Days before a massive nighttime raid on two suspected "crack houses" in 1988, Los Angeles police officers talked strategy. Capt. Thomas Elfmont told his troops he wanted the places "hit hard"--so hard, according to one officer in attendance, that Elfmont promised the officers "100%" backing even if they shot someone.
"He said that (such a) shooting wouldn't be as scrutinized . . . as other shooting incidents," Officer Diane Tostado testified in connection with the incident at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles, a case entering its second month of trial in downtown Los Angeles.
"Somebody said shooting a Crips (gang member) would be the cherry on the cake?" defense attorney Barry Levin asked her.
"Yes, sir, I believe . . . those are the words that I heard at the (meeting)," Tostado said.
While no shots were fired during the raid by nearly 80 Los Angeles drug and gang officers, the 39th and Dalton incident became the city's most flagrant known example of officer misconduct until this year's police beating of Rodney G. King.
For the first time, details of the Dalton case are being played out in open court, with officers testifying against officers, detailing with obvious reluctance how four units in two apartment buildings were virtually destroyed by ax- and ram-wielding officers looking for narcotics.
The acrimonious testimony in the county Criminal Courts Building is not drawing a crowd. Upstaged by the ongoing hearings into the March 3 King beating, the 39th and Dalton case attracts no more than three or four spectators at a time--and on some days, no one watches but the jury.
Yet the case raises many of the same issues as the King incident--questions of police supervision, excessive force, attitudes toward blacks and other minorities.
Elfmont and two subordinates--Sgt. Charles Spicer and Officer Todd B. Parrick--face misdemeanor charges of vandalism and conspiracy to commit vandalism for which each could serve up to a year in jail and pay a $1,000 fine. At least seven other officers--most of whom were disciplined after the raid--have agreed to testify in part because of a directive signed by Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
In the wake of the raid, the city of Los Angeles has paid more than $3 million in civil lawsuit settlements, including $50,000 for one broken pane of glass. The targeted apartments sustained damage ranging from broken walls and stairways to smashed toilets. According to testimony, shelves were torn from walls. A glass table, television, chairs, dishes, kitchen appliances and wall clocks were broken. Bleach was poured onto clothing and a dining room table was thrown out a window.
Police seized less than an ounce of crack cocaine and less than six ounces of marijuana. Although several dozen suspects were taken into custody, only seven were booked and no residents were charged with a crime, according to police.
"There's no question there was a lot of damage," Elfmont's defense attorney, Levin, said last week during a break in testimony. "There probably was excessive damage by some overzealous officers, but not at the direction of Capt. Elfmont."
Defense lawyers are trying to prove that much of the damage--including the destruction of apartment walls--was lawfully committed in a court-authorized search for drugs. Other damage, they argue, may have been committed by officers who were not charged or by residents who became enraged over the search.
"These people were mad," said Spicer's attorney, Michael Stone. "They came home and started throwing their own stuff around, breaking it up."
Much of the focus has been on the police roll-call meeting three days before the Aug. 1, 1988, raid. According to Tostado, Elfmont expressed the need to deal with members of the Rolling 30s, a black gang affiliated with the Crips and believed to be heavily armed and selling cocaine from the two apartment houses. In a home between the apartment buildings lived a Latino family that was being threatened by gang members because of security lights the family had put up, the officer said.
"(Elfmont) mentioned their circumstances and about the threats of firebombing their house," Tostado testified April 30. "The Rolling 30s gang members that sell drugs in those areas were threatening to firebomb the Hispanic family . . . because of the lights that they had up there. They kept shooting out (the family's) lights, but the people kept putting them up."
Also, two officers had been shot at by Rolling 30s gang members about a month before the incident, one Police Department source said.
Tostado identified Elfmont as the police supervisor who said the shooting of a gang member would be regarded as the cherry on the cake. Elfmont's comments concerned her because she was unsure how some officers would react to it, she said.
"The way it was said, yes, it gave me grave concerns," Tostado said.