Special Police Unit Is Under Review

Times Staff Writers

The future of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section, the department's most controversial unit, designed to stalk and stop serial criminals, is under review, The Times has learned.

"One thing for sure," Assistant Chief George Gascon said Monday, "it won't look the way it does now."

The review comes after the fatal shooting Sept. 17 of two robbery suspects in the west San Fernando Valley. SIS officers said they fired in self-defense, but investigators have not found a gun used by the suspects.

While tackling some of the city's most dangerous criminals, the SIS unit, formed in 1965, has been involved in more than 50 gun battles that have resulted in the death of at least 37 suspects. It also has been responsible for several million dollars in settlements of claims of misconduct and has served as a lightning rod for critics of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Among the reforms under consideration are rotating officers through the unit rather than making permanent assignments, requiring SIS plainclothes officers to have uniformed backup in any armed confrontation, and reviewing tactics to ensure they conform to the highest standards, sources said.

"It's been considered a sacred cow," said Gascon, emphasizing that the department is exploring many options.

The unit of 20 veteran officers commanded by a lieutenant would not be disbanded, but reorganized, police sources said. Police Chief William J. Bratton has said he sees the need for officers to perform such a mission but wants fewer specialized units.

LAPD detectives turn to the SIS unit when they believe they have identified a criminal but lack evidence to file charges. Unit members then tail the suspect, often for weeks, hoping to catch them in the act.

Any reforms would be balanced against a long history of SIS success in capturing a veritable Who's Who of Los Angeles bad guys, including the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Strangler and the killer of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis.

Top LAPD officials said most department operations have been reviewed since Bratton took the helm a year ago.

"We will continue to look at entities in an attempt to further streamline and make best use of our very limited resources," said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. "These people develop expertise over the years, but that doesn't mean any entity won't be looked at with an eye to efficiency and optimizing effectiveness."

Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann said SIS detectives possess unique skills and experience that the department ultimately could not afford to do without.

"In terms of the need of the organization, we need SIS because there are predators out there that want to kill you and I, take our money, disrupt society," Hillmann said. "Whether it should be constituted the way it is now [is] something the chief is going to look at."

Over the years there have been efforts to change how specialized units operate, including a suggestion to rotate members, Hillmann said. For many reasons that suggestion has not won out, he said.

"Do you want an intern operating on you or an accomplished surgeon?" Hillmann asked. "I'll take the accomplished surgeon."

SIS personnel represent the top 10% of the LAPD. Candidates must prove they can think and react under stressful conditions and work in a close-knit team-like environment, Hillmann said.

Far from a group of young guns, the unit tends toward older detectives who spend much of their time tediously following suspects in carefully coordinated groups of tail cars, sometimes interrupted by a few minutes of lethal danger.

Their specialized skills include a demonstrated ability to maintain mobile, foot or static surveillance and perform high-risk vehicle stops. They also must know how to use handguns, shotguns and assault rifles as well as repel those who use those weapons.

Hillmann, a tactical expert, said the department should consider bringing in a captain to manage the day-to-day workings of the unit and review its tactical operations. That would free the current unit commander to oversee operations in the field.

It is the tactics, rather than the mission, of the SIS that is under review, several officers said.

Much of current debate comes from the deaths of David Thomas, 19, and Byron Smith, 20, who were among four men suspected in a string of armed robberies. They were under SIS surveillance in September when they robbed the Northridge Beauty Club and fled in a car.

The 11-member SIS team followed the men in unmarked cars to a cul-de-sac in North Hills, where they blocked the escape route and confronted them. SIS detectives told investigators that three suspects jumped out of the car and one pointed a handgun at the officers.

"In fear of their lives, detectives fired a total of nine rounds," a department spokesman said.

According to police sources and an attorney for the family of one of the dead men, despite repeated searches, the only gun recovered from the scene was found inside the suspects' car.

Attorney Stephen Yagman, who represents the families of the two dead men and plaintiffs in three other pending cases, said he is waiting for the results of the review before proceeding in court.

"Our ultimate goal in suing the SIS is getting it disbanded," Yagman said. "I don't have a gripe with them following people around. My gripe is that they assassinate people and then claim self-defense."

In the September incident, both men were shot in the chest. SIS Dets. Christopher Brazzill, Anthony Avila and Robert Kraus opened fire with handguns, shotguns and a semiautomatic rifle. It was the fourth officer-involved shooting Kraus has been part of during 23 years with the LAPD. Eight people have died in those shootings, each of which involved multiple police officers, according to department records. All incidents involving the SIS have been ruled justified by the LAPD.

The two suspects who survived, Jerome Barnes, 21, and Steve Hunnicut, 19, have been charged with murder in the deaths of the two other men. Under a state law, liability extends to anyone participating in a crime that results in a homicide.

"A fresh look at any unit is a good thing," said Andre Birotte Jr., the LAPD inspector general.

Police Commission President David S. Cunningham III said he sees the need for SIS operations, but applauded the review saying, "Can we do things better?"

The unit has many allies.

"My view of SIS is that they are a very effective group," said Los Angeles Police Commissioner Rick Caruso. "I would be very reluctant to change an organization within the department that has been successful at fighting crime.

"Unless there are facts that I'm not aware of, they have done an incredible job of identifying, tracking down and apprehending violent criminals in the city. If anything, we should be doing more of it, not less of it."

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