The Risk Is Too Great

The Los Angeles Police Department has a secretive and little-known unit that spends daysand weeks keeping suspicious characters under surveillance. The Special Investigations Section, as reported on by Times staff writer David Freed on Sunday, shadows armed robbers, burglars and other extremely violent criminals, often watching them commit serious crimes before moving in afterward to make arrests. While the undercover police wait outside to catch the suspect in the act--to ensure a better chance of a major conviction and a longer sentence--the suspects sometimes pistol-whip, beat and rob store clerks, customers and anyone else who walks into the business or returns home. Why put innocent people in such serious danger? Protecting lives--not jeopardizing lives--is the fundamental duty of the police.

The special squad operates without guidelines. There are no policies concerning whom the detectives should follow, for how long and where. And, despite a comparatively high level of shootings, there are no procedures for rotating to other units the detectives who have been involved in numerous shootings. Because of the harm to innocent citizens, the unit should be disbanded.

Police surveillance is indispensable to law enforcement, to be sure. Before a new unit is formed, however, the Los Angeles City Council and the Police Commission should establish firm procedures that put the safety of innocent victims first.

Independent police experts and top policemen in major cities disagree with the LAPD practice. As Washington (D.C.) Deputy Chief Edward J. Spurlock put it: "It's just a matter of time before an innocent person is killed."

The Times found no situation in which an innocent victim had been killed while the surveillance detectives watched, but the danger is real. Ten percent of all murders are committed during robberies, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There is also a one-in-three chance of being harmed during robberies, according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey, and a one-in-25 chance of being hurt during a burglary.

The risks are also great to the suspects. In its 23-year history, members of the 19-man Special Investigations Section have killed 23 suspects and wounded 23 suspects. That tally surpasses the count of other police units, including the larger and better known Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, when compared man-to-man. Investigations by the district attorney's office and police internal-affairs officers have justified every shooting, but the comparatively high frequency should have prompted guidelines to routinely rotate detectives out of the unit and into less stressful jobs.

The Special Investigations Section was founded by former LAPD Chief William H. Parker as a team of professional witnesses who could nail professional criminals with unassailable evidence and unshakable eyewitness testimony. Their mission is admirable. The detectives certainly do not want to put innocent people at risk, but their practice of maintaining surveillance while a crime is committed can do just that.

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