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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.


But a sweeping federal class-action lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that they did. It names 12 plaintiffs, including four identified in the criminal complaint, and will add others as they come forward, according to attorneys John Burris and James Chanin. An additional 15 people whom the Riders arrested or accosted under questionable circumstances in the last few years have expressed interest in joining the suit, the attorneys said.

The suit alleges that the officers violated the plaintiffs' civil rights by using excessive force, depriving them of liberty without due legal process and discriminating against them because of their race. It seeks punitive damages as well as payments for the alleged victims' pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost work and legal fees.

At a news conference Thursday, six of the plaintiffs, all young African American males, told of run-ins with one or more of the Riders. Five said the officers planted one or more pieces of crack cocaine on them.

Bobby Pree said he was walking home late one night in October 1999 when Vazquez stopped him. Then, while he was handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser, the plaintiff said, he saw the officer rummage in the car trunk, put a cocaine rock in a bag and claim it was Pree's. He was arrested and jailed on suspicion of drug possession, but his case was dismissed this fall.

In addition to seeking monetary damages, the lawsuit requests that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the department, partly because it showed "deliberate indifference" to the Riders' abuses, which must have been known to command officers, the attorneys say. The department has engaged in a "pattern and practice of police misconduct against African Americans," the lawyers say.

In Oakland, blacks make up 43% of the population, whites 33% and Latinos 14%. Out of the Police Department's 750 sworn officers, 26% are black, 45% white and 16% Latino.

The Riders case has already prompted some police reform. The department will now monitor squadrons for unusual arrest patterns, said police spokesman George Phillips. Also, he said, a new position of inspector general, reporting to the chief and working independently of the internal affairs division, has been created to address complaints of excessive force and other abuses.

To critics who say the department cannot monitor itself, authorities counter that the Riders case shows otherwise. Prosecutors say that the rookie officer's complaints prompted immediate internal review and that all evidence of criminal wrongdoing was delivered quickly to the district attorney. Last week, the department fired Siapno and Mabanag, while termination proceedings are underway against Hornung and fugitive Vazquez.

Some Differences in Scandals

The Riders and Rampart scandals have similarities--cops accused of hammering suspects, faking evidence, making bogus arrests--but to many in Oakland the differences seem more important.

In contrast to the Rampart Division controversy that has plagued the Los Angeles Police Department for more than a year, the Oakland Police Department handled the allegations of wrongdoing speedily and has cooperated fully with prosecutors, Hollister said.

Another difference, said Burris, author of a 1999 book on police brutality against African Americans, was the apparent motivation for the alleged abuses. With Rampart, he said, the disgraced cops seemed partly motivated by personal gain, such as profiting from confiscated drugs. But there is no evidence of that with the Riders, he said.

Sometimes the Riders framed suspects and then offered to let them go if they turned others in; other times they simply went too far, Burris said.

Antonio Wagner, a likely plaintiff in the federal civil suit, says he was kicked by one of the Riders while lying face down on the street last year after being pulled over in West Oakland. He used to lay carpets but can no longer work full time because of the "humongous" pain, he said.

He was not arrested. "I wasn't doing anything," he said, "and I end up with my ribs broken."

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