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The Raid That Still Haunts L.A.

In 1988, police smashed two apartment buildings in their zeal to crack down on drugs. The city paid nearly $4 million in damages, but the episode was only a precursor of worse to come.


On Aug. 1, 1988, scores of Los Angeles police officers descended on two apartment buildings on the corner of 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in southwest Los Angeles. It was an all-out search for drugs and a massive show of force designed to deliver a strong message to the gangs.

The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators. Some officers left their own graffiti: "LAPD Rules." "Rollin' 30s Die."

Dozens of residents from the apartments and surrounding neighborhood were rounded up. Many were humiliated or beaten, but none was charged with a crime. The raid netted fewer than six ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine.

The property damage was so great that the Red Cross offered assistance to 10 adults and 12 minors who were left homeless.

What happened on Dalton Avenue that warm summer night, as 88 officers swarmed through the neighborhood and helicopters hovered deafeningly overhead, could have taught the city and its Police Department important lessons about command structure, discipline and civilian oversight. Instead, the next decade brought the Rodney King beating, the 1992 riots and the Rampart Division scandal.

"Dalton was a precursor," said New York University law professor Jerome Skolnick, who with Temple University criminal justice professor James J. Fyfe wrote "Above The Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

"It should have sent a signal that parts of the department were out of control," Skolnick said. "The next signal obviously was the beating of Rodney King, followed by the Christopher Commission report, which laid out many of the problems."

Almost 13 years later, participants on both sides of police lines are still paying a price in ruined careers and shattered lives.

The raid at 39th and Dalton came amid rising public clamor for a crackdown on gangs. Gang warfare had spread to Westwood Village in January 1988, when Karen Toshima, an innocent bystander, was caught in a cross-fire and killed. Crack cocaine, dominated by street gangs, was an epidemic.

With City Council backing, then-Chief Daryl F. Gates flooded South-Central Los Angeles streets that spring with officers in Operation Hammer, arresting thousands of gang members and innocent residents alike.

Gangs and drugs had swamped the working-class neighborhood near 39th and Dalton, a few miles west of the Memorial Coliseum.

Homeowners complained that dope-dealing gang members had taken over their street, offering curbside service to motorists. One family's exterior lights, installed to discourage outdoor drug sales, were shot out.

The family complained to police at the Southwest station, just three blocks away. Officers there were also outraged by the dealers. They suspected a gang member had made an anonymous call to the station, threatening to kill a police officer.

Police attention focused on the two apartment buildings. Dealers sat on the front steps and sold on the corner, but they didn't live there. In an affidavit for a search warrant, Officer Carl A. Sims, a narcotics investigator, described the apartments as stash houses for gang members who sold narcotics on the street.

Southwest Capt. Thomas Elfmont, just five months on the job, encouraged his officers to take back the block. Some of his officers recall Elfmont's telling them before the raid to render the buildings "uninhabitable." He denies ever saying that.

As officers assembled in the Southwest station and headed out to the apartments for the raid, no one higher than a sergeant was in command.

Elfmont now says that was a mistake.

"The problem was, no one was in charge to execute the search warrant," he said. "There should have been at least a lieutenant on hand."

Rookie Officer 'Out of Control'

One of the most eager participants was Officer Todd Parrick, the son of an LAPD officer and the great-grandson of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. An ex-Navy SEAL, he had joined the department in 1987--a time when Gates was comparing violence on the streets of Los Angeles with the turmoil in Beirut.

"I wanted to be a police officer just about all my life," said Parrick, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. "I grew up with them. My dad's partners were always around the house. They were men of integrity, my role models."

Parrick, then 25, stood 6 feet 5. Once inside the Dalton units, he grabbed an ax and wielded it with such force--smashing furniture and walls--that fellow officers feared he would harm himself or someone else.

"I probably got a little out of control," Parrick now says.

But, he adds, "I was a boot, a rookie. If I was out of control and doing something wrong, how come nobody told me to stop? No one said, 'Cut it out.' "

To narcotics investigator Sims, the Dalton raid was the rule rather than the exception. Any place officers stormed looking for drugs "was turned upside down," he said.

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