A Ram at Rest : These Are Quiet Times for LAPD’s ‘Battering’ Vehicle

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A six-ton tank with a 14-foot steel battering ram, hailed last year by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates as a revolutionary new weapon in the war against drugs, pretty much sits idle these days, except for occasional spins around a downtown parking lot to keep its battery from dying.

SWAT officers ride the ram during practice drills to learn to rescue hostages, raid rock houses and fight terrorists. It has been taken to the scene of several sniper incidents, although what it did once it got there is secret because of tactical considerations, a top police official said.

But the machine that Gates last year vowed to use “over and over and over again whenever appropriate” to smash down the walls of suspected cocaine rock houses has not been used to blitz a single rock house since last April, officials said.

Critics say police backed down after using the battering ram four times because of political pressure, the filing of several lawsuits and the inherent limitations of the device. At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Supreme Court has said it will decide later this year whether use of the ram is constitutional. And in the meantime, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has developed its own improved “mobile entry device.”


But Los Angeles police contend that the ram is simply the victim of its own success. Fear of the ram--along with aggressive police narcotics task forces and increased public willingness to turn in drug operators--has severely curtailed rock house operations, so much so that police don’t need to use the ram, officials said.

In the process, the battering ram has caused sweeping changes in the nature, if not the extent, of cocaine dealing in the city, officials said.

“The battering ram hasn’t been used because we’ve been able to gain entry safely and swiftly with more conventional methods,” said Cmdr. William Booth, a spokesman for Gates. Gates declined to be interviewed on the battering ram, sending word through Booth that it is “old news.”

“The tank has been successful beyond our expectations,” said Capt. Noel Cunningham of the Narcotics Division. “We don’t need to use the tank anymore. People don’t believe me when I say this. They think, ‘Oh, you’re not using the ram because of pressure or something of that nature or it’s too cumbersome or draws too much attention,’ but the truth of the matter is, the sucker has worked. It’s gotten the message across.”

More and more, Cunningham said, dealers are selling cocaine from cars, trucks, motel rooms, abandoned apartment buildings and street corners. By the time police can plan, secure and execute a search warrant, many of these dealers are gone. Others are “moving to larger apartment buildings, where it’s easy to conceal a lot of traffic going in and out and harder to conduct a surveillance,” he said.

“The rock house dealers are no longer building fortresses with internal fortifications such as cages and wooden planks and that’s because of the tank, fear of the use of the tank,” Cunningham said. “It’s not cost-effective for them to do that anymore. They know that with the ram, not only will police recover the evidence, but chances are they will cause a lot of trouble and damage too.”

“The ram is a little bit like a nuclear bomb. It has a deterrent value,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Hazell, who handles major narcotics cases. “If you find the main thing that’s going to happen to your rock house is the LAPD’s going to make an arrest on you, it’s probably easier to have a dozen little gang members selling from an apartment.”

Joan Howarth, the ACLU attorney who filed a lawsuit seeking to ban police use of the ram unless necessary to prevent serious injury or death, called such claims “crazy.”

“They’ve made hundreds and hundreds of raids on rock houses. Why should they credit the four times they used the battering ram with making a dent?” Howarth asked. “Why wasn’t it the hundreds of other raids they did without using the battering ram?” She said police have stopped using the tank because “they don’t want to risk another botch” while the case is pending before the Supreme Court.

At Least a Dent

No one argues that the exotic police tool has made a dent in the pervasive drug dealing that has ravaged some neighborhoods.

“Cocaine sales activity definitely has not dropped. Rock houses still exist. We’ve got Neighborhood Watch groups who are going around complaining about those same rock houses that they complained about in April,” said V. G. Guinses, executive director of the Say Yes gang diversion program in South-Central Los Angeles. “I think there are just as many rock houses, but they’re more sophisticated and more discreet now.”

“They’ve switched the place of business from in the rock houses to the street corners,” said Richard Packard of the Pacoima Community Coordinating Committee. “There’s a lot of kids on the street selling cocaine now. You stop at a stoplight, and they ride up on their bicycles asking if you want to buy some coke.”

Said Dr. Enola Byrd, of JAMAA Drug Treatment Center in South-Central Los Angeles, “They have rock streets. They have streets you can drive along in South-Central Los Angeles, and they will practically attack your car, somebody’s at your car taking your order for cocaine.”

In the first nine months of 1985, Los Angeles police raided 450 suspected rock houses, arresting 636 people and seizing almost 10 pounds of cocaine, $252,000 in cash and 247 guns. They did not keep track of how many were fortified, said Sgt. Mike Selmer, a Narcotics Division spokesman.

Between June, 1984, and December, 1985, SWAT officers helped narcotics detectives raid 68 fortified rock houses, including the four raids with the ram, officials said. No statistics were kept before that.

Rock houses (so called because cocaine in solid, or rock, form is sold in them) began springing up several years ago. Officials have never been able to gauge exactly how many there are, but they became a big enough concern that police designed a detachable steel nose for a surplus military vehicle left over from the 1984 Olympics. Thus was born the battering ram.

One year ago, on the night of Feb. 6, Gates unveiled the surprise new weapon, riding aboard it as it knocked a hole in the wall of a suspected Pacoima rock house. Inside, police found two women and three children. They recovered less than a tenth of a gram of cocaine--so little that the district attorney’s office refused to file charges. Police used the ram three more times in raiding rock houses.

The last time police even thought of using the ram in a rock house raid was June 14, said Cmdr. George Morrison, who heads Los Angeles police special operations. But then, as on four earlier occasions, police dropped plans to use the ram at the last minute.

Once, police drove it to a suspected South-Central Los Angeles rock house. Once there, however, they found a side door open and walked right in. Another time, officers abandoned plans to use the ram because they found a suspected rock house had been blocked off by cars.

Capt. John Higgins, head of Metropolitan Division, which operates SWAT, said one reason the mechanized ram has not been used lately is its own limitations. The ram is useless above the ground floor. And it cannot maneuver into tight spaces.

Last month, Sheriff Sherman Block unveiled his own version of a battering ram. Called the “mobile entry device,” it can get around some of the drawbacks of the Los Angeles police vehicle.

Smaller and more maneuverable than the battering ram, it consists of a 16-foot-long steel pipe mounted to the front of a heavy-duty mechanized skip-loader, a tractor with a scoop on the front. The pipe punches a hole above a door or window and retracts, pulling the window or door out. So far, it has been used only in practice runs, said Lt. Dale Fossey of the Sheriff’s Narcotics Division.

“Because the debris and structure portions are pulled away from the building, and entry is made at the upper structure level,” Fossey said, “there is little danger to the occupants inside.”

The sheriff’s vehicle won the praise of the ACLU’s Howarth, who commented: “We’re not against law enforcement using careful means to get into suspected rock houses. What we’re against is using reckless means and recklessly driving into walls.”

Helped One Street

Meanwhile, the gaping hole in the Pacoima home that was the ram’s first target has been patched. The house is nicely painted and has new occupants. Residents of the neighborhood, who asked not to be identified, said the street is now quiet and is no longer plagued by a steady stream of drug buyers.

Jeffrey Bryant, owner of this and one other home hit by the ram, is on trial in Van Nuys Superior Court for two counts of conspiracy to sell cocaine, one count of possessing cocaine for sale and six counts of knowingly maintaining a house where cocaine was sold. He is being prosecuted under a new law that makes it a felony for landlords to knowingly allow drug dealers to convert properties into rock houses.

And Antonio Johnson, who was living in the Pacoima house, was arrested in December after he allegedly sold a gram of cocaine to an undercover officer at a Van Nuys Boulevard apartment where he now lives.