Tue January 18, 2011

Los Angeles Police Officials Looking For Bad Pennies

The Los Angeles Police Department is still recovering from a corruption scandal that made headlines in the 1990s, when some rogue officers got caught stealing drugs and cash from street gangs.

Later, the LAPD cleaned up its act with a series of reforms. But now, there's a new controversy: The LAPD is now asking all of its gang and narcotics officers to reveal information about their bank accounts, mortgages and credit cards.

The idea is to look for signs of a crooked cop, one who's on the take. That infuriates many gang investigators who are now threatening to leave their assignments.

One retired cop says the city is going too far.

"They have no right to know what I might make going to Vegas gambling. They have no right [knowing] what I make in my personal investments. They have no right to know how much my wife makes. They have no right to know that I inherited money," says Wes McBride, head of the California Gang Investigators Association.

McBride worked for nearly four decades as an L.A. County deputy. He says revealing personal information leaves cops vulnerable to thieves and does nothing to ferret out corruption.

"If they have no reason to suspect I'm a crook -- and there are other avenues open to find that out -- that wouldn't catch anybody unless I'm really stupid and I put that money in my own personal bank account," McBride says. "I think Perez put all his money in a box."

Rafael Perez was the central figure of the 1990s LAPD corruption scandal. He and more than 70 anti-gang unit officers in L.A.'s Rampart Division were found to be planting evidence, framing and even shooting alleged gang members. Perez was convicted of stealing and reselling hundreds of thousands of dollars of seized cocaine.

In the aftermath of the scandal, both the feds and the city's police commission demanded reforms, which include the new requirement that gang and narcotics investigators turn over their financial records.

Northeast Division Capt. David Lindsay is not required to open his bank records, but he is doing it to set an example for his gang unit officers. He says, however, that many veteran gang and narcotics cops would rather be reassigned than have their finances exposed.

"They'll work a regular patrol car," Lindsay says. "They still work the areas where they have knowledge of the gangs, although they are assigned to radio calls. They'll handle calls for service like other officers."

This comes at a time when Los Angeles is seeing the fewest number of homicides in 40 years, and gang-related crime has dropped dramatically. LAPD officials say they don't intend to let those numbers slip, but McBride fears the disclosure policy will hurt the department's effort to crack down on gangs and narcotics, especially if the most experienced investigators leave the beat.

"You lose the old timers, the guys that know what's happening, guys that know they arrested this guy's father when he was a gangmember, that type of thing. Those guys are leaving," McBride says.

The LAPD is already under budget constraints and has had trouble recruiting officers to the gang crime units. McBride says it's a tough enough assignment without having to reveal their personal information.

"We used to lose a lot of guys out of the gang units [because of] stress, because it is a stressful job. You know, you're dealing with the single most dangerous people ... in the nation, [the] most violent," McBride says. "They kill more people than any other criminal element, and these guys got to go out there at night and chase them."

L.A. gang and narcotics officers have until the end of March to reveal their finances or go back to answering regular patrol calls. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.