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Introduction

Rampart covers a 7.9 square mile area just west of downtown Los Angeles. With nearly 300,000 residents, it is the city's most densely populated community and is home to an ever-increasing immigrant influx, predominantly from Central America. The community has long had a history of high crime rates. But by the mid-1980s, street gangs and drug activity exploded and secured Rampart's status as the city's most violent community. Its streets produced the most homicides, narcotics sales and violent crime arrests.

During the late 1970s, in reaction to the surge in gang activity, the L.A.P.D. created specialized anti-gang units called CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). These units were eventually assigned to each police division, including Rampart. CRASH units were focused on intelligence-gathering: tracking gang activities and gang membership.

In the mid-1990s, the L.A.P.D., in conjunction with county prosecutors, adopted another tool to fight street gangs--gang injunctions. Constitutionally controversial, the injunctions prohibited named gang members from participating in specific activities, from congregating together to carrying pagers, within defined geographic boundaries. Based upon sworn statements from police officers, most often CRASH cops, individual gang members would be identified and subjected to the court-ordered injunctions. Violation of an injunction could result in misdemeanor prosecution.

The injunctions won support from the Rampart community. Within Rampart, business and community leaders had long worked to fight the spread of gangs and to promote economic recovery in an area traditionally underserved by the city. When the Rampart scandal broke, however, the legal underpinning for the injunctions was compromised: they had been based, in part, on the sworn statements of officers implicated in wrongdoing by Rafael Perez. The injunctions were suspended. L.A.P.D. Chief Bernard Parks also disbanded the CRASH units (replaced now with smaller anti-gang clones).

Activists from various corners of the community formed the Coalition to Improve the Quality of Life in Rampart. FRONTLINE spoke with many members of the coalition about the Rampart scandal and its effect on their community. Below are the views of three members of this coalition.

FRONTLINE also spoke with a number of Rampart gang members, including some falsely arrested by Rafael Perez. Most of the gang members spoke off-the-record; some described a police unit that terrorized gang members and engaged in criminal conduct well beyond what even Perez has alleged. The viewpoint of one former gang member who agreed to an interview also follows.

Mrs. Carmen Vaughn

A Rampart resident for nearly 30 years, Carmen Vaughn raised four children as a single parent after her husband passed away. As a leader of the Pico Union Neighborhood Watch group, Vaughn understands that the gang problem is not easily resolved. "Sometimes these kids become gang members because there is no alternative," she explains. "We have too many people in Pico Union and not enough places for kids to be involved."

Vaughn recalls the recurring echo of gunshots in the early 1990s, when her kids were teenagers. She says, "it was so bad" that people were moving off the street, if they could. In her view, however, the gang injunctions dramatically changed what was happening right outside her front door. "When the injunction came," she recalls, "there were no shootings and you didn't see the gang members. They didn't allow them to congregate on the corners and that helped a lot."

But now, with the injunctions suspended, Vaughn notices a dramatic difference. "Crime has gone up. I hear the shootings. I see lots of graffitti," she says. " I read the paper. I walk and I see....the bad influence is back."

Vaughn isn't certain what to make of Rafael Perez and the story he has told. She believes that some officers have not been respectful of the community they police and believes that has caused problems. "A few are bad apples, but I have a lot of respect for the L.A.P.D." Now, she is worried that the Department isn't being aggressive enough. Morale is down and officers are reluctant to get involved for fear of civil suits, she says. As for the outcome of the corruption probe, Vaughn is certain only of this: "It's done a lot of damage to our community."

Father John Bakas

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Dean of St. Sophia's Cathedral, Father John Bakas is an outspoken and unapologetic supporter of the L.A.P.D. To Bakas, the Rampart scandal is a community plague perpetrated, for the most part, by outsiders. "CRASH, by and large, did a superb job, minus the things reported about some of the corruption," he argues. "But to think that CRASH just was a bunch of hoodlums, a bunch of uniformed thugs, is a vastly distorted image by individuals who, I believe, have an agenda, who don't want a strong police department, either in Los Angeles, or anyplace else." Father John believes that the CRASH cops gave the community what it wanted. "There was a problem here. This is what people forget," he says. "There was a problem and people were saying to the police 'Help us. We're afraid to walk the streets. Our children are being bothered. We are losing.' . . . People forget the Bill of Rights guarantees us some reasonable access to the pursuit of happiness. Gangs are a form of terrorism." While he doesn't condone police misconduct, Father John sees some benefit in the administration of rough justice on the streets. "Yes indeed, CRASH did bring some fear into some of the so-called gangsters. And you know something my dear friend? Fear is a legitimate emotion. It's a legitimate emotion. And we need a little bit more of that."

Since the disbanding of CRASH units, Father John believes the community has suffered most. "The results of the CRASH Unit are missed. Because we see an increase in graffiti. We see an increase in crime, and the statistics point it out," he says. " I don't care how you play with the figures, the fact is that since the CRASH Unit has been disbanded, positive things have not followed it."

Dr. Mary Ann Hutchison

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A psychologist who has lived in L.A. for 23 years, Dr. Hutchison moved from the toney westside to an old historic section of Rampart in early 1999. In the changing of neighborhoods, Dr. Hutchison reflects on her own changing perspective. "I grew up in a generation where the generational message was you don't trust the police," she explains. "We know the 'P' word is attached to them. But when you come here, the police are your friends, and you need the police. And you realize that these men and women put their lives on the line every day on the street for you."

Dr. Hutchison, too, saw a dramatic change in the neighborhood after the gang injunctions were lifted. "After the injunction was dropped, gang members who were not allowed to be seen together on the street, or hang out on the street corners together, all of a sudden were able to do that," she says. "I remember from about October through December of '99, it was literally just, you would hear gun shots several times a day."

Some attribute the Rampart community's failure to be more publicly outraged by the scandal to an immigrant population that is poorly politicized and, by upbringing, more tolerant of police misconduct. Dr. Hutchison, however, sees divided viewpoints in geographic rather than demographic terms. "I think that there is a dichotomy with the perspective of the people that don't live here versus the people that do live here. And I think the reality is that a fragile neighborhood at best, pre the scandal, became severely impacted after the scandal."

Mr. Ruben Rojas

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Born in Los Angeles, Ruben Rojas joined the Temple Street Gang in Rampart at the age of 10. To a young kid hanging out on the streets, the gang was a place to be and something to belong to. "A lot of people have misconceptions on gangs, but, I mean, my friends, all we'd ever do was just have a good time. Party and stay to ourselves," he says. "We were young. And we never planned on hurting anybody. In the course of time, of course it happened, you know, but it was never our intention to harm anyone."

If community residents felt beseiged by warring gangs, the gangs felt beseiged by the cops. "CRASH was basically an organization that was created like a gang. Their method was to get us off the street. Put as many gang members, you know, arrest as many gang members as possible and lock them up. That's what the CRASH unit was based on," explains Rojas.

Being targeted by CRASH cops might have had its risks, Rojas recalls, but it also had its rewards. "Waking up in the morning and you're a young man . . . and you know that at any moment a police can just come up to you and just shoot you, man. Because that's what Rampart was really based on anyway . . . it was exciting."

Rojas says that Rafael Perez and his partner, Nino Durden, controlled the streets, shaking down gang members for drugs and money. "They would go into the neighborhood, arrest a few of my partners, and make them turn snitch," explained Rojas. "Or make some of them sell the narcotics that they were taking off other gang members and putting it on the street."

One day in March, 1997, Rojas, who had previously served time for robbery, was pulled from his apartment by Perez, Durden and several other CRASH cops. Perez told investigators that he decided to take Rojas off the streets. At the Rampart station, Rojas learned how it would be done. "That's when Perez and Durden walked up to me and told me, you know what, you're going to jail," recalls Rojas. "I told them for what? And they told me for this. And they pulled out a baggie with rock and powder cocaine. I go that ain't mine. They go, we know that." Rojas was sentenced to three years. After Perez admitted to the false arrest, Rojas was released from prison. He subsequently received a $1 million settlement from the city. Though still angry about what happened to him and other gang members, Rojas believes he understands how it happened. "It's like giving a gang member a badge and telling them, you know what, you're a police officer now. Go and battle crime. Sure, I mean, I'm a gang member. Hell, yeah, you know. I'll battle crime for you, no problem, you know. Next time I pull over somebody and they have two, three kilos of cocaine, damn right I'm going to feed my family with that. So I mean, that's the Perez-- I mean, he was just like us."


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