When the men of the Los Angeles Police Department's most feared unit face off with an armed suspect, there are only two possible outcomes.
"Either they give up or there's going to be a shooting. That's just the way it is," said Det. Brian Davis, a senior member of the unit. "What are you going to do? Wait for them to shoot you? You do that, and you'll be pushing up daisies."
Since its formation 33 years ago, the Special Investigation Section--known by its critics as the "Death Squad"--has confronted hundreds of armed suspects, fought in more than 50 gun battles, killed at least 34 suspects and wounded dozens of others.
In their quest to hunt down the city's most brutal and elusive criminals, members of the unit have stood by as innocent people were threatened, robbed and sometimes hurt. That has made SIS unique in American law enforcement.
Although many police departments take their lead from the LAPD, few, if any, allow officers to stalk criminals and wait for them to commit crimes before swarming in. The LAPD embraces its unconventional tactics as the best way to rid the city of streetwise, career criminals--in the long run, protecting more people than it puts in danger.
Nevertheless, SIS faces an uncertain future. It remains the LAPD's deadliest unit, responsible for a controversial 1990 shootout at a McDonald's in Sunland in which three suspects died. More recent, shootings in 1995 and 1997 left four suspects dead and five people injured, including two SIS officers.
Federal authorities, who looked into the McDonald's incident but found no violation of law, are investigating whether SIS officers committed civil rights violations in two gunfights during 1997. A lawyer pushing a series of lawsuits against the LAPD is bent on disbanding the unit. And a federal judge is asking the question critics have long posed: Why should SIS be allowed to exist at all?
The business of SIS is perilous and costly. It averages about 45 arrests a year--far fewer than most other specialized LAPD squads such as the Special Weapons And Tactics unit, a widely emulated LAPD invention. The annual operating budget is about $2 million, and the city has spent millions more over the years defending the unit in court and paying settlements.
SIS also historically has been among the LAPD's most private inner sanctums, little known even within the department and famously off limits to outsiders. The unit is housed away from LAPD headquarters in an office building on the edge of skid row.
Even within the LAPD, SIS officers are known as a fearsome and mysterious bunch. Some of their colleagues repeat unsubstantiated--and vigorously denied--rumors of SIS officers conspiring to shoot suspects and celebrating gunfights with "kill parties."
In recent months, an embattled SIS allowed a reporter a rare glimpse into its work, night after night consenting to the observations of an outsider.
What emerges is a portrait more flattering than that painted by its critics, yet less impeccable than that offered by its defenders. SIS is neither a band of urban cowboys nor a spit-and-polish model of efficiency. It is, rather, a group of aging detectives, schooled in a controversial type of policing and thrust into some of law enforcement's most tedious and dangerous work.
All 20 members are men. Off the job, they include a school board member, a volunteer firefighter, a martial arts instructor, a helicopter pilot and a gourmet chef. They're confident, some say cocky, veterans--some with gray hair and beards. Several perch reading glasses half-way down their noses so they can read map books.
"Hell," said one SIS detective, "three-quarters of us are on Viagra."
Their looks are deceiving.
Delta Force and the Navy SEALS, the military's best, come to be trained by SIS in surveillance. Its detectives have captured a veritable Who's Who of Los Angeles bad guys: the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Strangler and Ennis Cosby's murderer, to name a few.
The questions about SIS are not about its mission but about its tactics.
Tracking a Suspect
Tonight's assignment is typical SIS.
Detectives from the San Fernando Valley are trying to build a case against two men suspected of kidnapping women, forcing them to withdraw money from an automated teller machine and then sexually assaulting them. Based on photos taken from an ATM security camera, they think they have one of the men, but the victims aren't sure. So the detectives call SIS.
At 5 p.m. in a parking lot behind the Southwest station, SIS officers gather for a briefing by Det. Jerry Brooks. With 37 years on the force, 21 with the unit, he is the unit's senior officer.
Brooks, a gregarious man who resembles country singer Kenny Rogers, has been in so many shootings he can't remember them all. He hands out booking photos of the ATM suspect and talks about the suspect's MO--the method of operation.