originally published January 22, 2014
In 1973, long before the rise of crack cocaine and the ensuing (and ongoing) gangsta-chic branch of popular culture, the Los Angeles Police Department threw together a group they called TRASH: Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums. The nickname suggested a smidgen of inherent bias, so the unit was renamed CRASH, with the ‘C’ standing for ‘Community’. The group would have a mountainous workload over the following decades.
In addition to the work, the CRASH squad would also be faced with a lot of temptation by the gangs they had sworn to take down. And in the unit’s 29-year tenure over the city’s most gore-flecked streets, they would tie the Los Angeles Police Department’s reputation to a large rock and kick it off a cliff.
This is the scandal that revealed the wicked allure of a blood-red do-rag, as well as the way that the Thin Blue Line of so-called righteousness can be lured to blur when frail hearts plunk their tinny drum behind a police shield. The CRASH team’s reach extended to the limits of L.A. and throughout its miniature sub-cities, but it was the Rampart Division that patrolled the area just west and northwest of Downtown that caused the system’s collapse. This was where, for a moment in time anyway, the gangs won.
The story begins with Kevin Gaines, pictured on the left. He had raised some eyebrows in the summer of 1996 when he’d placed a call from the home of Sharitha Knight (estranged wife of Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight) and proceeded to engage in a scuffle with police. This suspicious behavior might have resulted in his removal from the force, but Deputy Chief Bernard Parks dropped the investigation. Watch for him – Parks’ name is going to come up again later.
On March 18, 1997, Gaines engaged undercover cop Frank Lyga in a road-rage-sparked fracas. After flashing a pistol and a familiar gang sign at Lyga, shots were fired. Lyga – in self-defense – shot and killed Gaines. This sparked an outrage among local African-Americans, and a lawsuit by Gaines’ family, spearheaded by Johnnie Cochran. The grieving family had asked for $25 million for wrongful death, and for some reason the city settled with a $250,000 payout. Frank Lyga was cleared of any wrong-doing, but this settlement still left a smear of soot on his reputation.
The guy in the middle of that photo up there is David Mack. He enters our story in November of 1997, when $722,000 was stolen in an armed robbery of a Bank of America. It took one month for assistant bank manager Errolyn Romero to give herself up. She also gave up her boyfriend, officer David Mack of the CRASH team. Mack never confessed the location of his money, and was handed fourteen years in federal lockup.
These were merely the first few dominoes to fall publically. The reputation of the CRASH team among those in the know wasn’t pretty. Death Row Records and Suge Knight were shaking the table, and it was only a matter of time before everything landed in a messy heap. Death Row had ties to the Bloods street gang, and they were employing off-duty LAPD officers – in particular CRASH officers – as security. Kevin Gaines was revealed to have an expensive Mercedes, some designer suits and a receipt for a $952 dinner tab at home. The cops that were succumbing to corruption were making a nice profit doing so.
When eight pounds of cocaine walked out of an LAPD evidence locker in March of 1998, something had to be done. Bernard Parks, who was now wearing the big hat in the Chief of Police’s office, launched The Rampart Corruption Task Force in an effort to find the party responsible. The task force’s investigation focused on Rafael Pérez – the guy on the far right of that picture up there. That was after Frank Lyga had been cleared; Lyga had been the arresting officer who had brought the cocaine into custody. It turns out Pérez had swiped the blow in an effort to make Lyga look suspicious. Revenge for Kevin Gaines.
To be fair, Pérez also stole the coke for pure profit. He was revealed to be on Death Row’s payroll, and this wasn’t his first evidence-room heist. He had previously replaced cocaine with Bisquick pancake powder. Pérez was arrested in August and after a 1999 mistrial, he decided it might be in the best interest of his future to start spilling names. This was the domino-de-grace. The big one.
Some 90% of CRASH officers were involved, according to Pérez. It began with his superiors and oozed downward, leading to corruption that ranged from drinking on the job to being possibly tied to the murder of Miguel “Lizard” Malfavon of the Mexican Mafia. Officers carried extra guns to plant on suspects if they needed to, and perjury was never ruled out if necessary. The team would meet at a bar near Dodger Stadium, where plaques and kudos were handed out to officers who had beaten or killed gang members. Their motto was “We intimidate those who intimidate others.”
So does that make them… the good guys? There’s no question that the gang problem in L.A. was extreme enough to require unorthodox measures, but an all-out descent into the underworld seems counter-productive, particularly when gang members are forking over payouts. You’ve got cops ordered to act like thugs on one side, and on the other a gang who pays their hired thugs a lot better. The temptation to abandon one’s allegiance is understandable.
If the set-up turned your stomach, you’ll probably agree that the fallout from this mess was astounding.
Police Chief Bernard Parks should have used this fiasco to burp the lid on police corruption. Pérez’s testimony, which amounted to over 4000 pages, implicated roughly seventy police officers in criminal wrongdoing. Policies were changed, and over 100 men and women behind bars were released due to the rampant corruption of their arresting officers. The lawyers crept into the foreground and forced the LAPD to pay out over $125 million in civil suits.
Two LAPD investigators, David Poole and Brian Tyndall, prepared a 40-page report that tied a number of CRASH officers – including David Mack and Rafael Pérez – to the murder of famed rapper Notorious B.I.G. According to Poole, Chief Bernard Parks suppressed the report. Poole was so disgusted by the black rot of amoral behavior in the Rampart Division that the 18-year veteran cop resigned from the force. How much Chief Parks had to do with the Rampart cover-up we’ll probably never know, but it led to his not being asked back as Chief of Police in 2001. The CRASH division was disbanded in 2002; Parks now serves on the Los Angeles City Council.
If all of this sounds disgustingly familiar, it’s because you might be familiar with The Shield, a highly successful (and highly awesome) TV show that debuted in 2002, directly influenced by the Rampart scandal. In fact, the show’s original name was Rampart. Not much of a mystery there.
The story also influenced the plot of 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game and a plotline in the 2004 Best Picture winner, Crash. For those of us who aren’t in law enforcement and who don’t live in the L.A. area, this story was probably little more than a forgotten blip in our news cycle. But it unquestionably changed the LAPD and its image with an indelible splatter.