Members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division anti-gang unit, working from what they alleged was a list of 10,000 purported gang members, systematically circumvented city policy by colluding with a little-known unit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport at least 160 Latino immigrants and deny others citizenship, federal authorities have told The Times.
Former Rampart CRASH officer Rafael Perez, who has been providing authorities with information in a deal to obtain a lesser sentence on cocaine theft charges, has told investigators that LAPD officers concerned about citizens’ complaints against them would use the INS to have witnesses to police abuse deported.
Moreover, Perez has testified, “there were certain nights we just go out strictly looking for people who’ve been deported in the past. It was supposed to be that . . . Immigration would just happen to come across these people out in the field . . . and find, you know, that they had been deported in the past.”
According to a senior INS officer who asked not to be identified, Rampart officers in 1997 and 1998 routinely conducted “street sweeps” of suspected gang members.
Perez has testified and INS sources have told The Times that immigration agents assigned to anti-gang activities would make regular rounds in the Rampart area and obligingly conduct immigration checks on LAPD detainees for whom there were no outstanding warrants.
Agents who worked in that INS unit told The Times they were dismayed to find themselves involved with police officers whose methods seemed legally dubious and who repeatedly sought to deport immigrants who did not appear to be gang members or to have been informed of their constitutional rights, INS sources said.
“We ended up being the pickup boys,” said one senior officer with the special INS unit, called the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
“There’s been an agreement that LAPD would never arrest people and turn them over to the INS, and with CRASH this was thrown out the window,” the officer said. “They got loose, right on the fringes, on the edges of our system. They allowed the LAPD to become the INS by night.”
He and several agents said they repeatedly told their superiors that they thought the program violated their special unit’s congressional mandate to investigate organizations involved in narcotics trafficking. They said they were particularly suspicious of the Rampart CRASH unit’s identification of 10,000 Latinos, in California and other states, who were alleged to be members or associates of the 18th Street gang.
“I told my boss that was just ludicrous. They were targeting a whole race of people,” said a senior INS agent, who asked not be identified. “That’s not a gang anymore, that’s a culture. They [LAPD] only wanted to do one thing: sweep the street and turn the bodies over to the INS.
“My people said this was wrong, what they were doing,” the senior agent said. “We did their bidding.”
A low-ranking agent involved in the initiative said: “I’m at the bottom rung. It was just, ‘We will do this, yes sir, yes sir.’ You know you want people to come forward and not be afraid of the LAPD. That was not addressed. It was very strange.”
Under a 21-year-old Los Angeles policy called Special Order 40, police officers “shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person.” Officers are barred from turning in suspects accused of minor violations to immigration officials.
The order is designed to combat the reluctance of immigrants to come forward and report crimes or to act as witnesses because they fear they will be deported.
“There’s a clear LAPD policy and rules,” said Gerald L. Chaleff, a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “We do not arrest people if their only violation is a failure to have documentation. It would be improper.”
Rampart Commander Denies Allegations
Capt. Bob Hansohn, Rampart area commanding officer, said LAPD Rampart officers do not violate the policy.
“INS is in Rampart quite a bit,” he said. “I would think the cooperation between INS and LAPD is good for certain things. However, we do not go around arresting people simply for being in the country illegally.”
Tom Schiltgen, the Los Angeles INS district director, declined to address the specifics of the joint operation, saying only that his agency works routinely with federal and local law enforcement in the “identification and removal of criminal aliens.”
One former INS agent, however, said his concerns over his unit’s relationship with Rampart CRASH, which was in effect from June 1997 to October 1998, led him to seek early retirement from the INS.
A senior officer still with the INS unit said the LAPD arrests seemed to lack probable cause or to meet the standard outlined by city policy, and often were the result of random Rampart Division street sweeps.
In fact, one agent involved went so far as to send an anonymous letter on INS stationary to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. In it the agent accused the LAPD and his own agency of waging “an undeclared war on individuals purported to be associates of the 18th Street gang.” The agent warned that those imprisoned after “illegal arrests” could file “major lawsuits” against both agencies.
“The INS is just as liable as the LAPD,” said the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times. “The INS could have stopped it. Just by saying no, we don’t operate in this manner.”
At least 160 of the approximately 200 people whose cases were handed to the special INS unit for processing were deported, the senior officer said. About 40 were prosecuted for reentering the country illegally--a felony--and received prison sentences, he said.
“The majority were decent people but they were in the country illegally and weren’t supposed to be here in the first place,” he said. “They were working people on the way home when they were picked up by LAPD CRASH. Some were cooking or had just come from work. A lot of them were just getting off the bus.”
From time to time in 1997 and 1998, immigration agents would be assigned to sit in some CRASH offices to review immigrants as they were brought in, the senior INS officer said.
One former Rampart CRASH officer said that five INS agents and a supervisor frequently worked out of the Rampart detectives’ office. The agents would monitor the radio calls of CRASH officers and then arrive at the scene of an arrest to determine whether the suspect’s residency status was an issue.
The officer said that when he and other anti-gang officers were unable to find a reason to arrest gang members, they would sometimes call INS agents to the scene. The INS agents would check on the suspects’ residency status and, if they were illegal, take them away, he said.
INS Agents Would Interview Detainees
The senior INS officer involved with the program said that typically, CRASH officers would arrest people because they suspected them of being gang members or criminals, and take them to a division station for criminal background checks.
If they did not have criminal warrants pending, the LAPD would call the Violent Gang Task Force of the INS and ask them to interview the detainees. Detainees who turned out to be illegal immigrants would be taken by INS agents to the Los Angeles downtown office for processing by the special INS unit, veterans of the program said.
INS agents involved with the processing said they were taken aback that LAPD officers appeared to have filled out some portions of the INS’s own field interview forms, something only federal agents should do. In other cases, CRASH officers managed to get incriminating allegations about immigrants inserted into their INS files.
“There were denials [of citizenship] based on LAPD recommendations. It’s bad,” said one veteran. “A lot of these people were pretty adamant about not being gang members yet they were still processed as 18th Street gang members.”
One INS officer said he believed that “every one of those people should have the right to come back [to the United States] and have a hearing or file a lawsuit against the INS and the LAPD, because those arrests were illegal.”
As the letter to Garcetti described it, “many individuals were cataloged, identified, arrested, placed under deportation proceedings, and sometimes prosecuted and sentenced to federal prison, based on arrests by the LAPD/CRASH. All of the arrests by LAPD were for immigration purposes.
“Many of the individuals proclaimed no association with the 18th Street gang,” the letter said. “Many claimed abuses by LAPD that went unreported.”
Times staff writers Matt Lait and Scott Glover contributed to this story.