HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

The Special Investigations Section (SIS)
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The SIS was formed in 1965 as a surveillance unit to apprehend robbers and burglars. The SIS developed a practice of standing by during criminal activities, when individuals were being victimized by armed robbers or others, and then apprehending the suspects as they left the scene.83 The SIS, which typically has about twenty members, killed twenty-eight suspects between 1965 and 1992, an extraordinarily high number.84 In defending the unit's methods, then-commander of the SIS, Capt. Dennis Conte explained, "Public safety is a concern, but we have to look beyond that because if we arrest someone for attempt [sic], the likelihood ofa conviction is not great."85 The SIS reportedly does not inform local police units about its activities, adding to the danger and confusion at the scene of crimes.

Police abuse experts who have reviewed the tactics of the SIS have found the unit's actions alarming. Paul Chevigny, author of Edge of the Knife has described the shootings by SIS as unnecessary and as violations of international human standards, which require that officers only use force or firearms if non-violent means are unavailable.86 In his book, Chevigny warned that members of the SIS unit may have become a "law unto themselves."87 And an author of another book that highlighted the SIS shootings, Above the Law, noted that the unit's tactic of trapping and blocking suspects' cars after robberies makes shootings virtually inevitable. The author, James Fyfe, told Human Rights Watch that in most cases SIS agents know the identities of the suspects prior to the robberies, meaning that they could be apprehended while unarmed.88 If the SIS is able to identify the suspects before these crimes are committed, it would appear that non-violent alternatives to its tactics would be possible and preferable.

In one of the unit's highest-profile cases, several suspects were under surveillance for allegedly robbing McDonald's restaurants in Sunland, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles. On February 12, 1990, a McDonald's was robbed by four individuals while the SIS monitored the events but did not intercede as the restaurant workers were held at gunpoint. Once the suspects left, the SIS blocked their car, claimed to see a gun, and opened fire, shooting twenty-four shotgun rounds, each containing nine pellets, and eleven .45 caliber rounds for a total of 227 projectiles.89 One of the men attempted to run away and was shot nineteen times in the back. SIS agents claimed the man, Hector Burgos, had a gun in his hand, but according to a pathologist, the nature of a gunshot wound in his hand showed hecould not have been holding a gun. In the end, three of the robbers were killed and one seriously injured; the suspects had fired no shots.90 According to a police abuse expert who examined the photographs and evidence from the scene, none of the men were shot in the front, and they appeared to have been in "duck and cover" positions.91

All of the men in the car allegedly possessed weapons at the time of the robbery, but the guns the men possessed were empty pellet guns, and the shooting survivor said that it was their practice to place the guns in their car's trunk after robberies and that they had done so in this case. Some of the crime scene photographs reportedly showed no guns, others had clean guns on top of glass and other debris, leading to speculation that they had been placed there after the shootings.92

In a subsequent civil lawsuit, the families of the dead men were awarded $44,000 to be paid by the SIS officers themselves and by Daryl Gates, the former chief.93 The city, not the individual officers and Chief Gates, ultimately paid the amount after indemnifying the officers, and in November 1996, a federal appeals court in San Francisco - in a judgment relating to the SIS case - upheld the right of the Los Angeles City Council to shield officers from punitive damages awarded in excessive force cases.94 The court ruled that the City Council is entitled to indemnify officers for punitive damages if the council reviews the case and if the employee was acting within the course and scope of duty, in good faith without malice, and in the public's best interest.

The police department found the shooting justified, and the D.A.'s office closed its investigation in May 1995. In February 1995, federal prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue civil rights charges against the SIS officers involved in the Sunland shooting. In August 1995, federal prosecutors ended theirinvestigation of possible perjury by members of the SIS.95 Reacting to the various investigations of the SIS, a police union representative commented, "[I]t's like a witch hunt....[W]e're talking about crippling law enforcement."96

During at least three shootouts involving the SIS and armed robbery suspects between June 1995 and April 1997, four suspects were shot and killed, four were wounded, one bystander was shot and wounded, and two SIS detectives were shot and wounded.97

At the time of this writing, an attorney representing victims and victims' families in civil actions against the SIS and the city, in relation to several of the SIS shootings, appeared to have argued successfully to obtain federal grand jury transcripts for use in his civil cases.98 Disclosure of grand jury transcripts to plaintiffs' attorneys in civil proceedings is highly unusual. He had argued, however, that he needed the transcripts to identify discrepancies in officers' accounts. He had also contended that the SIS's tactics violated shooting victims' civil rights.

83 Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe, Above the Law, (New York: The Free Press, 1993), pp. 146-164, and Paul Chevigny, Edge of the Knife, (New York: The New Press, 1995) pp. 48-9.

84 Above the Law, p. 146. During the same period, one SIS detective was shot and killed in an accidental shooting by a fellow officer. Estimates vary regarding the number of individuals shot by SIS officers during the past fifteen years, with the LAPD claiming that eighteen people have been killed and sixteen wounded during confrontations with the SIS, and an attorney representing the victims and their families claiming a much higher number of fatalities. Patrick McGreevy, "$500,000 more ok'd for police unit's lawyers," The Daily News of Los Angeles, April 26, 1997, and Thao Hua and Matt Lait, "Police fire on robbery suspects, wound 2" The Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1997.

85 As cited in Above the Law, p. 146.

86 Principle 4 of the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states, "[L]aw enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result." UN Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 (1990).

87 Paul Chevigny, Edge of the Knife, (New York: The New Press, 1995), pp. 48-49.

88 Telephone interview, Prof. James Fyfe, May 20, 1998.

89 Above the Law, p. 159.

90 Ibid.

91 Telephone interview, Prof. James Fyfe, May 20, 1998.

92 Above the Law., pp. 146-164. According to one of the book's authors, James Fyfe, he saw the photographs from the crime scene, and the guns were not in the first photos taken, but appeared in subsequent photos. Telephone interview, Prof. James Fyfe, May 20, 1998.

93 Ibid., p. 164.

94 Henry Weinstein, "Council can pay damages for police officers, court rules," Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1996.

95 Ann W. O'Neill, "No perjury indictments due in probe of Sunland shootings," Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1995.

96 Ann W. O'Neill, "U.S. panel probes testimony on 1990 LAPD shootings," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1995.

97 Mack Reed, "2 LAPD detectives, suspect recovering from shootout," Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1995; Beth Shuster, "Shooting reignites furor over LAPD unit," Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1997; Beth Shuster and Andrew Blankstein, "FBI opens probe of police shooting," Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1997; "Suit seeks damages over raid, calls for SIS unit to be scrapped," Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1997; Andrew Blankstein, "Sole survivor of gun battle described as informant," Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1997; Jim Newton, "Anti-LAPD attorney to question mayor about police shootings," Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1998.

98 Greg Krikorian, "Court refuses to block release of transcripts in suit against LAPD," Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1998. The same attorney has deposed the city's mayor to determine his knowledge of SIS's tactics.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch