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California and the West

Rampart-Like Scandal Rocks Oakland Justice System, Politics

Law enforcement: Four officers are accused of framing and beating residents. They face criminal charges and a U.S. suit as racial tensions rise.


OAKLAND — Four veteran cops who worked the midnight shift in this city's tough northwest corner, they called themselves the "Riders"--peacekeepers on some mythic outlaw frontier.

But their romantic nickname is now shorthand for the worst police scandal in Oakland's recent history, as the Riders face criminal charges and a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that they fabricated evidence, planted drugs and wantonly beat suspects bloody.

The Riders case, which is frequently compared with the Rampart police scandal in Los Angeles, stems from accusations by a 23-year-old rookie cop. He spent two weeks last summer patrolling predominantly black West Oakland with the four officers before quitting the force, reportedly in disgust.

The Alameda County district attorney's office is reviewing hundreds of arrests that the officers made in the last 18 months. So far, convictions have been overturned or pending cases dismissed for dozens of people because of questionable police testimony.

The widening scandal has aroused more strong feelings in this comeback city of 395,000 than perhaps anything since the return of the Raiders football team in 1995. It has stirred racial tensions, raised questions about the Oakland Police Department's monitoring of officers who abuse authority, and cast Mayor Jerry Brown, the old-time social progressive, as a huffy, law-and-order zealot.

Brown, elected in 1998 with a promise to improve the quality of life in Oakland, made reducing crime a key goal of his administration. And despite an uptick in homicides in the last year, serious crime overall has fallen on his watch. But critics and some community activists say the Riders' alleged excesses show what happens when cops take the boss' get-tough approach too literally.

In West Oakland, an area pinched between downtown and the industrial waterfront, many residents expressed deep gratitude for Brown's initiatives, saying the neighborhood is safer today than it was just a few years ago. But others say police act like an occupying army. They believe--and fear--that the stepped-up enforcement efforts are intended to spur gentrification in the area.

Already, moneyed Silicon Valley workers are snapping up decayed Victorians and displacing residents, 80% of whom are renters, said Monsa Nitoto, a member of a group trying to save the area's African American heritage.

Brown said in an interview that it is "preposterous on its face" to suggest that his directive to slash crime had contributed to the alleged police abuses.

"I did state the goal that the Police Department should strive for a 20% reduction in crime," he said. The mayor was incredulous at a suggestion that "to maintain respect for constitutional rights, the mayor should not set a numerical goal for crime reduction."

He also defended the Police Department against claims that the scandal reflects a broader pattern of officers' targeting African American residents in poorer neighborhoods.

"I know of no evidence that supports that allegation," Brown said.

Nonetheless, the Riders case promises to engage the city for months as it marches through the justice system.

One Officer Is a Fugitive

Three of the accused officers--Clarence Mabanag, Jude Siapno and Matthew Hornung--pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Superior Court here.

The fourth, Francisco Vazquez, a fugitive for nearly a month, failed to appear at the arraignment and is being hunted by his own department, the district attorney's office and the FBI.

Vazquez, the group's senior officer, was reportedly known on the streets as the "Choker" for squeezing a suspect's throat during questioning.

Defense attorneys contend that the straight-from-the-academy rookie informant, Keith Batt, is not credible. They say he misstated basic facts about where and when alleged misconduct took place.

Attorney Michael Rains said in an interview that Batt is a "white boy from the suburbs" whose judgment was clouded by "culture shock" experienced on the graveyard shift in violence-prone West Oakland. The ethnic makeup of the accused officers is mixed: a white, a Latino and two Filipino Americans.

The criminal complaint, which includes 34 felony and misdemeanor counts, is limited to eight incidents that Batt witnessed in late June and early July, said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Hollister.

One involved Delphine Allen, whom the Riders allegedly kidnapped and took to a "remote location." There, according to the complaint, Officer Siapno beat the handcuffed prisoner in the "face, stomach, back and legs" while Vazquez watched. Allen was arrested on suspicion of drug possession--framed, the complaint says--and jailed on charges that would be dropped in the emerging scandal.

County prosecutor Hollister said he did not try to learn whether the Riders engaged in wrongdoing before the brief period last summer that the rookie witnessed.

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