In light of the incredibly inept management of the Los Angeles Police Department's field forces during the past 20 years, it's a wonder that alleged criminal wrongdoing and police misconduct took so long to surface. That such misconduct is connected with one of the department's many specialized units formed since the late 1970s illustrates just how far LAPD leadership has strayed from basic principles of running an organization.
The police department is justifiably proud of its 50-year record as an organization relatively untainted by ordinary corruption. Few officers have sold the power of their position for money. When they have been discovered protecting bookmakers, selling jail releases or steering arrestees toward certain bail-bond companies or attorneys, they have been prosecuted, fired or disciplined. Usually, when supervisors of "dirty" officers knew of, or should have known of, the misconduct and did not take corrective action, they have been sanctioned as well.
Unfortunately for residents of Los Angeles, while money-inspired corruption has been held to a minimum, its close and sometimes indistinguishable sibling, "expediency corruption," has been allowed to flourish. Expediency corruption is tacit acceptance of extraordinary (read: extralegal) measures to accomplish certain police tasks, coupled with a corresponding acceptance of various shadings of the truth (read: cover-up) to evade accountability for rule violations. Management does not encourage such behavior, to be sure. Sometimes, however, it's tolerated at the very top of the LAPD when discovered.
Just as the LAPD's occasional tolerance of expediency corruption has fostered misconduct, so has the department's departure from sound organizational principles in the oversight of highly specialized units like CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), the anti-gang squad at the center of the current corruption scandal. Whether these units are surveillance squads, dog handlers, terrorism investigators or other gang-suppression forces, their goals, objectives and operations are not fully integrated into the department's larger mission.
Because of their place in the organization, these rogue units tend to escape routine supervision and review. This has enabled them to establish their own operating agendas based upon their narrow purposes and views. The results weren't pretty. Dog handlers allowed their dogs to bite suspects to reward them and whet their appetites for suspect searches. Terrorism investigators maintained files at their residences that, under the rules, cannot be maintained as official department files. Furthermore, many of these units are staffed with personnel who, for a variety of reasons, prefer to remain with them rather than move back into basic policing. Cliques are usually the result.
CRASH units, in particular, enjoy insulation from routine organizational supervision and review. Whether assigned to one of the department's 18 operational areas or consolidated under one of its four bureaus, they operate outside the organizational mainstream.
Complicating the matter is their mission: to wage "war" on gangs and drugs. And as in any war, the enemy must be dehumanized. A case in point:
About a decade ago, CRASH officers served search warrants at two duplexes in South Los Angeles that were allegedly occupied by gang members. Their objectives were to seize drugs and arrest drug dealers. During the searches, these officers broke windows, shattered bathroom fixtures, ripped holes in walls and destroyed furniture. In response to residents' complaints and media inquiries, the police theorized that returning gang members had trashed the duplexes to make the police look bad. The officers involved, their supervisors and their immediate command staff seemed content to let the matter rest with this explanation.
After an outcry of disbelief from residents and the media, a thorough investigation was undertaken, which produced a far different story. Residents had complained to local police that the duplexes were occupied by drug-dealing gangs who peddled their wares on neighborhood streets. An investigation followed, but its conclusions were tainted by inaccurate information developed by CRASH officers. Search warrants were issued based upon an affidavit that was later determined to include the false information. CRASH officers from the immediate and surrounding areas were assembled to serve the warrants, apparently without the knowledge of their respective command staffs. The warrants were served after a briefing by the area captain. At the briefing, he made several statements indicating that extraordinary tactics might be necessary.
The investigation concluded that it was police officers, not gang members, who had damaged or destroyed residential property. No drugs or suspects were found.