Gangster cops

A tragic - and inevitable - result of U.S. drug policies

By Joseph D. McNamara, retired police chief

When I retired from police work in 1991 I did not retire my interest in law enforcement, or in the communities that police serve, or in the Drug War. These interests continue unabated and I still hope that I will see the end of the Drug War in my lifetime. The Drug War is not only ruining society, it is corrupting police forces across the country and it will continue to do so as long as our current policies are in place.

I have been gathering evidence of this fact in researching my forthcoming book, Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs. In my research I've been horrified to uncover a pattern of thousands of predatory crimes committed by police officers in the past 30 years that are all connected to the Drug War. In studying these crimes, I've discovered two things:

First, the nature of the Drug War encourages, almost demands, corruption.

Second, the corruption bred by the Drug War is happening across the country, from police officer to police chief or sheriff.

We've got 2 million people behind bars in America today and it is because cops are doing a good job of catching people. With politicians urging them to make high numbers of drug arrests, state and local police managed to make 1.4 million drug arrests last year for possession, mostly for low amounts, and mostly in low-income minority neighborhoods. But when we look at the nature of the drug crimes, we have to wonder just how it is that police could make such an impressive number of arrests. The fact is, drug crimes are far different from violent crimes such as robbery, rapes and murder. Drug crimes involve consensual transactions. Unlike violent crimes, there are no victims and witnesses. The fact is, no participants in a satisfactory drug transaction have any motivation to press charges against one another. So how do we arrest 1.4 million people who don't have any victims pressing charges or providing evidence to help make the arrests?

Rarely does it happen that a cop pulls a guy over and says, "I'd like to look in your trunk," and the driver says, "Sure, officer, I've got a kilo of cocaine in there, but I don't want you to think that I don't cooperate with the local police."

Equally unlikely is a scenario where an ounce of cocaine is sitting on the dashboard, or the suspect throws a baggie at the cop's feet for the cop to conveniently find. Situations like these certainly don't happen 1.4 million times a year. So the only way to achieve these numbers is if the cops take shortcuts. And they do. They regularly ignore the 4th Amendment and search people illegally. The fact is that over the years a corruption of the basic integrity in the criminal justice system has occurred. Often, the police officer on the witness stand is not, in fact, telling the truth. And often it is an otherwise good cop who is lying-yet he still believes that he's a good cop. He believes that in drug cases he's morally justified to illegally search someone and perjure his testimony. This belief is so prevalent that the NYPD jokingly refers to a cop's perjury as "testilying." In the LAPD they call it joining the Liars' Club.

This corruption exists not just among a few individuals scattered across the country, but among corrupt gangs of cops. These gangs have surfaced in big cities and small towns as well as rural areas across America. We cannot end cop gangsterism by merely plucking a few bad apples from the barrel. We can only end it by ending the Drug War policies that breed it.

When I speak of gangsterism, I'm talking about serious, predatory crimes committed by sworn officers of the law. Predatory felonies are different from an earlier type of corruption, which I call the Serpico Model and involved police officers accepting bribes from gangsters to look the other way. Now, thanks to the climate created by our drug laws, we have something more ominous-small gangs of cops who are the gangsters. They've committed murders, kidnapping and armed robberies-sometimes for, and sometimes against drug dealers. And I'm not talking about the occasional case, or one department that is well known for having a bad reputation. I'm talking about big and small departments; even uniformed police officers committing armed robberies in uniform. One such case involved a Bronx police officer who was charged in 11 murders which he committed for a drug gang, although he pled guilty to only eight.

How is it that officers sworn to arrest drug dealers end up working for the dealers? Or stealing from them and murdering them? For one thing, the cops know perfectly well that drug dealers can't pop into the local police station and say, "Hey, some cop just robbed me of a kilo of cocaine and $25,000," because the dealer is facing life in prison for that. So the cops essentially have complete immunity from prosecution.

A case in point occurred some ten years ago when a predatory gang of crooked cops formed in the Los Angeles Sheriff's department. Their activities only came to light when the department received a letter from a woman who said she was tired of living like a Mafia wife. Her husband was a narc, and he and his team were robbing drug dealers and bragging about the money. When the department finally decided to investigate they found that the cops had been living beyond their means. Although they made between $30,000 and $35,000, they owned $500,000 homes and vacation homes. The department with help from the feds ran a sting and caught the squad supervisor stealing money. To lighten his sentence the supervisor gathered evidence against his team members and other cops. In addition, a couple of other members of the gang also "ratted," as they say, on their colleagues.

In contrast, in the case of Rafael Perez, a decorated, gung-ho LAPD officer convicted of stealing cocaine from the LAPD evidence room, there was no sting operation to uncover further corruption. Even though Perez was found guilty of stealing cocaine, no one thought to question his testimony in a trial two years earlier involving Perez and Javier Fracico Ovando. Perez had testified that Ovando had tried to kill him and his partner, and that they shot back in self-defense, wounding Ovando in the head. If the department had investigated, they would have found that Perez and his partner had lied about Ovando, and committed other violent crimes.

The truth only came to light when Perez was charged with other crimes and decided to come clean in return for a lighter sentence. To achieve that goal, Perez confessed that he and his partner had handcuffed and shot Ovando in the head. They had then planted a sawed-off rifle on the 18-year-old boy and testified in court that he had tried to kill them. Miraculously, Ovando survived, although he is crippled for life. He was present when Perez perjured himself. Later, the judge castigated Ovando for endangering these vulnerable officers, then sentenced Ovando to 23 years in prison.

Once the truth came out, it was easy to claim that Perez was a "bad apple." But an examination of his life showed the opposite. Growing up in Philadelphia, Perez hated drug dealers. He served in the Marine Corps for four years before becoming a police officer. He was such a gung-ho cop that he was put in a special street crimes unit and then into drug enforcement.

Similarly, one of the sheriff's deputies who had been stealing from dealers had been named California Narcotics Association Officer of the Year. The rotten apple explanation doesn't explain the behavior of these officers.

Perez's victim is of course now out of prison, but the damage to him is done and it can't be undone. As the Ramparts scandal continues to be investigated, more allegations are being made. But still we have to wonder how many other, unknown victims like Ovando are out there, elsewhere in America, waiting to be discovered? As long as the Code of Silence holds, we'll never know.

There are over 600,000 sworn police officers in the United States, in 19,000 police operations, and almost all of them buy into the Code of Silence, which ensures that police officers do not inform on one another. This code existed before the Drug War, but since the Drug War it has been critical in shielding gangster cops from prosecution. The Code of Silence originated because police live in a world that is very different from that of the average citizen, and so police tend to be twice as cynical as the average citizen. They look at each other and say, "We are the only ones who know what this is all about. The citizens don't understand. They see the defendant the next day in the courtroom with his lawyer and he's calm and he presents himself as a reasonable citizen; they didn't see him trying to kill me last night." So police believe that because they are dealing with criminals they are justified in engaging in bad behavior. The people they're dealing with could kill them at any moment. So the rules for dealing with criminals slowly become different from the rules they have for dealing with an innocent, upstanding citizen.

Extra Protection

Police unions also support the Code of Silence by giving police a little more due process than the average citizen receives. In New York City, for instance, the very same officers who may dissuade suspects from calling their lawyer when they bring them in for questioning do not have to make a statement for 48 hours if they are suspected of wrongdoing. This policy exists in many other cities across the country. In addition, police routinely take the 5th Amendment, even when they're absolutely right, and they get what we call reverse Miranda. In fact, the ones who demand Miranda the most are police officers. In California, they also have what we call the police officers' Bill of Rights, in which an officer must be given an administrative Miranda warning and has a right to have an attorney present if any conversation is to take place that might result in the officer being disciplined.

The philosophy of the unions and of the departments is typically this: because police put themselves in harm's way to protect us, they should get promoted for making good arrests and for solving cases - not for being diligent about protecting people's constitutional rights.
Nevertheless, now and then abuses occur that cannot be ignored. Yet even in these cases, it can be difficult to punish an officer - in part because of the protections offered by the unions, and in part because policing is very political, and politicians feel compelled to outdo each other in declaring war on crime and war on drugs. They all want the endorsements of the police unions, and all police serve under politicians, from mayors to city councils. As San Jose police chief, I found out first-hand how the politicians and the police union make it almost impossible to punish police officers.

With such systems in place to protect police, and as long as the Drug War continues, gangster cops will continue to be formed out of even the raw material of cops who joined the force as good and honest men.

The fact is, the amount of money involved in black market drug dealing offers cops an incredible temptation. The LA Sheriff's department officers stole millions of dollars. And when they were caught, they used the same words as the gang of cops who had been living like kings in the Bronx, off the proceeds of stolen drugs and cash: "Why," they asked, "should the enemy get to keep all the money?"

Corruption among our narcotics officers will go on no matter what. So long as cops are pressured to fulfill a drug arrest quota, they'll feel justified in making illegal searches and committing perjury concerning the circumstances of the arrest. They'll commit these felonies as long as they produce the kind of statistics that the brass wants. And many will follow the road of temptation, from theft right on down to murder.

It is true that it's only a small percentage of the total number of police officers that ever commit these crimes. But they do enormous damage-not only to their victims and the community, but to honest cops.

This is tragic. But what is more upsetting is the fact that it is an avoidable tragedy. In asking the police to fight the Drug War, we are asking them to do something that really can't be legally done in the first place. And now we're asking them to try to do it better. In the process, we've created a monster that is eating away at something far more important to the country than drug use, and that is the integrity of and belief in our criminal justice system.

Reprinted by permission from RECONSIDER: Forum on Drug Policy - 205 Onondaga Avenue - Syracuse, NY 13207