Two Immigration and Naturalization Service agents have filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, claiming they were falsely arrested and “treated roughly” by officers at the department’s problem-plagued Rampart Division.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, agents Shawn Butler and Ezequiel Garcia say Rampart patrol officers refused to believe that they were federal agents on a surveillance operation. They allege that the incident--which occurred in January--was racially motivated.
“I repeatedly showed my badge, showed I was unarmed and stated that I was working on an undercover surveillance,” Butler said. “I was arrested, handcuffed and unnecessarily treated roughly. I cannot help but conclude that I was disbelieved because I was an African American in a nice car in an area where the police did not believe I belong.”
Butler--who was parked on 9th Street near Alvarado--said officers ordered him out of his vehicle. Although he said he complied, the officers handcuffed him, searched him and ordered him into the police car without telling him why he was being detained. At one point, Butler said, the officers threatened to shoot him.
Garcia, who arrived a few minutes later to assist his colleague, said he showed the officers his INS identification but was nonetheless ordered to get out of his car. He said he was thrown to the ground, put in a “headlock” and handcuffed. He said he later discovered a boot print on his back.
“If this could happen to me, then ordinary citizens have even more reason to fear for their own safety,” said Garcia, a Latino who has worked for the INS for 13 years. “The situation within the LAPD is clearly out of control.”
LAPD Cmdr. David Kalish said the department is working with the FBI to investigate the allegations.
“We are taking this very seriously,” Kalish said. “Because there is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the department to comment in detail. However, we are working diligently with the FBI to investigate this matter and we look forward to determining the truth.”
An LAPD source familiar with the investigation, however, said the agents had failed to notify the Rampart Division beforehand about their undercover operation. The source also said that Butler was in a car with expired tags and failed to immediately identify himself as an INS agent when he was approached by LAPD officers.
“Things aren’t always what they seem,” the source said.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday, Garcia is seeking $2.47 million in damages. Butler--who joined the INS after a tour of duty with the Navy during Desert Storm--is seeking $1.5 million.
Howard R. Price, the attorney for the two men, said the incident shows the depth of the problems at the Rampart Division. Even though the station has been under scrutiny for months as a corruption scandal centered there unfolds, officers were engaging in “shocking” behavior as recently as a few weeks ago, Price said.
“With the debate raging over whether an outside agency should come in and investigate itself, this is a classic reason to believe [the LAPD] cannot police itself,” Price said.
The two agents were released from custody after their supervisors--who heard Butler’s radio call for assistance--arrived on the scene and confirmed their identity. Garcia was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he received treatment for an injured shoulder and “numerous bruises and contusions.”
According to the complaint, the officers restrained Garcia so tightly that they later had trouble removing the handcuffs.
“It took me a week before I could tell my nephew what happened,” Garcia said. “He said, ‘Aren’t police supposed to be good guys?’
“I explained to him there are good officers and bad officers,” Garcia said.
The allegations are just another salvo in the ongoing corruption scandal at the Rampart Division, where members of the station’s anti-gang unit allegedly engaged in illegal shootings, beatings, perjury, false arrests and intimidation. City officials estimate that it could cost the city more than $200 million to settle Rampart-related lawsuits.