They are either an elite team of steely nerved cops bringing the city’s most dangerous criminals to justice or a reckless band of urban cowboys with itchy trigger fingers and little regard for the public’s safety.
And when they are involved in a shootout, like the one Tuesday night in Northridge that left three people dead and two others wounded, there is no shortage of opinions about the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Investigations Section.
“They do a necessary job,” said Assistant City Atty. Don Vincent, a former cop who has defended the 20-member unit against lawsuits. “If criminals are out on the street afraid that the SIS unit is out there too, I think that’s good.”
Attorney Stephen Yagman, who has sued the LAPD and the city for actions involving SIS, said criminals are not the only ones who should be frightened of what he calls the department’s “death squad.”
“It’s only a matter of time until an innocent bystander [is] killed,” he said, noting that a bystander was wounded in Tuesday’s shooting.
In that incident, the special investigation team employed a tactic that has made it one of the most controversial law enforcement units in the nation: trailing suspected bandits and watching them commit a violent crime before stepping in to arrest them. The three people killed Tuesday were suspected of a string of holdups in the San Fernando Valley; the shootout followed the alleged robbery of a Northridge bar.
Since its formation in 1965, the Special Investigations Section has been involved in hundreds of shootings, investigated by federal authorities for possible civil rights violations, and criticized for not arresting criminals before they threaten--and in some cases harm--innocent people.
Police said Wednesday that over the past 15 years SIS officers have been involved in 300 armed confrontations in which 18 people have been killed and another 16 wounded, including the victims in Tuesday’s shootout. There have been 700 arrests over that time. Yagman contends that SIS officers have been responsible for 44 fatal shootings since 1977.
LAPD Cmdr. Tim McBride said the unit is extensively trained in surveillance techniques and weaponry. He said the department routinely reviews SIS policies and practices to improve officer and public safety, but he declined to be specific.
“We go over the ways they might tail a suspect, where they confront a suspect, when they confront a suspect and other things,” McBride said.
One of the most significant changes occurred in 1989 after a series of articles in The Times that documented cases in which innocent people were victimized as SIS officers watched and waited before arresting a suspect. After those articles, the unit adopted the so-called “Reverence for Human Life” policy aimed at protecting potential victims even if it jeopardizes an undercover investigation.
A year after the LAPD adopted the policy, however, nine SIS members watched as a group of suspects forced their way into a closed McDonald’s restaurant in Sunland and robbed its manager at gunpoint. In that case, the officers killed four suspects as they climbed into their getaway car and one of them allegedly pointed a gun at the officers.
Members of the unit also killed Daniel Soly during a June 1995 gunfight that erupted after Soly and a partner allegedly robbed a Newbury Park liquor store.
The unit has been the target of numerous lawsuits. The city has paid $1.9 million in awards and legal fees to settle four cases filed by the families of robbers and bystanders. In one case, the family of a South-Central Los Angeles man who was run over by an SIS officer during a stakeout won an $800,000 judgment.
Former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said SIS officers perform a “remarkable service” to the public, putting their lives on the line to apprehend the city’s most elusive and violent crooks.
“They get called in when other detectives have been unable to make a case” against a possible suspect, Gates said.
“What’s the alternative?” Gates asked. “If there wasn’t [the SIS unit] these people will go on . . . committing crimes in the community. They deal with some of the most dangerous criminals around.”
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Here are three controversial incidents involving the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section:
* Feb. 12, 1990: Four men break into a McDonald’s restaurant in Sunland, forcing the manager to open the safe at gunpoint. Despite a 911 call from the manager, SIS officers already outside the restaurant decline to move in. When the robbers emerge, the officers open fire, allegedly after one of the men points a gun at them. Three suspects are killed and one wounded in a barrage of 23 shotgun blasts and 12 shots from the officers’ handguns. The robbers’ weapons are later found to be pellet guns.
* June 26, 1995: Two men allegedly draw pistols and rob a liquor store in Newbury Park. As they reach their car, police move in. A gun battle leaves one suspect dead and one injured and two SIS officers wounded.
* Feb. 25, 1997: Four men flee a Reseda bar after a takeover robbery. SIS members give chase and open fire when one of the suspects allegedly points a gun at them. Three suspects are killed and a man mistaken for a robber is wounded. Another suspect is injured by a police dog.