On Aug. 1, 1988, scores of Los Angeles police officers descended on two apartment buildings on the corner of 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in southwest Los Angeles. It was an all-out search for drugs and a massive show of force designed to deliver a strong message to the gangs.
The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators. Some officers left their own graffiti: “LAPD Rules.” “Rollin’ 30s Die.”
Dozens of residents from the apartments and surrounding neighborhood were rounded up. Many were humiliated or beaten, but none was charged with a crime. The raid netted fewer than six ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine.
The property damage was so great that the Red Cross offered assistance to 10 adults and 12 minors who were left homeless.
What happened on Dalton Avenue that warm summer night, as 88 officers swarmed through the neighborhood and helicopters hovered deafeningly overhead, could have taught the city and its Police Department important lessons about command structure, discipline and civilian oversight. Instead, the next decade brought the Rodney King beating, the 1992 riots and the Rampart Division scandal.
“Dalton was a precursor,” said New York University law professor Jerome Skolnick, who with Temple University criminal justice professor James J. Fyfe wrote “Above The Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force.”
“It should have sent a signal that parts of the department were out of control,” Skolnick said. “The next signal obviously was the beating of Rodney King, followed by the Christopher Commission report, which laid out many of the problems.”
Almost 13 years later, participants on both sides of police lines are still paying a price in ruined careers and shattered lives.
The raid at 39th and Dalton came amid rising public clamor for a crackdown on gangs. Gang warfare had spread to Westwood Village in January 1988, when Karen Toshima, an innocent bystander, was caught in a cross-fire and killed. Crack cocaine, dominated by street gangs, was an epidemic.
With City Council backing, then-Chief Daryl F. Gates flooded South-Central Los Angeles streets that spring with officers in Operation Hammer, arresting thousands of gang members and innocent residents alike.
Gangs and drugs had swamped the working-class neighborhood near 39th and Dalton, a few miles west of the Memorial Coliseum.
Homeowners complained that dope-dealing gang members had taken over their street, offering curbside service to motorists. One family’s exterior lights, installed to discourage outdoor drug sales, were shot out.
The family complained to police at the Southwest station, just three blocks away. Officers there were also outraged by the dealers. They suspected a gang member had made an anonymous call to the station, threatening to kill a police officer.
Police attention focused on the two apartment buildings. Dealers sat on the front steps and sold on the corner, but they didn’t live there. In an affidavit for a search warrant, Officer Carl A. Sims, a narcotics investigator, described the apartments as stash houses for gang members who sold narcotics on the street.
Southwest Capt. Thomas Elfmont, just five months on the job, encouraged his officers to take back the block. Some of his officers recall Elfmont’s telling them before the raid to render the buildings “uninhabitable.” He denies ever saying that.
As officers assembled in the Southwest station and headed out to the apartments for the raid, no one higher than a sergeant was in command.
Elfmont now says that was a mistake.
“The problem was, no one was in charge to execute the search warrant,” he said. “There should have been at least a lieutenant on hand.”
Rookie Officer ‘Out of Control’
One of the most eager participants was Officer Todd Parrick, the son of an LAPD officer and the great-grandson of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. An ex-Navy SEAL, he had joined the department in 1987--a time when Gates was comparing violence on the streets of Los Angeles with the turmoil in Beirut.
“I wanted to be a police officer just about all my life,” said Parrick, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I grew up with them. My dad’s partners were always around the house. They were men of integrity, my role models.”
Parrick, then 25, stood 6 feet 5. Once inside the Dalton units, he grabbed an ax and wielded it with such force--smashing furniture and walls--that fellow officers feared he would harm himself or someone else.
“I probably got a little out of control,” Parrick now says.
But, he adds, “I was a boot, a rookie. If I was out of control and doing something wrong, how come nobody told me to stop? No one said, ‘Cut it out.’ ”
To narcotics investigator Sims, the Dalton raid was the rule rather than the exception. Any place officers stormed looking for drugs “was turned upside down,” he said.
“There wasn’t a lot of care taken,” he said. “That was the mentality. At the time, if you were selling dope, we were going to knock your house down with a battering ram. And we were sure going to dump the sugar on the counter. It was the standard method of operation of the LAPD.
“We weren’t just searching for drugs. We were delivering a message that there was a price to pay for selling drugs and being a gang member. With that mentality, 39th and Dalton was born. I looked at it as something of a Normandy Beach, a D-day.”
The invaders found Gloria Flowers taking a bath. She scrambled, naked, to check on her two young children when she heard glass shattering and was confronted by gun-wielding officers rushing into her three-bedroom apartment.
“I got about as far as the bathroom door,” she said. “And then the police kicked the apartment door in, and the next thing I knew there was a gang of police officers in my house, pointing their guns at me.
“I tried to cover myself, and a lady police officer said, ‘Get your hands over your head and lay on the floor.’ Another officer threw a blanket on me.”
When she asked what was going on, an officer told her: “You’re being evicted.”
“‘I remember a fish tank my mother gave me,” she said. “‘It wasn’t much, but it was mine, and they busted that up.”
In another unit, Johnnie Mae Carter was sitting down to watch her favorite television show, “Jake and the Fatman,” when officers burst in and ordered her to go outside.
Her son Raymond, 21, was returning home with pizza when police pulled him over.
“Where do you live?” an officer asked him.
“He looked at the address on my license and said, ‘Oh yes, you’re one of them.’ I said, ‘One of what?’ And he said, ‘Don’t play stupid. You’re one of them.’ He started pushing me to my yard. When I got there, I said, ‘Oh my God!’ The whole neighborhood was there.”
As he lay handcuffed in the frontyard, Raymond Carter heard his mother plead for her blood pressure medication. In the apartment, officers ripped furniture and bashed in walls.
“‘My mother couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was like the apartment had been hit by a pack of wild animals.”
Hildebrandt Flowers, Gloria Flowers’ brother and a longtime gang member who police suspected was a drug dealer, was standing across the street watching the arrests when police spotted him.
“They handcuffed me, kicked my feet out from underneath me and then beat . . . me,” Flowers recalled, adding that he and Carter were taken to the station house, where officers ordered them to whistle the theme from the “Andy Griffith Show.”
“They hummed a few choruses,” Flowers said. “I refused to whistle. One officer grabbed me and pushed me down with his knee. But I had been hit so many times, I was numb and didn’t feel any pain.”
The next day, Elfmont went to the buildings to see the destruction firsthand. Initially, police blamed gang members for the damage. But Elfmont suspected otherwise and began gathering evidence to bring charges against officers.
The raid scattered the drug dealers from the corner of 39th and Dalton, but the crack cocaine epidemic persisted. The dealers simply moved on.
Police Commission Is Questioned
“The management failures were so obvious,” former LAPD Assistant Chief David Dotson said of the raid. “The department was preparing people as if they were going to war. A police officer’s job is not war; it’s solving complex problems on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. That’s a difficult job, and it doesn’t require screaming at people, putting their faces down in the street like dogs.”
Officers on the Dalton raid--and in the Rampart scandal--had the sense that the rules didn’t apply to them, said Temple University professor Fyfe, a former New York City officer.
From there, he added, it’s “a short step to other forms of abuses, like stealing money.”
To the Christopher Commission, which examined Dalton in its investigation of the King beating, the raid showed a lack of control by the City Council and the civilian Board of Police Commissioners, mayoral appointees who are titular supervisors of the department.
“Police commissioners were kept only marginally informed on the progress of the department’s own investigation,” the Christopher Commission report said. “The 39th and Dalton raid, and the Police Commission’s failure to investigate or exercise any oversight in the aftermath of the raid, prompted some--including City Council members--to express serious doubts about the Police Commission’s effectiveness in providing citizen oversight of the Police Department.”
Former Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden, who later became well-known as part of the O.J. Simpson prosecution team, prosecuted three of the officers charged with misdemeanor vandalism in 1991. All three were acquitted.
Darden said he was stymied by the Police Department “code of silence,” which deterred officers from testifying against one another.
“In Dalton, you have 70 or more officers--mass destruction,” he said. “You have a series of civil rights violations in the presence of police officers, done by police officers, sanctioned by command level officers.
“What happens? What did we do about it? In the D.A.'s office, what we did was file misdemeanors.”
A couple of officers were fired. More than 25 were suspended without pay. The lawsuits against the city never went before a jury. The city paid more than 50 residents, property owners and those rounded up in the raid a record of nearly $4 million in damages in an out-of-court settlement.
Bitterness After Ending of Careers
The toll the raid would take on individual lives was not always evident immediately.
Elfmont, now retired and working as a security consultant, is still angry.
“It was a major, major screw-up,” he said. “My career was over. It was obvious. Am I bitter? Yeah, I’m bitter. Absolutely. No doubt about it.”
After the Dalton raid, Elfmont was transferred to a traffic division in the San Fernando Valley and later to Communications, where his career ended.
Rookie Parrick was pumped up with pride after the raid. As he drove home to Palmdale, he thought he and the others would get commendations. But when he told his wife what had happened, she thought differently.
“Something told me he was going to get fired,” Julie Parrick said.
Parrick didn’t get fired then. Head-butting a suspect and lying about the incident cost him his job three years later.
Parrick then began a long battle with depression as his family fell upon hard times. His wife, pregnant with their second child, asked doctors to induce labor so that his department health benefits would cover the delivery.
After a series of low-paying jobs, the family spiraled downward into debt and bankruptcy. They lost their house. He now sells recreational vehicles on a lot just outside Mesa.
“As you get older, you look back over your life and see the mistakes,” he said.
Parrick, who, as an officer, drove to work with a loaded gun on his lap, said, “I believed I was doing the right thing by routinely stopping people on the street, hauling them into the police station to be fingerprinted and photographed. In hindsight, that is not what this country stands for. It wasn’t right.”
Sims, who took out the warrant for Dalton, later was included in a Christopher Commission list of problem officers. He left Los Angeles and joined the sheriff’s department in Gwinnet County, Ga., where he has risen to division commander.
But the past found a way to track him down.
When he ran for sheriff in a nearby county last year, a local newspaper revealed his involvement in the Dalton raid. Not eager to dredge up the past, he withdrew from the race.
“People don’t want to vote for someone like that,” he said. The article, he added, “made me look like one of the officers who beat Rodney King. It made me look like a Rampart officer.”
For the victims, the $4-million settlement appeared to promise prosperity. It delivered heartache and tragedy instead.
Once the money began to flow, longtime resident Liz Brooks said, “it was one big party for a while.”
“They all ran out and bought cars, but then the money ran out and everything went back to the way it was,” Brooks said. “It even got worse.”
Sandra Garbutt, 23, was shot to death in a robbery shortly after receiving a portion of her settlement.
Gloria Flowers spent thousands of dollars on drugs. A wayward husband cost her the rest.
“It was a curse,” she said. “The money was a curse. Now I just want to forget it ever happened and get on with my life.”
For a while, it seemed that the four members of Raymond Carter’s family had turned a corner. They pooled their money and purchased a six-bedroom house in Inglewood. But then came bad investments, and medical bills from his mother’s losing battle with cancer. They lost the house.
Hildebrandt Flowers opened a carwash on Crenshaw Boulevard, and from time to time his customers included some of the officers from the raid. But the carwash failed, and he continued using drugs as he had before the raid. He began having more frequent run-ins with police.
He would also see the need for change. For a while, he worked as a gang counselor, but his addiction and troubles with the law cost him his job.
Last year, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to serve time in a rehabilitation program. For the first time, he said, he has confronted his life. He has renounced the gang life and has attempted to erase his tattoos, which spelled out “Harlem Crips Rollin’ 30s.”
“I’ve wasted so much of my life. Now I want to do something better.”