Advertisement

3 LAPD officers charged with falsifying records to claim people were gang members, associates

City Hall reflected on LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

Three Los Angeles police officers were charged Friday with falsifying records and obstructing justice by claiming without evidence that people they stopped were gang members or associates, Los Angeles prosecutors announced Friday.

The charges come several months after the LAPD was rocked by allegations that officers falsely portrayed people as gang members or associates on field interview cards.

The 59-count complaint charged officers Braxton Shaw, Michael Coblentz and Nicolas Martinez with conspiracy to obstruct justice and multiple counts of filing a false police report and preparing false documentary evidence.

They are members of the elite Metro LAPD unit, which has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its tactics.

Advertisement

More than 20 officers remain under investigation.

Prosecutors in Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s office allege Shaw falsified 43 field interview cards, Coblentz falsified seven cards and Martinez falsified two cards. They allege the officers wrote on cards that people admitted to being gang members, when footage from the officers’ body cameras showed no such admissions or showed the people had explicitly denied gang affiliation.

The alleged victims were identified only by their first names. Prosecutors also allege the officers made up more than a dozen “fictional” gang members.

Labeling individuals as gang members or associates in the CalGang database, which is accessible to law enforcement throughout the state, can have serious implications. Beyond coloring any future interactions with police, the information can hurt people’s immigration standing and their ability to find employment and housing, reform advocates say.

Advertisement

“This information is being disseminated in various ways throughout the community and impacting people in a lot of different dimensions,” said Melanie Ochoa, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.

Getting removed from the database can be extremely difficult and time consuming, advocates say.

Greg Yacoubian, an attorney for Shaw, said he had not yet seen the full complaint as of late Friday morning, but is confident that his client will be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing once all the facts are out.

“He served the members of his community both professionally and in his personal life in several different capacities,” Yacoubian said. “All of his conduct is based upon directions being provided by department command. He’s been a good officer and he’s served honorably with LAPD for many, many years.”

Advertisement

Coblentz and Martinez could not be immediately reached Friday, nor could attorneys representing them.

Shaw, 37, faces more than 31 years behind bars; Coblentz, 42, faces more than seven years; and Martinez, 36, faces more than four years, prosecutors said. All are to be arraigned in October.

None of the officers remains on the street. One has been recommended for removal, though the department will not say which. Two have been suspended.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore said in a statement Friday that the officers’ alleged actions “tarnish the badge we all wear.”

Advertisement

“Public trust is the bedrock of community policing and these allegations shake that foundation,” he said.

Of the 21 additional officers who remain under investigation, five remain in the field. The others have been ordered home or placed on administrative duties.

The LAPD said it launched the investigation last year after a Van Nuys mother received a letter in early 2019 informing her that her son had been identified as a gang member. She believed her son was misidentified and reported it to a supervisor at a nearby police station. The supervisorreviewed body-worn camera footage and found inaccuracies by the officer. The department removed the woman’s son from the gang database.

The field interview cards have been used for decades to gather intelligence and create a database that officers can access to help with investigations. Information from the cards is also used to add names to the statewide CalGang database. Field interviews of gang members were used by the department as one measure of productivity, giving officers an incentive to make stops.

Advertisement

A Times analysis found the Metro Division used so-called field interview cards more than other parts of the department. The division made up about 4% of the force but accounted for more than 20% of the department’s field interview cards issued during a recent 18-month period, a Times analysis shows.

Last month, amid widespread protests over police abuses, Moore and Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the LAPD would stop submitting new entries into the CalGang database. Moore this week told the Police Commission that a months-long review found glaring inconsistencies and inaccuracies in how the LAPD used the database, and recommended it permanently halt its participation.

The decisions marked a concession to long-standing demands from activists who say the database and others like it are racist, built on biases and disproportionately and unfairly impact Black and brown Angelenos.

Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles, said Friday that the charges against the officers are welcome, but they were a long time coming.

Advertisement

For years, the LAPD “refused to hear the cries of community members who have been saying that they were falsely being entered into gang databases,” Abdullah said. Only after activists spoke out and The Times wrote extensively on the issue did they change their tune, she said.

It also should not be the last case filed against officers in the matter, she said. “It’s more than three ‘bad apples,’” she said.

Abdullah and others, including civil rights activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, said the latest charges also will not quiet criticisms of Lacey and her long record of not charging LAPD officers in shootings and other deadly encounters as she seeks reelection in November.

A Times investigation published last January showed that Metro officers stopped African American drivers at a rate more than five times their share of the city’s population. To combat a surge in violent crime, the LAPD doubled the size of the Metro Division in 2015, creating special units to swarm crime hot spots.

Advertisement

In response to The Times investigation, the LAPD announced last fall it would drastically cut back on stops of drivers encountered randomly. At the time, Moore said Metro’s vehicle stops had not proved effective, netting about one arrest for every 100 cars stopped, while coming at a tremendous cost to innocent drivers who felt they were being racially profiled. Officials said Metro crime suppression officers, who number about 200, would instead track down suspects wanted in violent offenses and use strategies other than vehicle stops to address flareups in crimes such as burglaries and shootings.

The LAPD also implemented new training on field cards for all Metro personnel, and increased audits of such stops.

On Friday, the board of directors for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents officers, issued a statement saying that its “expectation is that any officer filling out a police report or field interview card does so with care and accuracy.”

“While we are not privy to all the facts that make up the District Attorney’s case, the LAPD’s national model on police accountability and rigorous internal investigative processes is on full display with regards to this incident,” the LAPPL board wrote. “It is our expectation that the Department will continue to investigate this matter fully in a fair and objective manner to determine the facts, ensure that officers are accorded their due process rights and any proven mischaracterizations are corrected.”

Advertisement

Garcetti, in his own statement Friday, said the officers’ alleged behavior “is reprehensible, and it undermines the courageous work that our officers do to keep Angelenos safe every day.”

Garcetti said any officers “found to have violated Angelenos’ trust should face serious consequences.”


Advertisement