Long before the current scandal erupted in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, top commanders had clear warnings that some of their elite, anti-gang officers lacked adequate supervision and were engaged in serious misconduct, including wrongly beating suspects and filing false reports.
Some of the same abuses now at the heart of Los Angeles' biggest police corruption scandal in decades came to the department's attention in 1995, when a Wilshire Division CRASH supervisor led his squad on a personal mission to recover his stolen pickup truck.
Sgt. Salvador Apodaca's officers conducted what the city's own lawyers subsequently called a "renegade run" and "vigilante effort" during which they beat and arrested without a warrant a suspect who never was charged, records show. An LAPD captain condemned the officers' actions as street justice that violated the suspect's basic constitutional rights.
Former LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader said that complaints of various sorts were made about CRASH units across the city in recent years. The complaints alleged everything from use of excessive force and harassment of suspects and their families to general civil rights violations.
"We made efforts to initiate or participate in [Internal Affairs] investigations related to particular CRASH units," she said. "But it was clear the department certainly didn't welcome our inquiries, and we weren't authorized to pursue them."
Chokehold Used on Suspect
The worst offense in the Wilshire CRASH case, an LAPD discipline board found, was an officer's use of a potentially lethal chokehold on one of the alleged truck thieves, Jose Cordova. "You better start talking," the officer told Cordova, "or you're going to do the rest of your time in the county hospital."
Cordova recalled a forearm squeezing his neck and said he nearly blacked out as officers demanded information about a gun missing from Apodaca's truck.
"I was thinking I was gonna die," Cordova told The Times.
Critics question why the Wilshire CRASH incident--which led to suspensions and a referral to criminal prosecutors--failed to spark a broad review of the LAPD's aggressive, anti-gang details.
"Didn't alarms go off that this might not be an isolated incident?" asked Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU's Southern California chapter.
"This wasn't subtle. This wasn't bending the envelope."
Apodaca, who supervises street patrols in the Northeast Division, declined to comment.
But a high-ranking LAPD official who reviewed the case said it was investigated thoroughly and appropriately handled.
The official, Deputy Chief Michael Bostic, is leading the LAPD's wide-ranging board of inquiry convened in response to the Rampart scandal. The board is examining all specialized units, such as CRASH, amid allegations that Rampart Division anti-gang officers illegally shot suspects, framed one man and improperly beat another, stole drugs, falsified evidence and covered up misconduct.
Bostic acknowledged that there are some similarities between the 1995 Wilshire CRASH incident and the more recent disclosures, including lack of adequate supervision. But he said it is a quantum leap to compare the situations. "We knew exactly what happened in the case of Wilshire," said Bostic, who oversaw that division at the time as head of the LAPD's West Bureau. "But with [Rampart] many mysteries still need to be unraveled."
Bostic added that department investigators looked for broader patterns of wrongdoing involving the Wilshire CRASH unit, but did not uncover other incidents. The problem was addressed, he said, by breaking up Apodaca's squad and making management changes in the Wilshire station.
In all, six Wilshire CRASH officers received suspensions of two to 35 days after being judged by two separate LAPD discipline boards, records show. The internal investigation was launched after Cordova's father complained that his son was beaten by officers.
The first discipline board in 1996 dealt only with Apodaca and found him guilty of six violations. They included becoming personally involved in the truck theft case, approving overtime requests containing inaccurate information and going to Cordova's house to arrest him without a warrant. However, the sergeant was found not guilty of allegations that he struck Cordova and another suspect.
A year later, the second board found five of Apodaca's officers guilty of various misconduct counts, including filing false reports, court records show. Three were found guilty of using unnecessary force, such as choking Cordova or striking him with fists or flashlights.
Those three officers--John J. Flowers, Shands McCoy and Rodger Adez--sued to overturn the findings, charging that the penalties were unreasonable and that Cordova lacked credibility.
Court Backed LAPD Findings