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CRASH--Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums--was a group of elite anti-gang units within the L.A.P.D. set up to tackle increasing gang-related crime. CRASH officers were required to get to know gang members--their names, habits, friends--to keep on top of gang activity. The units were successful, city-wide, in reducing gang related crime. But some critics, especially after Rafael Perez's allegations surfaced, believed that CRASH administered rough street justice--harassing and abusing suspects and falsifying reports. Worse, others accused CRASH members of being a police gang themselves. Here are the views of former L.A.P.D. Chief Daryl Gates, Sgt. Brian Liddy, Ruben Rojas, a Temple Street gang member, Gerald Chaleff, former president of the L.A. Police Commission, and Detective Mike Hohan, principal investigator on the Rampart Corruption Task Force.

Fmr. Chief Daryl Gates

Chief of L.A.P.D., 1978-1992

What kind of cops went into [CRASH]?

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You try to select the very best--individuals who are not afraid--people who are willing to work, people who are willing to get out and mix with the gangs, and get a better understanding of the gangs, who are not intimidated by the gangsta....

As the chief, did you see that these units were effective? If there is a war on gangs, were you all winning it?

I think so. I think we were bringing gang killings down substantially from what they were in the 1970s, and into the 1980s. There was a proliferation of gang killings, again, fed by the narcotics industry, yet we were slowly bringing the gang killings themselves down.

Sergeant Brian Liddy

Former CRASH officer implicated by Rafael Perez

What is a CRASH unit?

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The primary mission of the CRASH unit is to gather intelligence on the criminal street gangs that exist within their geographic division and to monitor their activities. There are kind of two sides to it. There's the intelligence side, where you kind of got to know all these people by their nicknames, where they hang out, what kind of cars they drive. Then there's the crime suppression mode, where you're out trying to keep them from doing drive-bys and robberies and extortion, spray painting the buildings--the criminal end of their involvement.

You're a cop. You have a chance to get on a CRASH unit. What's it like? What's the perception of a CRASH unit?

A CRASH unit is a good job. As far as going to work every day, you're not tied to the radio or the computer. As a rule, you're not going to domestic violences and traffic accidents and all the day-to-day business of a policeman in any city. You're just dealing with gang members. You're not being assigned radio calls unless it strictly pertains to gang activity. You're supervised, but you're supervised at a different level. You're expected to be mature, responsible, go out there and do what you're supposed to do. The supervisors make sure that you're doing that.

A lot of different tasks go with it. The CRASH unit would be tasked with a lot of different events. If there's a concert at MacArthur Park, the CRASH unit would be deployed to try and keep the gang element out of the park. We know who the gangsters are, even if they don't come dressed up in their gang attire. We're able to look over and say, "Oh, that's so and so from the such and such gang. Keep an eye on him, see what he's up to."...

As a CRASH officer, you're assigned to a specific gang. I wouldn't give any gang the benefit of saying their name in an interview, but let's say the "ABC" gang. I get assigned to the ABC gang. It's my job to know who's in that gang, what their nicknames are, where their girlfriend's pad is, what kind of cars they ride around in, what their tattoos are, where mom lives. So when the heat's on, we know that they go to mom's house over in another neighborhood. We get to know as much [as possible] about that gang. That includes knowing the history of the gang--how it started, where it originated, how it came to be, what the gang is all about.

Some gangs are into stolen cars. Some gangs are into dope. Some gangs are into robberies. Some gangs are into burglaries. Then the bigger gangs have different cells--this group of gangsters sells dope, this group of gangsters does this. You need to know all that to be an expert on the gang that you're assigned to.

...How can you ever relate enough to a gangster to be able to understand them?

You go out and you talk to them every day, eight hours a day. That's what your job is in CRASH is: get out and get into these gangsters and talk to them on a daily basis. That's how you get to know them.

Are you ever able to actually sort of know them, to just know them as human beings?

Yes, absolutely. Drive up in parking lots, they'll come up to the car. "Hey, Liddy, what's going on?" "Hey, guys, what's happening?" They know you. They'll tell you, "Hey, you were off for two days. Where you been? You got a new car." They know everything about you because, to a certain extent, they're trying to do the same thing. They know when you come around, if you're always around, if you're sneaky when you come around or if you make a lot of noise when you come around. And they're going to gauge you as an officer. They know the CRASH officer's different than the patrol officers. You get out and it's a fine line of keeping the balance. But you get out, just you and your partner, and you'll stop ten gangsters on their turf. You'll pat them down, make sure they don't have any guns or anything; then you'll talk to them. "What's going on? What are you guys doing? Hey, we heard that so-and-so got killed last week. What happened?" "Oh, those fools from the other neighborhood drove by and shot him." "Hey, when's his funeral?" "We don't know yet, because we don't have enough money to bury him. His family can't afford to bury him. We're having a car wash on Tuesday." So you speak to them, and you find out what's going on in that neighborhood.

There's times that you pull up and you say, "Hey, how's your mom?" because you knew mom was in the hospital. You knew that a brother got hit by a car. You might have one kid who's a hard core-gangster and the rest of his brothers and sisters are good kids, and you'll talk to him about that. But mostly you're talking to them about the gang, what's going on in the gang. "Who are you feuding with? Who's doing drive-bys on you? Who's your enemies? What's happening with the Mexican mafia? Are they still taxing you? Are you still paying taxes to the Mexican mafia?" Now, the other end from the intelligence is you're getting radio calls. They're spray painting buildings. They're drinking and breaking the glass in the street. They're taxing people. And by taxing people, if you've got a little pushcart down in MacArthur Park and you're wheeling it around on the 18th Street side of the park, you're paying 18th Street a certain amount of dollars to have your pushcart. If you've got a little store on Alvarado Boulevard, you're paying 18th Street X number of dollars to have your little store.

If you're a dope dealer at MacArthur Park and you're not an 18th Street dope dealer, you're giving 18th Street a piece of the action. And that's the way it's going to be. Otherwise, you will get shot or you will get beaten.

So you were saying that, on the intelligence side, you mentioned there are people doing graffiti. One gathers that graffiti is not merely just an urban art form, that in fact there was much that a CRASH officer could learn from the graffiti. Tell me about that.

...It's almost like reading the paper. You drive through, and you see who's spray painting the wall in front of the apartment, because what they're doing is, they're claiming their territory. You go by this apartment building and you've got the gang name up. You've got ten names underneath it--that's the ten guys that were out last night when you went home, if that wasn't there the day before.

What you might see is a gang throws up another gang's name, crosses it out, crosses it out, maybe wrote somebody's name and crossed it out. You go over to Homicide and you say, "Hey, did so-and-so get killed?" "He got shot last night in a drive-by." "Well, you know what? This gang might have done it, because his name was up on the wall over here, and then they crossed it out. And here's the list of the dummies that then wrote their nicknames next to it." That's the mentality that exists. Then these idiots are sitting in the interview room with you going, "Hey, how did you know it was me?" I don't know.

It tells you who's coming through the neighborhood. If you go to the red gang's neighborhood and the green gang has came through, you will see their graffiti. They'll cross out the red gang's graffiti. They will then put up their own stuff. The red gang will now come by, cross out the green graffiti, put up their stuff.... The green gang will come back. This will go on back and forth for days, weeks. Sometimes that's all that ever happens. But at other times, these guys will sit up and lay in wait. When the green gang comes through, the red gang opens up on them and shoots them because they were on their turf. It's all about turf and challenges and lots of imaginary feuds.

What was your scariest moment as a CRASH cop?

I think the scariest moments are when somebody else calls for help and you don't know what's going on, and you're trying to get there. Officers report shots fired. They're taking rounds or something like that. You're going to the help call, and you don't know if some cop you know is laying bleeding, some cop is hurt. Something like that. And there's times you get shot at. Then, of course, those are scary.

Did you wear a vest every day?

Yes.

That's just standard issue routine stuff for a CRASH cop, right?

Yes. It depends. [You never know, there could be a] guy from a gang that you know and you talk to on a daily basis. He'll stop and he'll call you by name, "Hey, Liddy, what's up?" On this wrong day, he's just coming from having done some heinous crime, and you go, "Hey, come here, Droopy," and he turns and wheels on you with a gun. So that's the fine line you're talking about when you deal with these gangsters. You go out there, and you have to almost be on a cordial basis with them while you talk to them and what's going on in the neighborhood. But that little group that was sitting there when you pulled up could be planning on committing an armored car robbery, a bank robbery, store robbery, a drive-by shooting--you don't know what they're up to....

Give me a sense of whether or not the work you all were doing in CRASH was effective at all.

... Through a combination of things, CRASH being one part of it, I think there was an impact on the quality of life in Rampart Division, in the level of violence and the level of crime that the gangs were participating in.... In 1990, I believe Rampart had right around 150 murders in the division. In 1997, it was down to about 33. When I left Rampart, in the afternoon, people would take their kids to the park and play at Rampart. When I had first went to Rampart, nobody took their kids to the park. So the quality of life in those eight years had changed drastically in Rampart. Crime was down. The gangs were nowhere near as bold as they had been. They had taken to staying in the back of the buildings and not showing their face, because they could expect to get visited by the CRASH officers....

Did you all feel like you were part of an elite team?

Yes, we were special--not in the sense that we were better than anybody. But we were a specialized unit. We got to drive unmarked cars versus driving the black-and-white. We weren't tied to the regular radio call stuff. We got to pick and choose what we wanted to do, to a certain extent. Do we want to go to that call or not? You were sought out by other officers for gang questions....

Tell me about the CRASH logo I've seen--aces and eights.

It was there when I got to the unit. I didn't know what it was. I heard it was a dead man's hand. I didn't know what a dead man's hand was. It was like a white skull with a cowboy hat on it, with the regular Rampart castle on the cowboy hat, and four cards that I guess are the dead man's hand. When all this Rampart controversy started is really the first whole story of the logo that I heard. I just knew it was on our T-shirts....

Was there ever an acceptance, a condoning, a kind of quiet acquiescence of stretching the technical aspects of the rules a little bit in a unit like CRASH where it's not so easy, where it's not cut-and-dried, ordinary run-of-the-mill sorts of arrests? An occasional stretch about probable cause, for example? Those sorts of things. Was that accepted within CRASH?...

It's not accepted within the Los Angeles Police Department in any [unit]... One of the greatest things about the Los Angeles Police Department is that it holds its head up high, because it doesn't have any real corruption problems, so to speak of. It's an honest police department. It can be called a lot of things. But until now, it's never been called a dishonest police department.

Did you ever hear of, see, sense, or suspect somebody making up probable cause?

No.

Did you ever see or hear or suspect somebody laying down a gun on a suspect?

Absolutely not.

So as far as you knew, neither you nor Ray Perez nor anybody on your unit that you actually witnessed or heard of was involved in force corruption?

No. Policing a place like Rampart, there's no need for starters. It's right there under your nose. I mean, you drive down a street and these guys are just standing out with a bag of dope in their hand waving at cars. You're sitting at traffic lights, and guys walk across the street in front of you with a rifle in their hands. You don't need to fabricate anything.

Ruben Rojas

Temple Street gang member

What was CRASH?

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CRASH was basically an organization that was created like a gang. Their method was to get us off the street, to arrest as many gang members as possible and lock them up. That's what the CRASH unit was based on. But their theory on the street was more like they're just making money off them. The corruption in Rampart has always been going on, [but] it's just [that] someone just got caught. But even back in my days, when I was hanging around in Rampart area, it was always going on.... You wake 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....

At what point did it go beyond just doing good police work?

A lot of times the CRASH unit would observe our houses. They would have surveillance. I guess they became interested in what we were doing. I guess they became kind of a child inside of them, because they would see us fight, and they liked it. They liked it very much. They would drive up into a neighborhood and snatch one of the guys that know how to fight real well. And they'll take them to another neighborhood just to see them fight.

So that's what I'm saying. It was exciting. Their job was to keep us off the street.... But they just forgot that, you know? You just don't put cops in neighborhoods like that, because there is a lot of temptation, and the temptation will get you. You will bite into it--especially in West L.A.

Because these guys would go native?

Oh, yes, man, all the time. They would sometimes even buy us beer, man. It was a very exciting life. It was knowing that these are cops. I would tell my mom a lot. "Mom, you know what? You're a taxpayer, you put money in those cops' pockets. You feed their families. But do you know that they're committing more crimes than what I have done?" It was an everyday thing.

Are you talking about committing crime in the sense of making bad arrests, or are you talking about committing crimes like doing things like real gangsters are doing--peddling dope, that sort of thing?

You know what I can say about that? They were a wannabe mafia....

Gerald Chaleff

Former President of the LA Police Commission

What sort of officer would be ideal [for CRASH]?

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They were some of the most, you could say, gung-ho or ambitious officers that wanted to get into this office, because it was highly prized, and they had freedom of movement and activity.

Were they effective?

Well, it depends on who you talk to as to what they did. Obviously, we've had a lot of problems with what's come out in the last couple of years, but gang violence went down....

Was this particular CRASH unit a bunch of rogue cowboy vigilante cops?

... First of all, there was something in L.A.P.D. called "the Rampart Way,"--things in Rampart were done differently. But second of all, this particular Rampart unit was in a building away from the main station because of space problems, without supervision. So you had these sergeants, senior police officers and others doing whatever they wanted to. That's always a problem.

What was "the Rampart Way"?

That's just the way of how they dealt with things. I don't know if they ever really totally defined it. But Rampart had its own unique way of doing things. Also, Rampart had a unique population. Many people in that community are recent immigrants from Central and South America. They expected the police department to act differently than others might expect the police department. So I think they developed their own methodology of how they wanted to deal with it. Many people who would say that the CRASH unit in Rampart became just another gang, and that's how they dealt with things. If some of the things that are alleged are true--and I'm certain that some of them are--they were as violent as gang members are, and they cut corners. We, as a society, always have to deal with the problem of, what kind of policing do we want? You could really have effective policing if you have a police officer on every corner, and if you say to the police officers, "You don't have to follow any rules. You just go find the bad guys." But that obviously creates problems, because then you're letting the police department decide what the bad guys are, and what the rules are.

We developed this constitutional system that has kept us going for over 200 years with the type of society we want, so we need effective policing within the rules. I think sometimes, in places where officers are not supervised--and CRASH is one of them--or don't have rules that they're following, you end up with officers acting extra-judicially, or outside the law.

Detective Mike Hohan

L.A.P.D. Detective, principal investigator on the Rampart Corruption Task Force

Tell me what Perez told you about the CRASH unit's sort of ethos. He talked about a motto at one point that the CRASH unit had.

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Something like, "We intimidate those who intimidate," or something to that effect. I believe that had to deal with that they created such fear in the gang members, because no matter what had to be done, again, stretching whatever had to be stretched, you would go to jail if you were a gang member. He told us that officers in the CRASH unit carried what we call our drop guns, which are guns that they recover on the street, but they don't recover them from anybody. The policy would be to book them as evidence. And what these CRASH officers would do, including Perez, is keep them. When they found a gang member that they wanted to go to prison or wanted to go to jail, they would plant one of these guns on him. They would do a similar thing with rock cocaine.

Did he tell him about what he and other officers did when they would find dope on the street?

Yes. They would hold back some of the narcotics. They would use it to give to informants. They would use it to plant on people that they couldn't get a case on any other way.

So as he was describing it, this was a police gang.

Yes.

Within this sort of secret club within the CRASH unit, there was actually a kind of system of reward and recognition, wasn't there?

Yes. They would give plaques. And they had tattoos and patches that they wore on jackets, sort of like bomber jackets that they had. And the tattoo and the patch had a cowboy hat with a skull, and then aces and eights on it. The aces and eights, of course, stood for the dead man's hand that Wild Bill Hickock had. When an officer was involved in a shooting and the officer had a hit, he would get a plaque that had the aces and eights in it, a patch, and some other memorabilia. And allegedly, they would put a couple of shell casings for the number of times that the officer hit the person he was shooting at. There were two types of plaques. One was for a fatal shooting, and one was for when they wounded somebody.

So that was the culture that Perez described to you all. What did you find? Were you able to verify that? How widespread was it?

It did exist within the unit. It had existed for a period of time. Not every officer was involved in that. Officers came into the unit, saw that mentality, and left the unit. But it definitely did exist.

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