom of an ethnic gang explosion. That year, the LAPD estimated there were 58,359 people belonging to 403 distinct gangs in the city. They were alleged to have committed almost 11,000 crimes, including an astonishing 408 homicides. About 10% of all gang crimes occurred in Rampart Division.
Rampart is bounded roughly by Sunset Boulevard on the north, the Santa Monica Freeway on the south, Normandie Avenue on the west and the Harbor Freeway on the east. It is the most densely populated portion of Los Angeles and is overwhelmingly Latino and immigrant.
Ethnic gangs have been an everyday part of life there for most of three decades. They sell drugs, and levy and collect rent from neighborhood merchants as if they owned the place, which to a considerable extent they did in the 1980s.
For what is essentially a paramilitary organization, the LAPD is surprisingly decentralized. This is something many of its members say they have liked most about the department. The force is production-oriented. Its essential product is the arrest. Individual officers, or more typically pairs of them, can spend their days doing more or less as they see fit, so long as they produce arrests, which are tracked, charted and analyzed like factory outputs.
Careers are made and assignments earned on the basis of an officer’s arrest numbers. While this seems natural, so-called scientific policing was a revolution when it was introduced in the LAPD in the 1950s. It has since been exported to police departments nationwide, but no other force has been so shaped by the production ethos.
Rafael Perez, wherever he was assigned, was a top producer, and not long after he came to Rampart he was invited into CRASH. Those assignments were highly prized, both for themselves and as a route to Metro Division, the LAPD’s elite special units group.
At Rampart, the gang detail varied seasonally between 12 and 20 members. Its members had their own rituals, slogans, even a logo: Aces and Eights, the so-called dead man’s hand. They eventually had what amounted to their own headquarters, too, when they were moved out of the main division offices to a detective substation a mile southeast.
They worked largely at night and without external supervision. It was, in its way, a logical extension of LAPD supervisory style: Bring in the bodies and nobody will much question how you got them.
Perez was assigned to the Temple Street gang. He worked them hard and came, he said, to “know these guys inside and out. I know where they hang out. I know their parents. I know their girlfriends.”
Perez cultivated sources among them, hassled them, harassed them. Some gangsters say Perez stopped them dozens of times, always threatening, cajoling, looking for information. The most routine lawbreaking within Rampart CRASH, Perez alleges, was to frame gang members for crimes they didn’t commit. It was CRASH’s way of ensuring that gangsters wouldn’t escape punishment because the police couldn’t develop cases against them, or because witnesses refused to testify against gang members for fear of retaliation.
CRASH units were constantly reminded that they were in a war, that it was their job to take back the streets, to reclaim territory. The feeling within Rampart CRASH was that the gangs didn’t play fair. Neither would the police.
“Where are the arrests? The sergeant is asking, the watch commander, even the captain. It’s not bad, but it leads to Rampart-type situations,” says Bayan Lewis, a retired assistant chief of the LAPD. “The commander says, ‘We’re having problems with gangs.’ The captain tells his officers, ‘We’re having gang problems. Do something about it.’ We’re in essence ordering them to deal with the issue. At first, they go out and do everything right, everything legal. Then things get tougher; they start cutting a few corners. There’s not much supervision, so nobody notices, and they start taking more and more shortcuts.”
A former Rampart CRASH officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, vigorously disputes many of Perez’s allegations and condemns Perez in the strongest terms for making them, but then offers this explanation for the things he says never happened:
“The underlying problem of the LAPD is the organization itself. They basically mold you into what they want you to become. I didn’t go out there to harass people, violate their rights. If that happens to somebody like me, how can you expect other guys not to have problems?”
* * *
When I get the call of the person–and I’m going to use an example because this one just stands out in my mind–a woman, a 60-year-old woman that was shot through her window, through her barred window, because a gang member was shooting at another gang member; that bullet missed, hit her back and killed her. Now, I am trying to sit there and tell her daughter that it’s going to be all right. And she is screaming, “These gang members, we can’t do anything here.” . . . It only takes a couple, a couple of times for someone to tell you we can’t even walk outside; these gang members are all over the place.
You know, you may think that, well, it’s still not my place. You are probably right, it wasn’t my place, but no one else was doing it. No one else was taking–it may have taken–I am not saying it was right, but it took some men of rough persuasion to handle a problem that there was no cure for. . . . We felt that, in our own way, we saved lives. However it may seem to some people that the ends should have not justified the means, to us it did.
–Rafael Perez, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Sept. 21, 2000
Elite Rampart Squad Made Its Own Rules
Perez has said he was a by-the-book cop when he arrived at Rampart. Once there, he said, he learned the Rampart Way, which was to get results without being bothered by the constraints of normal police practice. He had no doubt, he said, of the righteousness of the cause. He went along without hesitation.
Perez said the most regrettable thing he did was frame Javier Ovando for the attempted murder of Perez and his partner, Nino Durden. Ovando was shot by the two officers when, they said, he burst into a room in an abandoned apartment house that they were using as a surveillance position. Perez said Durden fired first and he fired to protect his partner.
Ovando turned out to be unarmed, Perez now says, so they planted a weapon on him. Ovando, whose wounds left him paralyzed below the waist, was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison, a particularly harsh sentence that the judge justified by saying Ovando had shown no remorse.
After the Perez revelations, Ovando’s conviction was overturned and he was released. The city recently agreed to pay Ovando $15 million to settle a wrongful-shooting claim.
Perez mastered the Rampart Way, became a model for other officers. He was singled out for praise at CRASH roll calls. Kulin Patel, a young officer who joined CRASH after Perez had established himself, said Perez “had an outstanding reputation.”
Perez, by his own account, went well beyond breaking the law in the pursuit of justice. He became an outright criminal himself, a thief and drug dealer. He stole drugs from users and dealers on the street, stole cash from their homes and pockets, stole guns from wherever he could find them. He stole cocaine from evidence lockers, the crime that eventually caused him to be caught. And if he hadn’t been so inexpert about that, he might still be out there doing the same things.
The decision to sell drugs was made, Perez said, on the fly, almost casually. Consider the moment in mid-1997 when Perez said he and his partner, Durden, crossed the line.
They had just arrested a drug dealer, confiscating cocaine and equipment, including the dealer’s pager. Even before they finished the paperwork on the arrest, the pager went off. Perez returned the call and arranged a drug deal. It looked like the easiest arrest in history, a custom-made sting. Perez and Durden would simply go to the meet, make the sale, arrest the buyer.
Here’s Perez’s description of what happened:
“And right when we park there, when we first got there, Durden said, ‘Screw it. Let’s just sell it to him.’ And I completely agreed. We went over there. And I got out of the car. . . . It was a quarter of, yeah, a quarter of a pound of cocaine. . . . I put it right there in the grassy area. He looks around, opens the bag, tears the plastic and tastes it. And he goes, ‘OK.’ And he gives me a plastic bag and inside was the money. He then tells me, ‘Uh, wait a minute, I also need $500 worth of rock, already rocked-up. OK.’
“We really don’t know exactly how much $500 worth of rock would be, or what he’s accustomed to. You know what I mean. If it’s 15 rocks per hundred, or 20 rocks per hundred. So we gave him, like, ample. In other words, more than enough. Probably like 25 or 30 rocks per hundred, or for what a hundred dollars would be worth.
“So, we meet right back with him. We give it to him. He gives us the money. I get back in the car and we leave. Officer Durden and myself, uh, split up the money. I keep the, or we kept the, the other defendant’s pager. And we tell the guy, uh, you know, whatever you need, just call us.”
* * *
I did a lot of gambling. I spent money on just whatever–stupid little things. Nothing–as a matter of fact, the money from the [cocaine] I never even really needed it for anything.
–Rafael Perez, to investigators, Sept. 10, 1999
Get a Cab
The most surprising thing Rampart police did the night they shot Manuel Saldana was not, remarkably enough, shooting Saldana.
Saldana was a street tough, a member of the 18th Street gang. The fact that he was shot and killed by Rampart CRASH was lamentable, but not in and of itself a shock. Saldana was unarmed when he was shot, but he was just one in a long line of unarmed people shot by the LAPD.
What was most remarkable about the night they shot Saldana was how some of the cops arrived at the Shatto Place apartment building where they shot him. They took a cab. Literally. They took a cab. Hijacked it, stole it. They were concerned that gang members would recognize the unmarked police car they would normally have used, so two officers were sent out for a cab.
Said Perez: “We were told, ‘Go get a cab.’ I mean, we’ve done that many times before, by the way. Just go get a cab and use it to do whatever we’re gonna do. Go get a cab. Pick up the cab. Put the guy on ice. . . . You know, one of these illegal bandit cabs. Tell them we’re gonna write them some kind of ticket. Check them for warrants. Take them to the station. Sit them in the front desk, or in an interview room. Tell them to wait there. And then, we go use his car.”
In the movies–supposedly more, not less, sensational than real life–cops borrow civilian cars only in emergencies. In Rampart, it was ordinary. Go get a cab.
Perez and his partner, Raquel Duarte, found one roaming the Pico-Union streets and hauled the driver into Rampart Station. Then they took the cab, picked up their boss and joined the hunting party.
Perez has alleged that this sort of abuse of authority was routine in CRASH. He was asked by investigators once if he allowed a partner to review an arrest report he had fabricated.
“It is my practice,” he said, indicating the habitual nature of it, “to always let my partner read the report prior to submitting it, especially if we’re planting or framing somebody,” he said.
In a recent Rampart trial, Officer Paul Harper, one of the defendants, was asked why he and other officers had detained a group of young men. Harper made clear without actually saying so that his only reason for stopping them was that he knew they were gang members. He said he had no probable cause to think a crime had been committed.
The trial didn’t even pause at this, an admission of making an illegal stop. People can’t be stopped because they belong to organizations, even if the organizations are at war with the police.
There’s a phrase in the law–color of authority–used to describe the use, and often abuse, of position. When a police officer coerces someone, not by threats or abuse but simply by being a cop, he or she is said to have acted under color of authority. The word “color” is the key notion here. It implies, not a singular thing, not a point, but a swath. It’s an assumed force, like gravity. Imagine what would happen if gravity ceased. The world would blow apart.
For a time in Rampart, it was as if this had happened: Gravity was suspended; everything came undone.
* * *
When we talk about planting or putting a case on someone, for some reason, some investigators or some attorneys have thought that we actually–I go into the car, take the three bindles [of drugs], lay it next to him and go, “See, that’s what you dropped.”
It’s not the way it works. I take them into custody, put them in the car, do whatever. And you know, when it’s time to book evidence, we go and get the evidence from our car. There’s no need to go and, you know, lay it on the ground next to them or put fingerprints on the baggies or anything like that. That’s just not the way it works.
We get the evidence when it’s needed and move forward. We don’t sit there at the scene and show everybody, “Look what we got. We got three baggies.” No, that’s not how it works.
–Rafael Perez, LAPD Board of Rights hearing, June 3, 2000
The Rampart men developed what amounted to their own police force. They worked nights after everybody else had cleared out. They changed the key code to their office so no one else could get in. They had their own radio frequencies, their own cars, their own motto and methods. They developed their own language: to meet was to snoopy up; a gun was an item, which came in sizes, long for a shotgun or rifle, small for a handgun.
They had standard procedures for covering up mistakes. If something bad went down, they sent out a coded call over their private frequency, calling the CRASH squad to meet. Sentries would be posted to keep inquisitive outsiders–that is, other police or commanding officers–at bay.
After work, they often partied together, going en masse to the benches at the old Police Academy, or to the Short Stop, a cop bar in the division. They gave parties and handed out plaques to celebrate shootings.
The whole thing sounds like nothing so much as “Lord of the Flies,” a group of isolated young men in dangerous circumstances, gone wild, feral. Perez, his friend Sammy Martin, and maybe Mack, would go to dance clubs. They ranged from Malibu out to the San Gabriel Valley. The three of them joined an exclusive cigar club. Martin and Perez constantly complained that Mack never paid his share. Even on a trip they took to Las Vegas the week after Mack robbed the Bank of America, they had to argue to get him to pay for his share of the gas.
Everywhere they went, there were women. Despite his professed shyness, Perez had no problem picking them up.
“For some reason I was–and maybe it has a lot to do with having that uniform–I’ve always been, I’ve always had this thing where it ended up happening that someone actually approached me. Once I was approached, obviously, I didn’t have a problem speaking to you,” he says.
Perez had so many girlfriends that he can’t remember all their names. He met them at clubs, at grocery stores, on the street, on police calls. Martin and another officer rented an apartment near Rampart headquarters where they could party at night or take women.
Perez constantly asked one of Martin’s girlfriends to set him up with her friends. She says that while Mack and Martin often dressed to the nines–silk shirts, fancy loafers–Perez favored jeans and cotton shirts.
“He was very quiet, very reserved. Sam was the life of the party, making all the plans, and Ray would just go along,” she says.
The group drank beer, mostly, moving up to cognac–Hennessey’s was the favored brand–at the fancier clubs. Perez wasn’t a big drinker. He’d nurse two or three beers through a whole night.
Then they started going to Las Vegas. Perez, especially, would head out across the desert every chance he got, every weekend, every day off.
“There’s all kind of addictions and behaviors and impulses. And you do things out of impulse. I started gambling, going to Vegas on the turnarounds; even if it was just for one day, I had to get out there,” he told investigators. “I sat there at that table all day and didn’t get up. I mean, that was enjoyable to me.”
Perez says he started stealing and selling drugs in 1997. Even as he frittered away his ill-gotten drug money, he arranged to have part of his paycheck diverted to a credit union savings account. He kept the account secret from Denise because she might have been tempted to spend it. Denise, an only child of middle-class L.A. parents, had more acquisitive tastes than Perez and he tried his best to control them.
He and Denise rented out their Chino Hills house and moved into a Park La Brea apartment, the idea being to save money and buy a house in the city. They eventually found a place in Ladera Heights.
By then they had a baby girl, and Perez’s mother moved out from Philadelphia to take care of her.
After he was arrested in 1998, detectives recovered from his house and car various knives, ammunition, holsters, body armor, helmets and belts: police gear. They also found things that have nothing to do with police work: house keys, snapshots, credit cards, bank statements, baseball caps and identification cards, including one for Costco warehouse stores.
These latter, more mundane items suggest that Perez, in addition to his law enforcement career and now notorious criminal activities, had some version–at least part time–of a life, like everyone else. You can try, but it is hard to imagine a master criminal in the cereal aisle at Costco.
* * *
That’s what I was saying, as far as it’s amazing how much you can, uh, spend on a female on a couple of dates. You know, uh, go get something to eat. Well, it ain’t gonna be, Go get something to eat at Denny’s. It’s going to be, Go get something to eat at, uh, at Gladstone’s, or at, uh, Monty’s, or at, uh, you know, the Shark Bar, or something like that where the drink is $10 a drink. You know what I mean?
And, and then, you know, well, OK, you know, “I got it. Don’t worry about. OK?” Well, we all each just had, you know, uh, seven drinks. Or even five drinks, let’s say. That’s 50 bucks per person, just on the drinks. And then, we had dinner. OK. That’s $350. Yeah, no problem. Here you go.
That’s just one night. $350 just on, uh, dinner and a couple of drinks.
–Rafael Perez, to investigators, Sept. 17, 1999
The particular assignments Rafael Perez received–narcotics and gangs–meant that he lived in a world whose chief organizing principle was deceit. He fit into this world as easily as a manicured hand slips into a kid glove, as if each had always been waiting for the other. Perez thrived. He became a professional liar.
At what point this ceased to be merely craft and became a way of life is debatable. That it did is not.
Perez, by his own account, perjured himself in court several hundred times. He guesses that maybe half the arrest reports he wrote from 1994 to 1998 were utter fabrications and hundreds, if not thousands more, included smaller lies.
Asked once why he had lied about a particular case, he said: “I don’t know. To be quite honest, I really wasn’t aware; I wasn’t sure anyway. But I just said no because it sounds like the best answer, at that point.”
During this same period, he so routinely cheated on his wife that when investigators tried to determine with which women he had assignations, Perez begged off, saying it would be impossible for him to remember them all.
“Geez,” he said, “You know, it’s very difficult for me without a picture. All these names are gonna sound familiar.”
Perez lied on his marriage license, claiming he had no prior marriages. Perez lied to drug dealers, to gangsters, in court, in reports, to his wife, to his girlfriends. Some of these people returned the favor. One woman with whom Perez had a lengthy romantic relationship had, at last count, six aliases. Perez never knew her real name.
Gang members, some perhaps seeking revenge against Perez, have told remarkable stories to investigators. In some cases, the stories change by the day. In some, they change by the minute. One particularly creative gangster changed his story three times within a single interview. One woman has admitted fabricating murder accusations against Perez simply to get even with him for dumping her.
Clearly, many lies are being told.
The extent of Perez’s treachery inescapably raises the question of whether he is telling the truth now. The answers to this question, which will be at the center of dozens of legal proceedings over the next year or so, vary dramatically.
Many of his former fellow officers regard him now as a man without any redeeming virtue, least of all honesty. Their sense of betrayal is palpable, and in many it has transformed into rage. Told that former friends now despise him because they feel betrayed, Perez says simply: “They were betrayed.”
Others whom he betrayed have remained resolutely loyal. His wife, Denise Perez, has remained a fierce ally, as has his ex-wife, Lorri Perez.
Perez, in more than 70 hours of interviews with a special investigative team, has detailed dozens of specific instances of police misconduct. Investigators say they have confirmed three-quarters of what he has said.
Richard Rosenthal, deputy district attorney on the Rampart Special Prosecution Team, says he has yet to receive any convincing evidence that Perez lied to investigators. Rosenthal is the man who negotiated the plea bargain by which Perez pleaded guilty to stealing cocaine from police evidence lockers and received a five-year sentence.
Perez was granted immunity from other prosecutions that might have been brought against him. The structure of the agreement provides him an incentive to tell everything he knows. If he is found to be lying, the deal is off and he can be prosecuted for other crimes.
The deal has been much criticized, but Deputy D.A. Rosenthal says he knows of no reason so far to revoke the immunity. This is despite the fact that Perez failed LAPD lie detector tests. Perez cried when told he had failed the polygraph, and his attorney hired a polygraph expert to review the method by which the tests were administered. The expert found them severely flawed, as did a second expert hired by the district attorney.
Perez insists that he wasn’t lying. He says it wouldn’t make sense for him to lie now and risk more prison time. He says if he planned to lie he would never have taken the deal, or the polygraphs. He had previously been offered a seven-year sentence without cooperation. Practically, this would have amounted to an extra year in jail but would not have left Perez a despised figure on both sides of the law. He could have done his time and walked free.
Perez argues that this would have been by far the easier road. He probably would have served the time at the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo, widely regarded as a good place to do time. “They have flowers around the jail, for God’s sakes,” Perez says. “Flowers around the jail.”
* * *
We, we gather our story. We put a story, I mean, not that everything’s completely different about the story. . . . But if we need to add something to the story to make it look a little bit better, that’s what we do. If we need to correct something, it’s corrected right then and there before we have the officer-involved shooting team, lieutenants and captains and everybody showing up, we fix it and correct it right there. And we always say that once we come up with a story, that’s the story. That is it. You never change it. That is it, no matter what.
I mean, because we know that the minute you tell a story, or say something, and someone don’t find it correct, or something just don’t seem right and they come back and ask you again, and you change the story, everything’s out the window. I mean, you, you’re, you’re totally not credible.
–Rafael Perez, to investigators, Sept. 17, 1999
Somehow, the more you know about Perez the less it coheres. He is the kind of man who, at one point in his life, anyway, was willing to shoot a man, paralyze him, then send him to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet he is also the kind of man who, when he was arrested for stealing cocaine, was visited in jail by his wife’s parents and family and by his first wife’s parents and family, all wanting to make sure that he was OK and being well treated.
He is the kind of man who railed against an uncle for dealing drugs, then did the same himself. He is a man who punctiliously kept his family financial accounts straight, a saver always thinking ahead, who then took an estimated $80,000 from those drug deals and threw it away.
He is a man who planned his whole life, who preached responsibility, then seemingly without a thought, without anything even resembling a plan, became a criminal.
When you think about the ways in which cops can go bad, you tend to think first–and sometimes last–of the simplest seduction: money. Perez didn’t need or even particularly seem to want the money. Maybe, as he says, he became a compulsive gambler. He certainly wouldn’t be the first. But what gambler sets up a secret savings account to finance a down payment on a house?
Much of the alleged misbehavior at CRASH, while reprehensible, is understandable as a rational response to an impossible situation. Perez, even in apologizing for the people he has harmed, offers a compelling set of reasons why CRASH officers did what they did.
But there is a difference between breaking the law so that you can put more bad guys in jail and becoming a dope dealer, albeit not a very shrewd one.
What happened in that moment when Perez decided selling dope was more important than making arrests, when, according to his account, Durden said, “Screw it, let’s just sell it to him”?
“What is it that makes people go bad?” asks Bobby Lutz, the retired detective. “Ray had so many things going for him. It had to be the dope with him. If you go there, it’s over. Every bit of character goes down the toilet.”
Or maybe, Lutz says, it was as simple as a young man’s inability to deny his base desires. “There’s so many sweet young things out there, and some of them want their rock. And you know how young men are. When a sweet thing wants something, the blood leaves their brain and flows south.”
There’s plenty of evidence to support this notion. The women of Rampart could fill a calendar, a decade’s worth of calendars.
Asked how it is that someone so shy could have so many convivial relationships with so many women, Perez credited, or blamed, his uniform.
“You’ve gotta remember, I’m talking about a situation where I’m at a club and I see someone, I’m not necessarily going to come up to them, but if they talk to me, yes, I’m going to talk to them.”
The best case interpretation of Perez is that of the good cop who went bad, someone whose professional standards and personal ethics eroded, slowly at first, then more quickly, like water working through a leaking dam, until finally there is no dam anymore and no one can even remember where it was.
There’s no big event. The Earth doesn’t move. It simply gives way beneath your feet.
* * *
I’ve spent 844 days in here now. Twenty out of 24 hours a day I spend locked down. And that causes a lot of things to happen to a man. I’ve had so much time to think of so many things. I think about how much my life has been wasted in here. I can’t help but think how much time has been wasted by so many others. I’ve had so much time to think about the good and the bad things that I have done. I’ve thought so much about the happiness and the comfort that I have felt and that many others have felt and I also think about the sadness and the pain that many others felt.
But in my thinking process at the end of the day, it’s the pain and the sadness that consumes my mind. . . . The intense guilt that I feel about so many things. That’s something that I could never sit here and explain to you accurately. What goes on is not a thought; it’s an experience. I wish that a pound of my flesh would make everything better, would change everything. Would make everything OK.
I wish I could change many things but I know that I can’t. I’ve asked myself many times how and why did I allow myself to go wrong. I wish I would have known the difference between a patriot and a rebel, but for so long my mind, my eyes, my surroundings did not allow me to grasp that concept, what the difference is. Jail I can tell you is nothing nice. For anyone who has ever known freedom, being in here is the worst case scenario. Not so much the pain that you’re feeling but the pain that you’re causing. . . . The loneliness, the pain, the solitude; it’s horrible. It’s the kind of emotion that every person in position to take freedom away from someone should subject themselves to for just a day or two; it’s the type of emotion that changes lives. It’s the type of emotion that changes mentality. It changes your whole thought process. The positive part about jail is, you’re given the experience, and the experience can change you. The change is something that’s within. It’s impossible to verbally convince someone that you’ve changed. You can’t do that. . . . Your actions will do that for you.
–Rafael Perez, interview, Dec. 18, 2000
It’s hard to imagine what those future actions could be. Perez has thrown away the only career he ever wanted, the job he dreamed about as a kid and remarkably got. How many people can say that? That their dreams came true? And how many of those would know what to say if, after the dreams came true, they threw them all away?
“It hurts,” Perez says. “I have dreams. I wake up. I have dreams about being in uniform. The reality is that will never be my life again. Ever. It’s very difficult. I think about it a lot. . . . I think that’s part of my life that’s over now. I have to move forward. I can’t look back.”
For the time being, Perez’s main activity other than introspection is testifying against his former comrades in arms. He’s an imposing figure on the witness stand. His body has thickened. The litheness is gone. His features, once so light and agile, have coarsened. That stern brow has thickened, become even more imposing. Still, he wears the county blue jail jumpsuit better than some men wear Armani. The chains attaching his wrists to his belt seem more bracelets than shackles. He conveys presence.
Even before all of this came down, Perez was regarded by prosecutors as one of the very best police witnesses they had ever seen. He doesn’t talk like a cop. He conveys an ease, and a mastery of his material. You get the feeling there’s a human being present.
He says he’s unsure what will happen with him. He says, as do many who claim transformation, that he wants to be of use, to work hard and do good. Perhaps he does. He sounds as if he means it. Then again, he’s a liar, an extraordinarily accomplished liar.
He has extracted heavy wages from hundreds of people: those he imprisoned, those he betrayed, those he was supposed to have served. One of the prices he must now pay is the knowledge that people know he’s not to be trusted, that it’s likely no one will ever trust him on anything, ever again. That would be a heavy price for the Little Preacher, The Provider, Mr. Responsibility, for the man who built his whole existence around the idea that he was the one everyone else could count on. *
Friday, January 15, 1999
Just Who Is Henry Lozano?
The Eastside political powerhouse displays doggedness in battle to win his child from the Alatorres.
By TERRY McDERMOTT, Times Staff Writer
This Henry Lozano guy must be some piece of work.
Lozano is the much less publicized other party in the child custody fight with Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre and his wife, Angie. The battle has so far proved less a forum for deciding where Lozano’s 10-year-old daughter might best live than an examination of the very complicated life of the Alatorres.
It is Alatorre, not Lozano, who in the course of the dispute has failed a test for cocaine use. It is Alatorre, not Lozano, who is accused of taking cash from City Hall contractors. It is Alatorre who is being investigated by the FBI and the IRS. It is Alatorre whose career is threatened.
Yet the judge in the case, Henry W. Shatford, has entrusted care of Lozano’s daughter to the Alatorres. In doing so, Shatford said Lozano’s presence would be detrimental to the child. In his final word on the matter he wrote:
“The court would think Lozano would forget about winning or losing the custody battle at this time and think only of [the child’s] well-being, leaving her with the Alatorres.”
Given all of Richard Alatorre’s problems and the undisputed fact that Lozano is the child’s natural father, you’re left to wonder just how horrible Lozano must be.
That Lozano is not a monster and, instead, that friends say he is one of the best people they know does little to resolve the confusion.
Henry Lozano is a small, thick man with flat features beneath a fading twirl of pompadour. His dark eyes are set deep under a crooked brow and going deeper by the week.
The eyes tucked back in there are nervous, wary, moving like those of a man who’s been hit so much that his immediate concern in life is ducking the next punch.
Lozano is 65 years old, the chief of staff to a local Democratic congressman. He has spent nearly his entire adult life behind the scenes in the boisterous world of East Los Angeles politics. It would not be farfetched to say he is one of the people who built that world.
Lozano’s political philosophy is not especially complicated. It was stamped in him in the little south Texas town where he grew up and where, as a third generation American, he was forced to attend Latino-only schools. He has spent much of his life since seeking redress. Whatever campaign or cause he happens to be working on at any moment, part of what he is doing is securing the rights he felt that boy was deprived of.
“It’s how you get things done,” Lozano says. “Political decisions that affect you are being made from the day you’re born to the day you die. Every single day. Unless we’re part of that, we lose.”
He left Texas to join the Marines, mustered out in California in the ’50s and stayed here when his brother-in-law helped him land a job at an Eastside aerospace plant. There, he became active first in the labor movement, then in the burgeoning Latino politics of the period.
Almost everybody who knows Lozano from back then recalls meeting him at a rally, a meeting or a political bull session.
This wasn’t a bunch of dreamy ’60s radicals sitting around imagining a better world. Every once in a while somebody would get rambunctious and climb on a table at a place like Googies and proclaim the solution to all the problems then afflicting mankind. But for the most part these were tough, hard-nosed men, trained in Walter Reuther’s stern union organizing campaigns. They measured success in specifics–this many jobs gained, that many contracts signed.
The men in this world met almost nightly in Pico Rivera or the City of Commerce, in beer bars like the old El Intimo, in the back rooms and corner booths of pasta joints and steakhouses like the Dal Rae and Stevens.
Outside were the million bungalows of old Los Angeles. Inside were whiskey and waitresses in tights and decollete dresses. The bar stools were Naugahyde; the lunch special came with an iceberg lettuce salad and a double martini.
From the outside, this scene had all the allure of a rat-infested warehouse. Inside, it had the appeal of air. You breathed it to live.
Lozano grew up politically in these joints, and when he graduated to the broader stage, he brought the ethic of the joints–a sense of handshake honor and personal relationships–with him.
Today’s politics are more muted, its loyalties less enduring, its practitioners scrubbed up, smoother and prettier. But Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), Lozano’s current boss, says there will always be a place for people like Lozano, old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts coalition builders.
For three decades Lozano has been in a notably quiet way a powerful man. As chief of staff for former Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles), Lozano was the keeper of the keys to a kingdom of federal largess. For many of those years, Roybal was the highest-ranking Westerner on the House Appropriations Committee, one of the so-called 13 cardinals who chaired with considerable autonomy appropriations subcommittees. As the head of Roybal’s staff, Lozano “ran the West Coast,” one person said. “Everything went through Henry.”
Beyond doling out federal dollars, Roybal was far and away the most powerful Latino in Congress, and Lozano has been in the thick of almost every significant campaign involving Latinos or Latino issues for what seems like forever.
He has counseled a thousand and one ambitious young pols, including his current foe, Alatorre. He helped engineer Gloria Molina’s rise from obscure activist to one of the most powerful political figures in the state. He shepherded Becerra, current chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, through every step of a still-young and promising career. He helped repair the damage when Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa’s rising star dimmed under a cloud of rumors of marital infidelity.
Lozano’s office is in a bland Echo Park office building above a bank. Amid the usual debris of political life–the grip-and-grin signed photos, the precinct lists, a desktop statuette of a horse’s ass, an “I love golf” mug–the most telling feature of the office is Lozano’s Rolodex. Rather, Rolodexes. Seven of them sit on a credenza behind the desk. Seven more are on the floor.
Several times, interns have been assigned the task of organizing the thousands of names. Several times they’ve failed. The only organization is in Henry Lozano’s head.
Henry knows everybody.
Henry’s job is to know everybody.
He is famous in his world for this. Ask Henry, young political aspirants are told. Go see Henry. See what Henry thinks. Get Henry’s help. Call Henry.
‘Angie, I’ve Gotta See My Baby’
The facts, in so far as they are agreed upon, are these:
Fifteen years ago, Angie Alatorre introduced Lozano, a married man and father of five, to her sister, Belinda Ramos Nykoluk. They began an affair. Ten years ago, they had a child. Lozano’s marriage at the time had reached an impasse of mutual convenience. He and his wife, Isabel, shared their Pico Rivera bungalow, but little else. Lozano was a constant companion of Belinda, and hence the child, for several years after her birth. Yet he made no public acknowledgment of paternity. The birth certificate does not mention him. Many friends knew about the baby. Many others did not.
Six years ago, when the girl was 4, Henry and Belinda broke up. They had talked about marriage, but Lozano never went through with his divorce. During this same period one of Lozano’s three sons drowned and another committed suicide. He was unsettled, his wife despondent. He stayed, nominally, in the marriage.
The split with Belinda was amicable, so much so that Henry baby-sat while Belinda went on dates with other men; afterward, she would ask his opinion of them.
Four years ago, Belinda became ill with cancer. She died in January 1996. A week before her death, lawyers working for Richard Alatorre prepared a statement. The statement asked that Angie Alatorre, who had no children of her own, raise Belinda’s daughter. The statement further instructed Angie not to allow the child’s natural father (unidentified in the statement) unsupervised access to the little girl. Belinda signed the statement.
After she died, her daughter, then 8, moved in with Belinda’s mother.
The girl asked Lozano to take her to all the places the three had gone to together. They made a tour of the parks, the zoo, the tar pits. He called her, as he always had, “My Gorgeous.” She called him, as she had, “Lasagna.”
Four months after Belinda died, Richard and Angie Alatorre, citing Belinda’s wishes and unbeknown to Lozano, asked a court to grant them guardianship of the girl. They told the court that they did not know who the father was. Speaking recently of the guardianship proceedings, Angie said: “Henry’s name never came up.”
During this period, the Alatorres began restricting Lozano’s visits with his daughter. When Lozano objected, Angie Alatorre disclosed the existence of the guardianship. The young girl was angry and did not want to see him, she said.
“I always figured we’d work it out,” Lozano says. “I’d tell her, ‘Angie, I’ve gotta see my baby.’ ”
But the baby was indeed angry. She asked Lozano to stop using his pet name for her. “Don’t call me Gorgeous any more,” she said. Why? Who knows? The Alatorres say the girl was mad at Lozano for making her mom cry. Lozano blames the Alatorres.
Lozano says he was patient and tried to put things right. A mutual friend set up a dinner meeting between Lozano and Richard Alatorre at Colombo’s, an Eagle Rock restaurant. At the meeting, they agreed things could be improved. Alatorre, according to Lozano, said he understood Lozano’s situation, that he had had similar disputes over visitation rights when he and his first wife divorced.
Then Angie showed up at the restaurant with the child in tow. The little girl gave Lozano a letter written on Angie’s stationery addressed to “Mr. Lazania” and signed in crayon.
“I don’t want to see you ever again,” it said.
Once Riled, He Does Not Yield
Henry Lozano is a persistent man. He’s not a shouter or screamer, but a tugging, inexorable force. Once riled, he does not yield. He and Alatorre had often been political opponents but never made their opposition personal. The end of the restaurant peace conference marked the end of any semblance of friendship.
“You ever see a small dog fighting with a big dog?” one ally says. “That’s Henry. He goes for the belly. He gets in close, comes right in under you. He has a way of forcing in and not stopping.”
Says Frank Villalobos, a friend: “You have to know when to get up from the table, when to walk away. Henry doesn’t. He’s just going to sit there and keep trying to cram it into you why you have to do it his way.”
Lozano hadn’t wanted the child Belinda bore and at times neglected his paternal responsibilities. Few friends think he ever really wanted full custody of his daughter. He’s 65 years old and lives in an apartment. He’s a workaholic. He’s vibrant and strong and healthy, but how would a 10-year-old daughter fit into this life?
The Alatorres, by every account, dote on the girl and love her.
But the denial of visitation rights, which Lozano regards as the outright theft of his child, and the poisoning of her attitude, enraged him.
He went to court, asserting his rights as the father, contesting the guardianship earlier granted the Alatorres. The Alatorres and Angie’s relatives, including her mother and sister, all denied knowledge of Lozano’s relationship to the girl. They said that as far as they knew he was a friend. Contrary evidence produced in court was voluminous and included such items as a videotape of the girl’s baptism, attended by the Alatorres, members of Angie’s family and Lozano. Lozano and Belinda are referred to on the tape as Mommy and Daddy.
In court, the Alatorres said that when they sought guardianship of the girl, they might have suspected Lozano was the father. But Angie said later that she couldn’t be sure.
“He denied it to the world,” she said.
The Alatorres told the court that they did not in any case know Lozano’s whereabouts. This despite the fact that the two men have known one another for 30 years and work in the small world of Eastside politics; they frequently cross paths. For the entire period Lozano was the top aide to a local congressman whose telephone number is listed in every phone book.
Being involved in local politics, especially local Latino politics, and saying you do not know how to get hold of Henry Lozano is like saying you’re a Hollywood agent who’s never heard of Disney. It would be easier to trip over the shadow of Lozano’s presence than be blind to it.
This disingenuousness notwithstanding, Judge Shatford gave Angie Alatorre custody, saying the young girl needed the presence of a woman in her life. He ordered Richard Alatorre into drug rehab. And he said Lozano had neglected and angered the girl, had betrayed the child’s best interests.
Behind-the-Curtain Player Par Excellence
The very public nature of these proceedings is an aberration for Lozano, who has been the consummate behind-the-curtain player.
One of the few times he ventured out front was in 1992 when Ed Roybal–Mr. Roybal, as many people still refer to him–quit Congress after 30 years. He anointed Lozano his successor. Lozano, with what he says was trepidation, accepted.
Old friends say that despite his protests, Lozano cherished the idea of going to Congress. It would be the crowning achievement of his political life, which is to say, his entire life. Politics consumed Lozano. Long before, friends say, it cost him his marriage.
In the beginning, when he was moving out of the union halls into the political corridors, his wife, Isabel, came along with him. When the divisions between political and personal began to disappear, when office hours melted into the endless procession of evening banquets and late-night talkathons, Isabel accompanied him.
In a fashion, anyhow, because once they arrived at whatever function Henry dragged her to, he would sit her down at a table then head off to work the room.
“Roybal would chew me out: ‘Go back and sit with your wife,’ ” Lozano says. “And I would, for a while. Five or 10 minutes, maybe. Then somebody would come up and you’d say, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Of course, you weren’t.”
“You’re blinded by it,” he says.
Politics can be an intoxicating world. Its puzzles are engaging; its decisions have real weight. And it is largely a meritocracy. You succeed in it by what you do. What Lozano lacks in polish, he makes up with dead-on instinct and persistence.
Using all the skills and contacts he had employed so often on behalf of a hundred others, he launched a congressional campaign. With Roybal’s blessing, he gathered endorsements and donations. It was as if he had spent his whole life preparing for this. Victory seemed inevitable. Then abruptly, a mere two weeks later, he quit the race. Publicly, he said he was too old (then 58) to accumulate the seniority needed to be effective. He also cited unspecified personal reasons. Privately, he told friends those personal reasons had entirely to do with the 4-year-old girl he had fathered with Belinda.
The issue arose–how else?–in a telephone call. Lozano was playing golf with friends. As usual, he had his cell phone. It rang. Angie Alatorre was on the line, telling him to quit the race. According to Lozano and what he told others at the time, Angie told him that if he didn’t get out, the news of his illegitimate baby would be used against him. Everyone, Isabel included, would know.
“Henry at that time hadn’t yet had an honest conversation with his wife,” a friend says. Lozano withdrew.
He helped recruit the man he now works for, Xavier Becerra, to run in his place. Becerra, in an upset, beat Alatorre’s favored candidate and went to Congress. Henry stayed home, made his phone calls and nursed his resentment.
Feud Centers on Personalities
The custody fight has been widely cast as one front in a war between two political machines–one run by Richard Alatorre and state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, the other by an alliance of Gloria Molina, Lozano and Becerra. This interpretation holds that the Molina group has used the custody action as a forum to air all of Alatorre’s considerable dirty laundry and thus take him down.
But hardly anyone outside Alatorre’s legal team makes this argument.
First, say several observers, the notion that there are two distinct Latino political machines is overreaching. There are two informal groups, but they hardly qualify as machines, they say.
“It’s not about building anything. There’s no machine,” says Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), an ally and old friend of Lozano. “There are a bunch of individual actors. Nobody has their hooks into anybody. It’s more like, ‘Who can we get to run for this? Who can we think of?’ ”
Fernando Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount, calls them “recruitment and sponsorship networks. They’re fluid, and they tend to almost morph into one another over time.”
Alatorre and Lozano have often backed opposing candidates but have often worked together too. Lozano campaigned for Alatorre numerous times and has given counsel when it was sought.
That said, there is undeniably a different tone to the two groups. Lozano’s thinks of itself as the more high-minded, altruistic, issue-oriented and populist. County Supervisor Molina is often cited as the exemplar and leader. But among her so-called allies are a number of people who are no longer close to her. She and Lozano, for example, have barely spoken to one another for years.
So although there are undoubtedly elements of competition and payback in the custody fight, “it’s a side benefit,” says one Lozano ally. What this fight is really about has little to do with politics and everything to do with personality, stubbornness and anger.
Molina long ago nicknamed Lozano and his buddies “the macho dogs.” Rather than being offended, they take the name with pride. And it fits. There is about Lozano an old-fashioned maleness. He’s the guy who squeezes your shoulder, hard; the guy who knows all the off-color jokes. Although Lozano has done much to promote women in politics, one friend says, “he’s totally from the old school. He still believes the guys should sit down and work things out. It’s still a little boys’ game.”
That attitude figures into the custody fight, which is a competition not between two political machines, but two people. Asked to name his enemies, Lozano thinks long and hard before offering up a single name–Angie Alatorre.
This ugly dispute, like many, has been noisy in a way that private affairs ought never be. It has been mean and contentious in a way that decisions affecting the lives of children ought never be.
The process of resolving such disputes, the court system, is maladroit. It steers things off track, so much so that a “good” outcome is no longer possible. The well is poisoned. Too much pain has passed. The best that is left would be an end less bad than all the others.