American Crime Case #19: The LAPD Rampart Division Scandal: 1996-2000: Police Murder, Terror and Frame-ups—and the Conspiracy to Get the Cops Off

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

THE CRIME:

In 1999, it was revealed that the Rampart Division of the LAPD and its elite “anti-gang” CRASH unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) had been carrying out widespread, vicious brutality in the oppressed, largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Pico Union that they patrolled.

Dozens of these CRASH cops roamed this small area in street clothes and unmarked cars, sporting tattoos of a skull with a cowboy hat and a pair of aces and eights (“dead-man’s hand”).1 They gave each other plaques for their “heroic” service, which was exposed as a mountain of crimes against the people including murder, attempted murder, brutality, robbery, extortion, drug dealing, and routinely framing and convicting thousands of people based on lies, planted “evidence,” and trumped-up charges—including against those they had just shot or murdered.

In 1998, one of these CRASH cops—Rafael Pérez—was caught repeatedly stealing and dealing pounds of cocaine evidence from the LAPD property division. As part of his plea deal, Pérez admitted some of his other crimes and testified against other Rampart CRASH cops, implicating more than 70 officers, including police supervisors who committed corrupt acts or allowed them to occur.2

Because of the huge outrage from the exposé, the powers-that-be were forced to put four of the Rampart cops—out of many more involved—on trial. Some of the cases that surfaced during the Rampart scandal included:

  • The murder of Juan Saldaña. José Pérez was standing in front of his apartment house in the 600 block of Shatto Place. When he saw several carloads of cops roll up, he walked inside his building. The CRASH police charged in, shooting at residents. José Pérez was shot in the back with no warning. Juan Manuel Saldaña was killed with multiple gunshots in another part of the building. A third man, Salvador Ochoa, was seriously wounded as he walked down the stairs with his children.

“Instead of calling an ambulance, the officers planted a gun alongside Saldaña and calmly concocted a story.... By the time an ambulance arrived, it was too late for Saldaña, who died soon after being taken to the hospital. Afterwards, the officers celebrated at Short Stop, a sports bar near Dodger Stadium.”3

Later, as he was recovering from his wounds José Pérez found out that his friend Juan Saldaña was dead. He also learned that the police claimed he was armed and that they were charging him with his friend’s murder. He recalled, “I got shot in the back and my homeboy got killed. They have to make a story out of it. I didn’t have a gun. I was on the floor, bleeding and they handcuffed me. I wasn’t even running. I was walking. They said I was pointing a gun at them. But I didn’t even have a gun. Neither me or my homeboy ever shot a gun.”

The chief of police declared the killing of Juan Manuel Saldaña and the wounding of José Pérez and Salvador Ochoa “justified.”4

  • The crippling of Javier Francisco Ovando. On October 12, 1996 Javier Francisco Ovando, a 19-year-old Honduran immigrant, was walking down the hallway of an apartment building in the Pico-Union when two cops, Rafael Pérez and Nino Durden, stopped him, forced him to his knees, handcuffed him and shot him. They then planted a Tec-22 semiautomatic beside him that they had “filed off the serial number so it could be used as a ‘throwaway’ gun in emergencies.” The cops shot Ovando a total of four times in the neck and chest, then in the head, paralyzing him for life.

The cops claimed that they were in a vacant apartment when Ovando burst in and pointed two guns at them. The police said they fired in self-defense. Based on the cops’ shameless lies, Javier Ovando, who was wheeled into court on a gurney, was convicted of attempted murder of a police officer. A judge declared that Ovando showed no remorse for his “premeditated crime”—and sentenced the young man to be locked away for 23 years. His public defender said the judge prevented her from putting on a defense.5

  • Setting up the murder of Eric Vega. On November 5, 1996 Rampart CRASH cops Mario Ríos and Michael Montoya, picked up 16-year-old Eric Vega, nicknamed on the streets as “Baby Happy.” For a second time, these cops dropped him off at the border of a rival gang’s turf. Moments later, Vega was shot to death. No arrest was ever made even though the shooter had been identified by witnesses and the two cops were never indicted, much less prosecuted.6
  • The beating of Ishmael Jiménez. On February 25, 1998 inside the Rampart police station, CRASH cops Brian Hewitt and Daniel Lujan beat a handcuffed Ishmael Jiménez in the chest and stomach until Jiménez vomited blood.7
  • Violent rape. At least one woman came forward to name two CRASH Division cops who had “forc[ed] her to rent a motel room, where one of the cops had sex with her while the other waited” (i.e. raped her).8
Rampart-Scandal-4-in-court-Wikicommons-600px.jpg

 

The trial of the four CRASH cops was a damning example of this system at work. The whole charade, including the lack of a vigorous prosecution, was orchestrated to let the cops off. But then the jury went off script and returned a guilty verdict against three of the four cops. LA Superior Court Judge Josephine Connor responded by throwing out the jury verdict! Then in 2008, the reputedly liberal 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals even awarded $15 million to those very three cops who had been convicted.  (Credit: Wikicommons)

The System Standing Behind the Cops

When some of the atrocities committed by the LAPD’s Rampart Division burst into public view, the system kicked into high gear to cover up the full extent of police criminality and protect the cops.

  • Charges were only brought against 4 out of over 70 Rampart cops who were implicated in crimes against the people. The DA’s office limited the charges to “conspiracy to obstruct or pervert justice, perjury, and filing false police reports” rather than any serious ones linked to brutality and murder.
  • The trial of the four CRASH cops was a damning example of this system at work. The whole charade, including the lack of a vigorous prosecution, was orchestrated to let the cops off. But then the jury went off script and returned a guilty verdict against three of the four cops. LA Superior Court Judge Josephine Connor responded by throwing out the jury verdict! Then in 2008, the reputedly liberal Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals even awarded $15 million to those very three cops who had been convicted.

Because of this, the full scope of the crimes carried out by the LAPD—just at the Rampart division—has never been revealed. As law professor Erwin Chemerinsky wrote in January 2001 in the LA Times:

The true extent of the Rampart scandal still is not known and it increasingly appears that it never will be known. Essential questions remain: How many officers in the Rampart CRASH unit were involved in the illegal activity? How many officers knew and were complicit by their silence? How high in the chain of command was there involvement or knowledge? To what extent were there similar problems in other CRASH units and other units and divisions? None of the reports on the Rampart scandal have investigated or answered these questions. As a result, it cannot be known how many innocent people remain in prison as a result of police fabrication of evidence and perjury or how many officers remain in the LAPD who should have been disciplined and prosecuted.9

By May 2001, only 58 cops had been brought before the police internal administrative board, with 12 of them suspended, seven resigned and five fired. At least 3,300 people had been convicted on the testimony of 20 cops that were fired or suspended through the scandal, yet only a little over 100 people had their charges dismissed. 10

THE CRIMINALS:

The many named and unnamed Rampart CRASH cops who directly and routinely terrorized and carried out atrocities against the community.

The entire LAPD, which had rubber-stamped and covered up police crimes against the people, and routinely praised, promoted and gave rewards, honor and respect to those in blue who carried them out for its entire (then) 130-year history.

LAPD Chief Daryl Gates (1979-1992) who created CRASH in 1979. Under Gates, in 1986, the LAPD implemented a “shoot-for-the-head” policy.11

Chief Bernard Parks (1997-2002) who oversaw the Rampart scandal. Parks suppressed evidence, obstructed investigations, and protected the cops by refusing to grant immunity to whistleblowers—thus enforcing the police “code of silence” to cover up their crimes.

LA Mayor Richard Riordan (1993-2001), District Attorney Gil Garcetti and their offices. They presided over the prosecution and imprisonment of Rampart CRASH victims while refusing to prosecute and jail guilty cops.

The courts, judges, police commission, and political officials who went into high gear to minimize and cover up the police criminality exposed during the Rampart’s scandal in order to protect and preserve the role of the police.

Superior Court Judge Josephine Connor who threw out the jury verdict that found three of the four Rampart’s CRASH cops guilty, and the liberal 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals which awarded $15 million to the cops whose conviction Judge Connor threw out.

The bourgeois press/media which consistently demonized “gang members” as subhuman and lionized the LAPD (and the police generally) to justify violent repression, even as the Rampart scandal was unfolding. Typical of this, the LA Times wrote in August 1997:

Weary residents and merchants in the gang-plagued Pico-Union neighborhood were cautiously optimistic Monday that something finally will be done about the 18th Street Gang, especially after authorities held a high-profile news conference to say they are going after the gang....

THE ALIBI:

The LAPD’s own Board of Inquiry produced a report titled the “Rampart Area Corruption Incident.” It blamed the crimes revealed during the scandal on poor management by middle and lower level police officials, mediocrity in the LAPD rank and file, and a few rogue cops.

THE ACTUAL MOTIVE:

Immigrants from Central America and Mexico were concentrated in the Pico Union area, which had “the highest population density of any urban area west of the Mississippi, officially 36,000 people per square mile.”12

With this influx of desperately poor, alienated and possibly rebellious migrants, those in power faced an added necessity for new means of social control. Immigrants lived (and continue to live) in circumstances where they find themselves desperately struggling to survive in the U.S. And where they are viciously oppressed, exploited and pushed into the shadows. The immigrant youth were thrown into schools where they barely spoke the language. Surrounded by LA’s spreading gang culture and feeling the need to protect themselves, many of these immigrant youths began to form their own gangs.

This contradiction of controlling this population became more acute for the system’s rulers in the 1990s, when the Pico Union swelled with immigrants, which included indigenous people from Mexico but also many fleeing the massacres and destruction of the U.S. proxy wars in Central American countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Some of these super-exploited immigrants had previously taken part in resistance against U.S. domination in their home countries and actively rebelled in the 1992 LA Rebellion. For the rulers, the savage crimes and repression of their police that were revealed during the Rampart scandal were necessary to suppress and maintain social control over this community.

The Rampart scandal is an illustration of the fact that the job of the police is to protect and serve the capitalist-imperialist system, and in particular to repress and terrorize those it oppresses and exploits—especially those it considers potential threats to its rule.


1. “One Bad Cop,” Lou Cannon, New York Times Magazine, October 1, 2000.  [back]

2. “Rampart scandal,” Brittanica.com July 8, 2016.  [back]

3. “One Bad Cop,” op. cit.  [back]

4. “Planting of ‘Evidence’ by Police: The Notorious Case of LAPD Rampart Division,” www.revcom.us, April 11, 2015.  [back]

5. “One Bad Cop,” op. cit.  [back]

6. “Officers Linked to Death of teen,” LA Times, December 8, 2002.  [back]

7. Rampart Scandal Timeline, Frontline, PBS.  [back]

8."Two Rampart Officers Were Disciplined in Sex Case", LA Times, Nov. 5, 1999.  [back]

9. “For Answers on Rampart We Have to Ask Questions,” Erwin Chemerinsky, LA Times, January 23, 2001.  [back]

10. “LA Ramparts Scandal: Still No Justice for the People,” www.revcom.us, September 16, 2001.  [back]

11. “'Shoot for the Head' Policy Is Wrong : New LAPD Training Is a Particular Danger to Minorities,” LA Times op-ed, December 8, 2008.  [back]

12. Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding, Gregg Barak, SAGE Publications, 2003.  [back]

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