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RAMPART

The Police Aren't the Only at Fault

March 12, 2000|Luis J. Rodriguez | Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A." and, most recently, "It Doesn't Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story," an illustrated bilingual book for kids thinking of joining gangs

CHICAGO — For the last 30 years or so, many Los Angeles residents have decried the brutal conduct of its police department. I have been one of those critics. In my teens, I lost four friends to police violence. I was beaten several times.

People have wondered how law officers could conspire to keep gangs at each other's throats. It seems unthinkable--unless you live in places where this happened. We now know the Sheriff's Department had secret internal groups, with names like the "Vikings," who did just that in Southeast Los Angeles. Today, as a result of the Rampart revelations, we know LAPD officers framed suspects, shot and killed unarmed people, stole drugs for resale and gave themselves plaques for shooting suspects.

This is not just an L.A. problem. In my 15 years in Chicago, I've learned of police harassment, beatings and frame-ups. Police have twice beaten my son. A Mexican youth I helped mentor out of a gang was later killed by police. Recently, Chicago detectives were caught on videotape stealing booze, cigarettes and other items from a store they were supposedly searching.

While researching the rise of the 18th Street gang and Mara Salvatrucha in Los Angeles and places like El Salvador, I heard stories of how police--assigned to Rampart, no less--colluded with Immigration and Naturalization Service agents to deport alleged gang members as part of their anti-gang mandate. In doing so, they helped export L.A.'s gang violence and culture to countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize, which don't have the law-enforcement resources or history to deal with that kind of warfare.

Now all these stories have a public ear.

It's fine that Police Chief Bernard C. Parks acknowledges what went wrong at Rampart and plans to reorganize the anti-gang CRASH units, the chief perpetrators of illegal activity. It's fine that Parks and the LAPD Board of Inquiry blame "mediocre" policing, bad supervision and lax hiring practices.

But the 1991 Christopher Commission essentially described the same thing; only the reports have gotten longer.

Since we can now agree that the "experts" are not just the paid professionals in the police department, it's time to institute a viable, community-based accountability system for cops that answers to the people. A key component would be a truth commission that would carefully explore the history of police abuse at the community level. This abuse didn't start during Parks' administration, not even during Daryl F. Gates'.

It's also time to stop the foolishness of gang injunctions and gang sweeps, which only give police the green light to do whatever they deem necessary to fight gangs. Gang warfare cannot eradicate gang warfare. Whatever temporary relief that injunctions or sweeps provide is usually obtained at a great loss to neighborhood liberty, safety and integrity.

Having said this, it's also time for the rest of the community to step up to its responsibility. Cops and prisons must not be the central--in some cases, the only--way to deal with gang violence. Communities have allowed this to occur by default. This general consensus--that police should handle the psychological, spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of troubled youth--should be challenged. For starters, cops are not trained to do this. Police cannot do what families, schools, churches, institutions of public maintenance and cultural organizations must do.

The rest of the community has to turn its attention and activities to young people. This means no more "zero tolerance": pushing aside the most-troubled youth rather than helping them. This means no more forcing youth to go their own way, then demonizing them for doing so.

Jobs and training must permeate communities in which gangs and drug problems flourish. It costs taxpayers less--and produces greater results--when meaningful work, decent drug treatment and real intellectual opportunities are provided. Every adult in a gang-plagued community must find the time to teach and support its youth, to be their true and lasting mentors. Violence is directly proportional to the lack of adults positively affecting the lives of young people.

I know what some people are thinking: "I don't have time to do this. Let the police deal with our youth." This is how we got into this mess in the first place. The point is we have to make time. There is a massive gulf between what we say and what we do. This is the biggest complaint many young people have about adults.

The challenge is to create caring and cohesive communities so that young people don't have to sacrifice their lives through gangs, drugs or suicide to find authentic and respectful relationships.

These proposals are not aimed at the police. Rather, they are for the community, for youth and for justice. Cops who have behaved criminally should be punished. Yet, the community cannot simply be satisfied with that and return to life as it was. Preventing another Rampart also means it must take care of its children.

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