The epicenter of Los Angeles’ Latino power structure may be the bustling immigrant neighborhoods patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division.
The Pico-Union, Westlake and Echo Park districts are represented by what reads like a Who’s Who of rising Latino political stars: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, Rep. Xavier Becerra and County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
For the past six months, these leaders have been repeatedly pounding on their core issues--improving access to health care, extending rail to the Eastside and solving the turmoil in the school district. What they have said little about is the worst LAPD scandal in city history, which has unraveled right in their backyard.
“Some people say, ‘You guys haven’t been outspoken enough’ ” in response to the tales of LAPD officers framing, shooting and deporting residents, acknowledged one Latino official who represents the area. “But we don’t want to fan the flames of a problem.”
Latino leaders’ muted response to the Rampart scandal contrasts sharply with the increasing public outrage from a handful of white and black liberals, and has become a sore point for some activists.
“This lack of leadership from our elected representatives is exactly what perpetuates the intolerable conditions in which we must live, and why we continue to be victimized by law enforcement and the judicial system,” said Hector Carreon, an activist and former county commissioner of real estate management.
Latinos Part of Power Structure
The reasons for the relative silence are manifold, analysts say, and reflect how Latinos have become part of the power structure in Los Angeles.
Some officials and activists say that families in the district are more concerned with access to health care and education. Others cite the struggle over Los Angeles school Supt. Ruben Zacarias’ firing last fall as having distracted them. But there may be a broader reason.
“The Latino officials are really establishmentarian officials [now]. . . . Maybe in their younger years they were trying to break down doors,” said Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. But that is no longer the case, he said, citing the “constructive” style of the new leadership.
Indeed, many Latino leaders bristle at the assertion that they have been quiet on the Rampart scandal, saying they have a responsibility not to exploit the situation for political gain.
“I’m not an ambulance chaser, so I’m not just going to do a press conference to get a line,” said Villaraigosa, who spoke forcefully about the scandal’s implications for the justice system in an interview Monday. The speaker denied that he has been quiet, saying he wrote an opinion article on the scandal last fall and has spoken with Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.
Becerra said, “I’m not interested in bashing the people who are there to protect my wife and children day to day just because there are some truly bad apples in the department.
“We need to root out the problem, but that doesn’t mean you have to constantly get out and speak on the thing”
Moreover, although leaders said in interviews said that they are horrified by the allegations, they expressed confidence in the response of the system so far.
“You have a police chief who indicates he’s willing to be responsive, a D.A. who indicates that he wants to prosecute,” said Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who also represents the areas patrolled by the Rampart Division.
Some questioned whether Rampart should be viewed as a Latino issue because many officers at the station who are accused of wrongdoing are of Latino descent, including Raphael Perez, whose confessions of corruption revealed the scandal. “Now,” said a legislative aide, “if that’d been a white guy . . . “
Personal dynamics may also have something to do with the quiet.
Immediately after the 1992 riots, Latino elected officials--who are predominantly U.S.-born--were criticized for their slow response to the needs of immigrant neighborhoods like Pico-Union. The exception was Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez. But Hernandez remains low-profile on Rampart, Loyola Marymount professor Fernando Guerra and others say, having been arrested by LAPD officers on drug charges two years ago.
Hernandez said Monday that he has been active on Rampart issues, “doing my work on the council floor” supporting the Police Commission’s investigation.
Guerra also said that speaking aggressively about the scandal carries risks for the two candidates for Los Angeles mayor who represent the district--Villaraigosa and Becerra--at a time when coalition-building is crucial to winning a citywide election.
“If you take on the LAPD you’re going to be tagged as a radical,” Guerra said. “A Latino’s already suspect on public safety issues.”
With allegations of an improper relationship between Rampart officers and federal Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, Latino officials have been expressing greater outrage.
Polanco (D-Los Angeles) met with LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks to chastise him for not investigating those charges aggressively enough.
“This issue goes beyond city policy and speaks to the constitutional rights of all city residents,” he said in a news release, though he did not return calls for comment Monday. Nor did Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who last week called for a federal investigation of the INS matter.
But the response has still disappointed some activists.
“The Latino elected officials have very strong links to the police,” said Carlos Ardon, head of a Central American immigrant-rights group called the Assn. of Salvadorans of Los Angeles.
For years, Ardon said, he has fruitlessly tried to get elected officials to respond to complaints of police abuse from Central American and Mexican immigrants in the Pico-Union area.
“The Police Department is malfunctioning because the elected officials have put no real attention to what is going on here,” Ardon said. “They’ve known about these problems for several years now.”
Nonetheless, Ardon and others chided themselves for remaining silent for so long.
“There is no excuse,” said Carlos Vaquerano, executive director of the Salvadoran American Leadership Foundation, who said he has been preoccupied during the past few months with U.S. Census and Latino leadership programs run from his office near Pico-Union.
Political leaders say that their constituents note the background of some of the Rampart victims.
“They aren’t the pillars of the community,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has not spoken much publicly about the issue but said she is outraged by the alleged LAPD corruption.
For Some, a ‘Lonely Battle’
People outside the district have led the criticism.
Molina’s Westside colleague, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky--whose huge district stretches into the Rampart region--has been more vocal about the need for such a probe. Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), whose Eastside district does not include Rampart, held a news conference Friday to propose tightening state laws regarding perjury. And state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) has been the loudest voice of outrage thus far, holding news conferences in front of the Rampart station.
“I have to tell you, it’s been a lonely battle,” Hayden said.
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice said she was not surprised by the relatively quiet response by Latino leaders, saying black and white leaders are equally guilty.
“If you’re seen as defending gang members, you’re out of the loop,” Rice said. Only wealthy liberals like Hayden, she said, can risk alienating the financial establishment by fighting for accused criminals’ civil rights.
There may be other reasons why Westside liberals are more likely than newly ascendant Latino leaders to criticize police, said political analyst Rodriguez.
“You have to be a wealthy white to believe you have to tear down the system, because you already belong to it,” he said.