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SIS: Stormy Past, Shaky Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the men of the Los Angeles Police Department’s most feared unit face off with an armed suspect, there are only two possible outcomes.

“Either they give up or there’s going to be a shooting. That’s just the way it is,” said Det. Brian Davis, a senior member of the unit. “What are you going to do? Wait for them to shoot you? You do that, and you’ll be pushing up daisies.”

Since its formation 33 years ago, the Special Investigation Section--known by its critics as the “Death Squad"--has confronted hundreds of armed suspects, fought in more than 50 gun battles, killed at least 34 suspects and wounded dozens of others.

In their quest to hunt down the city’s most brutal and elusive criminals, members of the unit have stood by as innocent people were threatened, robbed and sometimes hurt. That has made SIS unique in American law enforcement.

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Although many police departments take their lead from the LAPD, few, if any, allow officers to stalk criminals and wait for them to commit crimes before swarming in. The LAPD embraces its unconventional tactics as the best way to rid the city of streetwise, career criminals--in the long run, protecting more people than it puts in danger.

Nevertheless, SIS faces an uncertain future. It remains the LAPD’s deadliest unit, responsible for a controversial 1990 shootout at a McDonald’s in Sunland in which three suspects died. More recent, shootings in 1995 and 1997 left four suspects dead and five people injured, including two SIS officers.

Federal authorities, who looked into the McDonald’s incident but found no violation of law, are investigating whether SIS officers committed civil rights violations in two gunfights during 1997. A lawyer pushing a series of lawsuits against the LAPD is bent on disbanding the unit. And a federal judge is asking the question critics have long posed: Why should SIS be allowed to exist at all?

The business of SIS is perilous and costly. It averages about 45 arrests a year--far fewer than most other specialized LAPD squads such as the Special Weapons And Tactics unit, a widely emulated LAPD invention. The annual operating budget is about $2 million, and the city has spent millions more over the years defending the unit in court and paying settlements.

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SIS also historically has been among the LAPD’s most private inner sanctums, little known even within the department and famously off limits to outsiders. The unit is housed away from LAPD headquarters in an office building on the edge of skid row.

Even within the LAPD, SIS officers are known as a fearsome and mysterious bunch. Some of their colleagues repeat unsubstantiated--and vigorously denied--rumors of SIS officers conspiring to shoot suspects and celebrating gunfights with “kill parties.”

In recent months, an embattled SIS allowed a reporter a rare glimpse into its work, night after night consenting to the observations of an outsider.

What emerges is a portrait more flattering than that painted by its critics, yet less impeccable than that offered by its defenders. SIS is neither a band of urban cowboys nor a spit-and-polish model of efficiency. It is, rather, a group of aging detectives, schooled in a controversial type of policing and thrust into some of law enforcement’s most tedious and dangerous work.

All 20 members are men. Off the job, they include a school board member, a volunteer firefighter, a martial arts instructor, a helicopter pilot and a gourmet chef. They’re confident, some say cocky, veterans--some with gray hair and beards. Several perch reading glasses half-way down their noses so they can read map books.

“Hell,” said one SIS detective, “three-quarters of us are on Viagra.”

Their looks are deceiving.

Delta Force and the Navy SEALS, the military’s best, come to be trained by SIS in surveillance. Its detectives have captured a veritable Who’s Who of Los Angeles bad guys: the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Strangler and Ennis Cosby’s murderer, to name a few.

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The questions about SIS are not about its mission but about its tactics.

Tracking a Suspect

Tonight’s assignment is typical SIS.

Detectives from the San Fernando Valley are trying to build a case against two men suspected of kidnapping women, forcing them to withdraw money from an automated teller machine and then sexually assaulting them. Based on photos taken from an ATM security camera, they think they have one of the men, but the victims aren’t sure. So the detectives call SIS.

At 5 p.m. in a parking lot behind the Southwest station, SIS officers gather for a briefing by Det. Jerry Brooks. With 37 years on the force, 21 with the unit, he is the unit’s senior officer.

Brooks, a gregarious man who resembles country singer Kenny Rogers, has been in so many shootings he can’t remember them all. He hands out booking photos of the ATM suspect and talks about the suspect’s MO--the method of operation.

After the briefing, which occurs before every operation, the undercover officers set up around the suspect’s run-down Crenshaw apartment complex and wait. Hours go by. Finally, the lanky 20-year-old with a rap sheet including an arrest for assault with a deadly weapon emerges with a buddy and takes off in a banged-up car.

For the next 25 minutes, officers and suspect conduct an automotive ballet. Officers in unmarked cars dart in and out of traffic, turn and circle back. Fresh cars move up in line to tail the suspect. Stale ones move out. A police helicopter hovers at the horizon, directing more than half a dozen cars.

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“I’m two back with a fresh green,” says one detective using the officers’ unique surveillance radio language.

“He’s in number one and I’m out,” another responds.

The suspect seems to sense something is up. He repeatedly drives around residential neighborhoods. The same streets, around and around. He speeds through red traffic lights, sits through green ones.

After a while, the suspect and his friend head home and call it a night. The surveillance ends.

More than half of the suspects that the unit follows are never arrested. There are a lot of dead-end leads and lost nights. “It’s hours and hours of sheer boredom,” says unit leader Lt. Michael Williams, repeating a favorite SIS line, “punctuated by seconds of sheer terror.”

A Niche Within the LAPD

As the population of Los Angeles exploded in the late 1950s and 1960s, so did crime. LAPD officials found it increasingly difficult to thwart criminal activity that didn’t fall neatly into geographic boundaries. Crooks would pull off a heist in one area of the city, then do another 30 miles away.

Chief William Parker created SIS in 1965 to coordinate surveillance operations and gather evidence across the city. Back then, the cowboy image fit. Some of the squad members rode in police rodeos, and the unit developed a logo that sported a cloaked spy wielding a dagger. Several SIS officers still wear it on their belts and shirts.

The niche they occupy within the LAPD is, by definition, provocative. The unit is called into service when other detectives believe they have identified a suspect but can’t prove it. It is the job of the unit to confirm whether the person is a suspect and to gather more evidence. To do that, detectives spend long hours shadowing unsuspecting people, waiting for them to commit crimes.

If the suspect commits a crime, the detectives close in, often with overwhelming force.

Although many police departments have surveillance squads, they avoid copying SIS’ blend of surveillance and commando-style arrest tactics.

Some departments lack the resources or the need for full-time surveillance squads. Others consider the LAPD tactics risky and don’t want to put officers or the public in harm’s way.

“We do not operate in that fashion,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Norman Smith, who heads its undercover surveillance unit. The sheriff’s squad works covertly, gathering information generally on known suspects, and rarely makes arrests, Smith said.

The Sheriff’s Department, which covers a metropolitan area with crime problems comparable to the city of Los Angeles, also does not employ the firepower and military-style tactics the LAPD considers necessary.

“We feel our way is a much safer and cleaner way to go,” Smith said.

Still, police departments and law enforcement experts have been reluctant to criticize the unit’s methods.

“The public wants an aggressive police force, but they don’t want it to go over the line,” said Hubert Williams, executive director of the Police Foundation--a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that researches police policies. He said he does not object to the LAPD’s tactics in theory.

“The question is, how far do you go? The key is training and whether the officers use good discretion,” Williams said. “Police face an increasing level of violence these days, and they have to respond in different ways.”

Considering its controversial nature, the unit has relatively few vocal critics. Prominent civil libertarians, such as Raymond Fisher, a former board member of the Constitutional Rights Foundation and now a top-ranking Justice Department official, have looked at the unit and given it their blessing.

But the unit has its detractors. Most notable are Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, who has represented plaintiffs in numerous lawsuits against the unit, and James Fyfe, a former New York City Police Department lieutenant who is now a college professor.

“SIS is a very scary group,” said Fyfe, a professor at Temple University who wrote a 1993 book about police misconduct that criticized the unit. He also serves as Yagman’s police expert during trials.

For them and others who denounce the unit, it is the “lying-in-wait” strategy that draws the most ire. They say it puts the public at risk so the police can make better arrests and cases against suspects, effectively elevating the Police Department’s interests over the public’s.

“The cops are putting the lives of innocent Angelenos in the hands of the people they say are the scum of the earth,” Fyfe said.

Yagman, whose record in court has been mixed, said that many SIS officers “are bullies who appear to derive pleasure” from getting into shootings and then “beating the charges.”

Some of the basic facts are in dispute. Yagman contends that the unit has killed 44 suspects since 1977. SIS does not have a formal list of casualties, but LAPD records show that 34 suspects have been killed by SIS officers since the unit’s inception. Statistics also show that nearly three of every 100 surveillance operations ends with a shooting, a relatively high ratio when compared to other officers. Whatever the precise number of shootings and fatalities, Yagman said, it’s too many.

Yagman, who has cultivated the image of the unit as a reckless “death squad” and a pack of “murderers,” said he can’t understand why the department and city leaders continue to support the unit.

A Moment of Truth Arrives

Tyshika Deon Roberts doesn’t know it, but he is about to face a life-or-death decision.

A partial print on a victim’s car has led investigators to stop tailing the Crenshaw man they had originally followed and instead to focus on Roberts as a possible suspect in the ATM kidnapping and robberies.

So convinced are they this time that SIS officers intend to make an immediate arrest.

They gather just after daybreak in Palmdale, where they hope to catch Roberts leaving his mother’s home for work at Magic Mountain. Hours pass without a sign of him. Frustrated, one officer pretends to be Roberts’ boss and calls the house, asking where he is. Roberts’ mother says he will be home later in the afternoon.

For the next eight hours, more than a dozen officers wait in their cars in the scorching sun. They move occasionally to park in the shifting shade, go to a restroom or grab a bite to eat.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Roberts shows up in a red Toyota driven by a woman. As the driver and another woman wait, Roberts goes into his mother’s house, then quickly comes back to the car and takes off again.

As the moment of confrontation approaches, SIS officers strap on their bulletproof vests. It is time for “the jam,” the unit’s controversial tactic for pinning a suspect’s car with their vehicles. Most of the fatal shootings have occurred when the unit is jamming.

Critics say the tactic encourages shootouts, claiming that simple gestures by a suspect meant to indicate surrender sometimes are mistaken by officers as a “threatening movement.” LAPD officials say the tactic allows SIS officers to control when and where an arrest occurs, thereby minimizing risks to bystanders.

“Take ‘em after they make this left,” says the squad leader.

One officer races his car through a parking lot and blocks the Toyota. Another pulls next to the driver’s door, pinning it closed. A third vehicle stops just short of the rear bumper.

Four officers jump from their cars. Each carries either a .45-caliber handgun or a shotgun. Every weapon is pointed at the car.

“Freeze!”

The two women cry and shake with fear.

Any false move, any hint Roberts is going for a gun, and the 21-year-old will die right now.

Not today. Roberts, unarmed, throws his hands in the air and gives up.

Weighing the Costs

SIS is not cheap.

The LAPD spends about $2 million a year to staff and equip the 20-member unit. That is a small fraction of the department’s overall budget, but the city has spent millions more defending the unit in court.

What does the city get for all that? About 45 arrests a year, according to department statistics. Recently, the squad’s arrests have dipped even lower as the number of violent crimes--particularly bank robberies--has dropped significantly.

But LAPD officials point to the type of criminals that the unit takes off the streets. And, they note, one suspect arrested by the unit often clears a half-dozen or more cases.

Supporters add that the value of SIS cannot be reduced to money.

“How can you put a price on one’s life?” asked pastor Moises Sandoval. He was rescued from a gang of kidnappers by SIS officers last November. Without SIS, Sandoval is convinced he could have been killed.

“If they don’t do this kind of work, who’s going to do it?” he asked. “When you’re in that moment of need, you are grateful that there are people there who are willing to lay their lives on the line.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who scrutinized the effectiveness and cost of the unit when he served as the City Council’s budget committee chairman, said the unit is a valuable tool for the Police Department.

“I don’t think you can measure what is a fair return on something like this,” he added. “The type of people SIS goes after are not petty criminals. They are hard-core offenders who terrorize the city.”

That’s not to say the unit isn’t a potential liability for the city, Yaroslavsky said.

“There have been some bad cases and poor judgment at times, no question about it,” he said. “SIS has learned from its mistakes.”

Some are small mistakes, such as getting burned on a surveillance.

Others are much worse. The only SIS officer killed in the line of duty was caught in a cross-fire and struck by a fellow officer’s bullet.

Still others have cost the city money. In 1986, an officer accidentally killed a suspect who was lying flat on his stomach. The officer reached for the flashlight attached to his shotgun and instead pulled the trigger. The family of that man won a $600,000 settlement.

In another case, a South-Central Los Angeles man involved in a 1989 kidnapping was run over and injured by an SIS officer as he tried to get away. He lived and was awarded nearly $900,000 by a jury that found the officer used excessive force.

In the McDonald’s case, a jury awarded $44,000 to the lone survivor of the shootout and the families of the three robbers, who were armed only with pellet guns. That lawsuit was handled by Yagman, who recently was barred from practicing law in the state for a year because he was found to have charged his clients in that case “unconscionable” fees.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks remains an ardent supporter of the unit. “Not having the unit could be even more costly to the residents of Los Angeles,” he said. “I don’t know of any operation where there haven’t been mistakes. As long as you have human beings involved, you’re going to have mistakes.”

Such mistakes are outweighed by the unit’s successes, he said. “We would be less effective as a department if we did not have this tool.”

And, Parks added, it is a tool that continues to evolve and improve. Some improvements have been made with an eye toward how they would be viewed in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

In a 1988 series, The Times unveiled the unit’s secretive operation and controversial tactic of watching crimes occur, and documented a number of cases in which unarmed suspects were shot by SIS officers.

In response to the revelations, the unit grudgingly adopted a “reverence for life” policy, which states that “no arrest, conviction or piece of evidence can outweigh the value of human life.” Nowadays, SIS officers say, whenever practical they try to arrest suspects before crimes are committed. That policy played out in at least two cases this year in which SIS officers moved to prevent a home-invasion robbery and sought to prevent the hijacking of a truck loaded with new clothing.

Today, SIS trains more than any other unit except for SWAT. Equipment is much more advanced, and the unit has tinkered with its tactics. For example, rather than having a large group of officers advance on suspects during a jam, as was the case in the McDonald’s shooting, only about half a dozen handle the initial confrontation. If suspects flee or an officer gets wounded, other officers join in.

Williams, the unit’s first African American supervising officer, said he plans to impose physical fitness requirements, recruit the first female SIS officer and see the unit play a larger role in pursuing sexual predators.

“We’re better than we were 10 years ago,” Williams said, “and we’ll be better 10 years from now than we are today.”

Decisions on Life and Death

Another night with SIS. A 25-year-old car salesman’s life is on the line. His captors are threatening to pull out his fingernails, then kill him if his relatives don’t come up with $100,000.

The unit handles all of the LAPD’s kidnap-ransom exchanges. The squad has never lost a victim, and it always has come back with the ransom money.

Tonight, the kidnappers propose a money drop near Watts. SIS detectives don’t like the spot because they can’t position their cars for the jamming technique. When the kidnappers call again, a family spokesman apologizes, says he couldn’t find the drop location and sets up another drop. This time, they agree on a nearby taco stand.

It is now 16 hours after the kidnapping. The squad is in position, anxiously waiting for the kidnappers to show.

“These things can turn to crap in a second,” Williams says. “Out there we have to make hard life-and-death decisions. It’s not an exact science. No two kidnappings are the same.”

Today, Williams’ concerns are justified. Moments before the drop-off, a pickup truck pulls up in the exact spot where officers want to execute the jam. The suspects arrive at the same time and pick up the money pouch stuffed with cut-up newspapers. The victim is nowhere to be seen.

Afraid of harm coming to the driver of the truck, SIS aborts the plan to jam the suspects. But now every second counts. It will only be moments before the kidnappers discover they’ve been had. When they do, the car salesman, who is married with one small child, could die.

The officers take off in pursuit of the suspects. A helicopter monitors from overhead as patrol cars join the action. Within minutes, both suspects are handcuffed and grilled. A cell phone sits on the passenger seat. The victim is missing.

With life and death in the balance, the law gives officers broad leeway, LAPD officials and city attorneys contend. They can even pretend to threaten the life of a kidnapper if they think it will get them to a victim before harm is done, although any such information may not be admissible in court.

In this case, no threats are needed. The suspects say the victim is stashed in a nearby lumber yard.

Officers scour the lumber yard but find no trace of the victim. They speed around the neighborhood looking for him. About 20 minutes after the arrest, the police radio cackles with an update. The victim has been found at a local bus stop, hurt but alive. His captors had pushed him out of a van and fled.

“Luck plays a part in all this,” Williams concedes. “Things happen beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a matter of how committed the bad guys are.”

Unit’s Tactics Are Examined

In court, the rules are different, the battles more protracted, and the adversaries unquestionably committed.

Yagman wants SIS disbanded. The LAPD has fought him for years and is not about to give in. In the middle is U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts, whose past statements and rulings give city officials the impression he is on a crusade to curb SIS.

Letts is presiding over the latest Yagman-filed lawsuits stemming from the 1995 and 1997 shootings. Those cases are on hold until an appellate court rules on, among other issues, whether Letts is biased against the police.

It seems everybody has an eye on SIS. LAPD studies every shooting and regularly reviews SIS tactics, as does the city’s Police Commission and its inspector general.

Civil libertarians and police reformers, including Fisher and Police Commission consultant Merrick Bobb--both of whom served on the 1991 Christopher Commission that urged many LAPD changes--also have looked into the unit. So have grand juries and the FBI. So far, nobody has sought to dismantle it.

Federal prosecutors who have reviewed the unit’s actions declined to comment on their probes. But sources familiar with the inquiries said that they were more troubled by the unit’s tactics than any reports of unprofessional conduct by the officers.

Most often, the criticism asks why SIS officers don’t stop crimes before they occur and arrest suspects for either “conspiring” or “attempting” to commit a crime.

LAPD officials say that district attorneys have been reluctant to file those kinds of cases because they are more difficult to prove, a charge that prosecutors deny. Police say there also are other risks to trying to take suspects too soon.

Sometimes, they argue, there is no legal justification to stop suspects before a crime is committed. And even if there is legal cause to intervene, it is often too dangerous, they say.

“The worst thing we could do for the safety of the individuals in the bank or store is go in and create a barricaded situation. These tactics were not developed overnight. They been refined over decades,” Parks said. “This theory of stopping them is ludicrous. It’s not even good logic.”

Capt. Daniel Koenig, who headed the unit from 1995 to 1997, said SIS risks blowing its surveillance and alerting suspects that they are under scrutiny if detectives step in before a crime occurs. Arresting suspects for lesser offenses only “delays the inevitable,” he said. “They’ll do crimes another day and be even more careful about it the next time.”

The theory behind the LAPD’s unique approach is that the best way to get the worst people off the streets is to catch them in the act. That may risk some people, but it may save others.

“Everything we do,” one officer notes, “is a calculated risk.”

For Gina Sue Nicoletti, the risk is not worth the return. In 1997, as she sat inside a Northridge bar, SIS officers watched while three suspects held up the place. Nicoletti and other bar patrons were kept at gunpoint while SIS officers waited outside.

“I felt used,” she told attorneys earlier this year during a deposition for her lawsuit against the city. “Where was the regard for human life?”

Working as a Team

“You look like a broken-down Harrison Ford wannabe,” suspect Roberts defiantly says to SIS Det. Davis as he is led away in Palmdale to be booked in connection with the ATM robberies and kidnappings.

Davis laughs and heads into a small room at the sheriff’s substation in Palmdale for a “debriefing” on the arrest with other SIS officers.

These debriefings, which occur after every mission, are blunt and confrontational. Tempers sometimes flare. Here, away from lawyers and suspects, the officers don’t sugarcoat their feelings. Off-color jokes relieve some of the anxiety.

Candidly and without much regard for each other’s feelings, the detectives critique their own work and argue about how they could have done better.

This evening, some of the officers are not happy with the way the driver’s side door was pinned during Roberts’ arrest.

“It wasn’t in close enough. What happened?” asks one detective. The driver explains that a civilian got in his way at the last moment.

“That car had you all dicked up,” says another detective.

Fourteen hours after arriving for work, they straggle out of the office. Some go home, others go to a bar.

Out of the office, they stay on call, reachable at a moment’s notice for the next kidnapping or elusive suspect. When they respond, they know their actions will be watched by critics and colleagues alike.

“One ineffective person can make a tremendous difference,” Williams says. “These guys have to have heart and have to be committed to this. They can’t be just passing through, getting their ticket punched.”


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