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A Ram at Rest : These Are Quiet Times for LAPD's 'Battering' Vehicle

February 10, 1986|PATRICIA KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

A six-ton tank with a 14-foot steel battering ram, hailed last year by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates as a revolutionary new weapon in the war against drugs, pretty much sits idle these days, except for occasional spins around a downtown parking lot to keep its battery from dying.

SWAT officers ride the ram during practice drills to learn to rescue hostages, raid rock houses and fight terrorists. It has been taken to the scene of several sniper incidents, although what it did once it got there is secret because of tactical considerations, a top police official said.

But the machine that Gates last year vowed to use "over and over and over again whenever appropriate" to smash down the walls of suspected cocaine rock houses has not been used to blitz a single rock house since last April, officials said.

Critics say police backed down after using the battering ram four times because of political pressure, the filing of several lawsuits and the inherent limitations of the device. At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Supreme Court has said it will decide later this year whether use of the ram is constitutional. And in the meantime, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has developed its own improved "mobile entry device."

But Los Angeles police contend that the ram is simply the victim of its own success. Fear of the ram--along with aggressive police narcotics task forces and increased public willingness to turn in drug operators--has severely curtailed rock house operations, so much so that police don't need to use the ram, officials said.

In the process, the battering ram has caused sweeping changes in the nature, if not the extent, of cocaine dealing in the city, officials said.

"The battering ram hasn't been used because we've been able to gain entry safely and swiftly with more conventional methods," said Cmdr. William Booth, a spokesman for Gates. Gates declined to be interviewed on the battering ram, sending word through Booth that it is "old news."

"The tank has been successful beyond our expectations," said Capt. Noel Cunningham of the Narcotics Division. "We don't need to use the tank anymore. People don't believe me when I say this. They think, 'Oh, you're not using the ram because of pressure or something of that nature or it's too cumbersome or draws too much attention,' but the truth of the matter is, the sucker has worked. It's gotten the message across."

More and more, Cunningham said, dealers are selling cocaine from cars, trucks, motel rooms, abandoned apartment buildings and street corners. By the time police can plan, secure and execute a search warrant, many of these dealers are gone. Others are "moving to larger apartment buildings, where it's easy to conceal a lot of traffic going in and out and harder to conduct a surveillance," he said.

"The rock house dealers are no longer building fortresses with internal fortifications such as cages and wooden planks and that's because of the tank, fear of the use of the tank," Cunningham said. "It's not cost-effective for them to do that anymore. They know that with the ram, not only will police recover the evidence, but chances are they will cause a lot of trouble and damage too."

"The ram is a little bit like a nuclear bomb. It has a deterrent value," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Hazell, who handles major narcotics cases. "If you find the main thing that's going to happen to your rock house is the LAPD's going to make an arrest on you, it's probably easier to have a dozen little gang members selling from an apartment."

Joan Howarth, the ACLU attorney who filed a lawsuit seeking to ban police use of the ram unless necessary to prevent serious injury or death, called such claims "crazy."

"They've made hundreds and hundreds of raids on rock houses. Why should they credit the four times they used the battering ram with making a dent?" Howarth asked. "Why wasn't it the hundreds of other raids they did without using the battering ram?" She said police have stopped using the tank because "they don't want to risk another botch" while the case is pending before the Supreme Court.

At Least a Dent

No one argues that the exotic police tool has made a dent in the pervasive drug dealing that has ravaged some neighborhoods.

"Cocaine sales activity definitely has not dropped. Rock houses still exist. We've got Neighborhood Watch groups who are going around complaining about those same rock houses that they complained about in April," said V. G. Guinses, executive director of the Say Yes gang diversion program in South-Central Los Angeles. "I think there are just as many rock houses, but they're more sophisticated and more discreet now."

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