Police prepare for a raid on a home in South Los Angeles. Many gang officers… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
It sounds like a doomsday scenario for a city finally vanquishing a street crime menace that gave Los Angeles a reputation as the nation's gang capital.
LAPD officers charged with fighting gangs are walking away from their jobs en masse because they don't want to disclose to their bosses details of their personal lives.
They consider insulting, invasive and potentially dangerous a rule aimed at ferreting out corruption by requiring gang and narcotics officers to submit for scrutiny their personal financial records.
So many officers have refused to comply that gang units have been temporarily disbanded in six of the LAPD's 21 divisions, according to a story this week by Times reporters Joel Rubin and Scott Gold.
The gang cops are returning to street patrol; the units are being rebuilt over time with new recruits. That has led some to worry that the city will be caught flat-footed in the summer, when gang activity tends to rise.
That could happen. Veteran gang officers are repositories of street knowledge and connections that help tamp down violence and put troublemakers behind bars. Their years of expertise can't be replaced in the next few months.
But there's another possibility, of the making-lemonade-from-lemons sort.
With violent crime at its lowest level in more than 30 years, this could provide a chance for a new generation of officers to make its mark. Gangs have changed in the last decade, and so have the LAPD's tactics. It's no longer about banging heads and battering down doors but about enlisting others in community efforts.
The mutiny over financial disclosure has been brewing for years. No one seems to like the rule, forced on the department by a federal consent decree that resulted from the notorious Rampart Division corruption scandal. That shocked us into realizing that dozens of officers in the LAPD's former gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, were conducting themselves like hoodlums: beating suspects, dealing drugs, planting evidence and lying to cover it up.
One of the most egregious cases of law enforcement misconduct in national memory, the Rampart scandal led to federal oversight of the Police Department and a raft of mandated reforms, including the requirement for financial reports.
The police union fought disclosure for years, arguing that the rule would do nothing to catch crooked cops but would burden honest ones. In this era of WikiLeaks, it's easy to sympathize with their concerns.
But this is about more than financial forms. Narcotics officers have as much at stake as their gang unit counterparts, yet most of them agreed to the declarations. Why do gang officers consider this a call to arms?
I took that question to Connie Rice, head of the Advancement Project. She has studied gang officers for years, evaluated the city's anti-gang efforts and worked with the Police Department on programs to reduce gang violence.
She opposes the disclosure rules and isn't surprised that gang officers balked. Narcotics cops are accustomed to accountability, she said. "Their mentality is 'I've got to show I'm not on the take.' Their whole lives are an open book."
But gang officers operate, she said, "in more of a bunker mentality. When you're out there in a gang unit, it's just you and your partner, it's 2 a.m. and everybody on the street has a gun. I think the gang officers feel more endangered, like they're dangled out there as bait, and no one really understands what they face."
The gang officers I tried to interview told me they're under orders not to talk. Then they ticked off a laundry list of frustrations, including cuts in overtime pay and the growing reliance on "intervention" by ex-gangbangers they find it hard to respect or trust.
That discomfort may be a symptom of growing pains. The sustained drop in gang violence owes much to the work of gang units but also reflects the evolution of a department that recognizes the value of partnering with the city it serves and protects.
Crime stats, after all, are sensitive to many factors: police tactics, economic conditions, social circumstances, demographic shifts.
It's no coincidence that gang-related crime tumbled 40% over the last three years in neighborhoods where a city-funded summer program kept parks open until midnight, offering sports programs and counseling.
High-profile raids of dangerous gangs and the sweeping reach of gang injunctions have made their mark on dangerous streets. But so have basketball games and free meals.
The exodus from the gang units offers opportunities and challenges. It might hasten generational change, ushering in new strategies and a fresh mind-set. But it will also present logistical problems.
Officers working on specialized units "build relationships on the streets," Rice said. "You know who's reliable, who's an addict. People trust you, so they'll pick up the phone and tell you what's going on. 'This wasn't a drug deal, but a fight over a girl.' That saves investigative hours."