Whatever else he was, is, or ever will be, for most of the 10 years Rafael Perez was in the Los Angeles Police Department he exemplified the hard-charging ideals the LAPD promotes. He was a good cop--a very good cop, even--who at some point became one of a certain, distinctive other kind of cop.
Not an outlaw cop. Not at first. It started, as it usually does, more subtly than that.
One of Perez's old bosses, talking not long ago about the secret pleasures of a policeman's life, recalled how he and friends would think nothing of ending a night shift at 1 a.m. in, say, Foothill Division, far northwestern Los Angeles, then driving 50 miles to Anaheim for a beer. They knew a tavern there that stayed open late.
"If you have a badge," he said, "you can drive real fast."
In addition to the thrill of speeding across a sleeping landscape of 12 million people, this recollection hints at a vital aspect of life as some cops live it. They inhabit--or think they do--a world apart from normal men and women.
This belief is not unusual in the Los Angeles Police Department, where insularity has been raised to a sacramental rite; it is particularly pronounced in the department's special units, distinct segments of the force that operate with virtual autonomy.
Cops in these units are, by definition, set apart--even from other police. For most of his career, Perez, the man at the center of the LAPD Rampart scandal, worked in two of these units: gang suppression and undercover narcotics.
It is common, particularly among the hardest charging cops in these units, to come to believe they reign over secret domains, that they are governed by codes of behavior of their own devising, liberated from normal life and its bothersome rules. In this shadow world, they can come to feel like royalty, true princes of the city and masters of all they survey.
They drive real fast.
What we know now about Rafael Perez, of course, makes breaking the speed limit look like a missed homework assignment.
What we know, in summary, is this:
Perez has admitted to hundreds of instances of perjury, fabrication of evidence and false arrests. He has admitted stealing drugs from police evidence lockers and reselling them on the street. He has admitted stealing drugs, guns and cash from gang members.
He has alleged that the Rampart Division's anti-gang CRASH unit sought to send neighborhood gang members to prison or to have them extradited, whether or not they actually committed crimes. He has said he helped put hundreds of innocent men in jail--innocent, in any event, of the crimes with which they were charged.
Included among these men was one gangster, Javier Ovando, whom Perez said he and his partner framed for allegedly attempting to murder them. In fact, Perez said, when they shot and paralyzed Ovando, he was unarmed. Perez has said he routinely observed police officers beating innocent people. Rampart CRASH became, Perez has said, a "brotherhood," a gang in its own right.
The scandal Perez unleashed caused the temporary disbanding of all the LAPD's anti-gang details. The scandal has so far caused more than 30 officers to be disciplined and five to be fired. Nine others resigned. In addition to Perez, three have been convicted of crimes, based in large part on information he provided. Those convictions have since been reversed and the officers await a retrial.
The scope of the scandal has caused millions of dollars to be spent investigating it. It played a key role in the U.S. Justice Department's decision to force the LAPD to surrender its vaunted independence to the oversight of the federal courts.
Perez has called himself a monster and warned of the dangers of the corruption of power. Others have been harsher. He has been variously called the worst police officer in the history of Los Angeles, lying scum, a traitor, a career drug dealer, a gangster.
He has also, to less notice, been regarded by a few as something of a Los Angeles Serpico, a cop dedicated to rooting out wrongdoing in a department he loves. In return for his confession to drug thefts and cooperation with investigators, Perez was given a five-year sentence and immunity from other charges.
He is currently in County Jail, where he spends most of his time locked down, alone in a cell, reading, and, when able, watching police dramas on television. He also spends a considerable amount of time testifying against his former fellow officers, many of whom now revile him.
Assuming he is not charged with new crimes (not necessarily a safe assumption, given the zeal with which federal investigators are pursuing allegations against him) and with time off for good behavior, Perez will probably walk out of jail a free man early next spring. Given the low regard in which he is held by both outlaw gangsters and his former law enforcement peers, he presumably will resettle with his wife and family in another city.