Ex-Officer Rafael Perez and nearly a dozen other officers in the Los Angeles Police Department's now-notorious Rampart CRASH unit were tattooed with an ominous insignia that some say symbolized their dubious brand of policing.
The officers, many of whom have been relieved of duty in connection with the department's ongoing corruption probe, had themselves tattooed with the image of a grinning skull with demonic eyes, several officers involved in the unit said. Atop the skull is a cowboy hat adorned with a police badge. Fanned out behind it are four playing cards--aces and eights--the so-called dead man's hand.
The tattoos are versions of patches that still more officers wear on their jackets. Such images are not confined to Rampart or CRASH.
Many of the LAPD's specialized units sport some sort of menacing logo, such as that of the controversial Special Investigation Section, a cloaked man armed with a dagger. The insignias are hardly a secret among departmental supervisors.
Even amid the scandal, the Rampart CRASH logo remains prominently displayed in the equipment and gift shop at the LAPD's academy near Dodger Stadium.
"They know full well about it," said one former Rampart CRASH officer, adding that the patches were part of the militaristic, tough-guy image that department officials wanted their anti-gang and some other specialized officers to have.
"That's what they wanted--and that's what they got," the former CRASH officer said.
Critics, some of them officers, say that wearing the tattoos and patches is a sign that the CRASH officers adopted some of the behavior and characteristics of the gangs they were supposed to police.
"It seems as if they are carrying the law enforcement mission far away from its purposes and roots and [it] smacks of lawless, cowboy vigilante behavior," said Los Angeles attorney Merrick J. Bobb, special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors and a nationally recognized expert on police misconduct.
Tattoos, patches, law enforcement cliques and clubs are not uncommon among police agencies throughout the country, experts say. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, some deputies get tattoos to signify their association with unsanctioned, departmental "clubs" known by such macho monikers as the Pirates, Vikings, Rattlesnakes and Cavemen.
When the controversial tattoos and clubs in the Sheriff's Department were made public in a Times article last year, LAPD officials insisted that no such practices existed within their agency.
On Friday, Cmdr. David J. Kalish, the LAPD's spokesman, said he understood how such tattoos as the Rampart skull might be perceived by the public as a problem.
"Oftentimes these are innocent mascots or symbols that may create the wrong perception," he said.
Joseph D. McNamara, former chief of the San Jose Police Department and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said insignias such as the Rampart CRASH tattoo serve only to drive a wedge between the community and the department.
"It's part of the war mentality. They have a total contempt for the people in the neighborhoods they police," said McNamara, author of the forthcoming book, "Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs."
"It's a macho bonding thing," said another former CRASH officer. That officer, who worked the anti-gang unit in Pacific Division, elected not to wear his unit's patch, a gun-toting shark. "It was stupid," he said.
"Besides," he added, "people couldn't tell if it was a shark or a tuna."
Current and former Rampart CRASH cops said the patches were around long before Perez, the ex-officer at the center of the Rampart scandal.
One source said officers began getting tattoos several years ago, usually arriving at the decision after a few beers. The tattoos are a show of camaraderie among officers faced with one of the most demanding jobs in the department, one former CRASH officer said.
"It's not a touchy-feely unit. You're putting your life on the line more than just about anybody else out there," he said.
The ex-CRASH officer made no apologies for the patch, which he said feeds into the image that CRASH officers need to have.
"These [gang members] think you're so, so bad. . . . They think you're dropping people off of buildings and stuff like that. We're not. But it doesn't hurt for them to think that, because maybe it's going to stop them doing some of the things they're doing."
The suggestion that police may have adopted the swagger and physical intimidation of gang members casts a pall across CRASH and provides a possible explanation for some of the misconduct allegations that are occupying the Police Department in its wide-ranging internal investigation.
In part, department officials are pursuing evidence that some officers broke LAPD rules as they sought to display their own version of the bravado of the young men they encountered daily.
Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff said he does not believe it is proper for the department to control or censor whether an officer can get a tattoo, but he also thought that the Rampart CRASH insignia conveys a disturbing message.
"It seems like a counterproductive image for police officers to have and does not fit within the stated goals of the Police Department to protect and serve," he said. "If these patches were worn on official Police Department uniforms or equipment, I believe this is inappropriate and the commission will investigate it."
One ex-CRASH officer strongly defended the Rampart emblem, saying that it was similar to those warn by Marines.
"That's fine if you want to be a Marine," McNamara said. "But being a police officer is a totally different job. Marines are supposed to kill. Police officers are supposed to protect and serve."