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SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS SECTION: WATCHING CRIME HAPPEN : LAPD's Secret SIS Unit : Citizens Terrorized as Police Look On

September 25, 1988|DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writer

"'To Protect and To Serve,' states the essential goal of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Department protects the right of all persons within its jurisdiction to be free from criminal attack, to be secure in their possessions and to live in peace. . . ."

--LAPD Manual

On a November morning in 1986, two robbers entered a videotape rental shop in Koreatown, slammed clerk Eunsook Oh to the floor and tore off her jewelry.

One of the robbers clubbed manager Brian Ahn with a revolver and kicked him in the face, then put the gun to Ahn's head and demanded that he lead them to the shop's safe.

Ahn's terrified clerk reached for an alarm. She didn't need to.

Already outside, watching, were 10 undercover police detectives. They had been following the suspects for two days and watched them go into the shop. They already had ample reason to make an arrest, and could have prevented the attack. Now they let it run its course--and readied their shotguns.

For the Special Investigations Section of the Los Angeles Police Department, the tactics were standard procedure.

The secretive, 19-man unit watches armed robbers and burglars but rarely tries to arrest them until after the thieves have victimized shopkeepers, homeowners and others, an investigation by The Times found.

Indeed, SIS detectives have often ignored opportunities to arrest targeted criminals after watching them commit lesser crimes, such as car theft, attempted burglary or attempted robbery. In some cases, the detectives have overlooked existing arrest warrants.

Instead, they have waited for dozens of criminals to commit actual armed robberies and burglaries--felonies that carry longer sentences and are more easily prosecuted because the detectives can testify as witnesses.

The Times found no cases in which innocent victims were killed by criminals during surveillances by the SIS. However, the investigation documented numerous instances in which well-armed teams of SIS detectives stood by watching as victims were threatened with death and, sometimes, physically harmed by criminals who could have been arrested beforehand.

Not all of those criminals went to jail afterward. Man for man, the little-known surveillance squad has shot more suspects than any other unit in the Police Department, records show.

Its detectives have killed 23 suspects and wounded 23 others since 1965, when the SIS was formed, The Times found in reviewing police shooting reports. In addition, the surveillance detectives have been involved in more than 20 other incidents in which they shot at suspects and missed.

"There's a separate subculture involved there, a very macho subculture," said a retired high-ranking officer knowledgeable in the unit's operations. "They just let situations degenerate to the point where they can use deadly force."

In all of their armed confrontations, no member of the SIS has ever been shot by a criminal, although one detective was killed in 1980 when he inadvertently ran into another squad member's line of fire and was hit by a shotgun blast intended for a fleeing bank robber.

The surveillance squad has no guidelines compelling it to deter people about to commit potential violence. Nor does the special unit have any written policies that tell its members whom they should follow, for how long or where.

It is not uncommon for a dozen or more SIS detectives to spend weeks tailing one suspect--often ranging outside the county and even outside the state--and show nothing for their labor.

Official monthly summaries of the squad's activities show that fewer than one-fourth of the unit's 1987 surveillances ended in the arrests of targeted suspects. The SIS took credit for 36 arrests in 1987--an average of less than two arrests per man--at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million in salaries and overtime. The rest of the detectives and patrolmen in the 7,400-member LAPD made 75,362 felony arrests in 1987.

Los Angeles police officials nonetheless praise the Special Investigations Section as needed and effective.

While Chief Daryl F. Gates refused repeated requests to be interviewed about the squad, his spokesman, Cmdr. William Booth, said, "It's a good unit."

Booth said the SIS is usually assigned cases in which there is insufficient evidence to arrest suspects believed to be criminally active. Consequently, he said, the detectives sometimes must watch criminals commit serious crimes before they can legally take action.

"We're dealing with people who we have a lot of reason to believe are involved in extreme forms of violence and so we're watching them and there's not much we can do until they violate the law," Booth said. "We think we're protecting the public this way. We think the public agrees."

However, police officers and leading law enforcement experts elsewhere do not.

"I've never seen anything like this," said James J. Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant who is chairman of the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington.

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