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SIS: Stormy Past, Shaky Future

SUNDAY REPORT

LAPD's Special Investigation Section, known by some as the 'Death Squad,' uses unconventional tactics that produce controversial and sometimes deadly results. The Times presents a look inside this unit.

November 29, 1998|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For them and others who denounce the unit, it is the "lying-in-wait" strategy that draws the most ire. They say it puts the public at risk so the police can make better arrests and cases against suspects, effectively elevating the Police Department's interests over the public's.

"The cops are putting the lives of innocent Angelenos in the hands of the people they say are the scum of the earth," Fyfe said.

Yagman, whose record in court has been mixed, said that many SIS officers "are bullies who appear to derive pleasure" from getting into shootings and then "beating the charges."

Some of the basic facts are in dispute. Yagman contends that the unit has killed 44 suspects since 1977. SIS does not have a formal list of casualties, but LAPD records show that 34 suspects have been killed by SIS officers since the unit's inception. Statistics also show that nearly three of every 100 surveillance operations ends with a shooting, a relatively high ratio when compared to other officers. Whatever the precise number of shootings and fatalities, Yagman said, it's too many.

Yagman, who has cultivated the image of the unit as a reckless "death squad" and a pack of "murderers," said he can't understand why the department and city leaders continue to support the unit.

A Moment of Truth Arrives

Tyshika Deon Roberts doesn't know it, but he is about to face a life-or-death decision.

A partial print on a victim's car has led investigators to stop tailing the Crenshaw man they had originally followed and instead to focus on Roberts as a possible suspect in the ATM kidnapping and robberies.

So convinced are they this time that SIS officers intend to make an immediate arrest.

They gather just after daybreak in Palmdale, where they hope to catch Roberts leaving his mother's home for work at Magic Mountain. Hours pass without a sign of him. Frustrated, one officer pretends to be Roberts' boss and calls the house, asking where he is. Roberts' mother says he will be home later in the afternoon.

For the next eight hours, more than a dozen officers wait in their cars in the scorching sun. They move occasionally to park in the shifting shade, go to a restroom or grab a bite to eat.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Roberts shows up in a red Toyota driven by a woman. As the driver and another woman wait, Roberts goes into his mother's house, then quickly comes back to the car and takes off again.

As the moment of confrontation approaches, SIS officers strap on their bulletproof vests. It is time for "the jam," the unit's controversial tactic for pinning a suspect's car with their vehicles. Most of the fatal shootings have occurred when the unit is jamming.

Critics say the tactic encourages shootouts, claiming that simple gestures by a suspect meant to indicate surrender sometimes are mistaken by officers as a "threatening movement." LAPD officials say the tactic allows SIS officers to control when and where an arrest occurs, thereby minimizing risks to bystanders.

"Take 'em after they make this left," says the squad leader.

One officer races his car through a parking lot and blocks the Toyota. Another pulls next to the driver's door, pinning it closed. A third vehicle stops just short of the rear bumper.

Four officers jump from their cars. Each carries either a .45-caliber handgun or a shotgun. Every weapon is pointed at the car.

"Freeze!"

The two women cry and shake with fear.

Any false move, any hint Roberts is going for a gun, and the 21-year-old will die right now.

Not today. Roberts, unarmed, throws his hands in the air and gives up.

Weighing the Costs

SIS is not cheap.

The LAPD spends about $2 million a year to staff and equip the 20-member unit. That is a small fraction of the department's overall budget, but the city has spent millions more defending the unit in court.

What does the city get for all that? About 45 arrests a year, according to department statistics. Recently, the squad's arrests have dipped even lower as the number of violent crimes--particularly bank robberies--has dropped significantly.

But LAPD officials point to the type of criminals that the unit takes off the streets. And, they note, one suspect arrested by the unit often clears a half-dozen or more cases.

Supporters add that the value of SIS cannot be reduced to money.

"How can you put a price on one's life?" asked pastor Moises Sandoval. He was rescued from a gang of kidnappers by SIS officers last November. Without SIS, Sandoval is convinced he could have been killed.

"If they don't do this kind of work, who's going to do it?" he asked. "When you're in that moment of need, you are grateful that there are people there who are willing to lay their lives on the line."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who scrutinized the effectiveness and cost of the unit when he served as the City Council's budget committee chairman, said the unit is a valuable tool for the Police Department.

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