Judge launches case against three LAPD officers charged in gang tagging scandal

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Criminal charges were dismissed on Tuesday against three Los Angeles police officers accused of falsely documenting people as gang members.

After more than two weeks of testimony at a preliminary hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor ruled that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to pursue the case against officers Rene Braga, Julio Garcia and Raul Uribe, according to the officers’ lawyer. and a transcript of the pastor’s remarks.

In making his decision, Pastor noted that the officers were charged with misrepresenting evidence in a single case, ‘not a pattern’ of offenses, as are three other LAPD officers who were charged in another case. . Pastor said he did not believe officers had “specific intent to misrepresent” or “a fraudulent or misleading purpose” when they noted in police records that people encountered during a traffic control had gang affiliations.

The charges were part of a larger scandal in which the six LAPD officers were accused of falsifying field interview cards that officers use to record and track information about suspects and others they encounter while on patrol. The allegations troubled the LAPD and illustrated how, despite decades of reform efforts, distrust of the department in black and Latino communities remains high.

Braga, Garcia and Uribe were each charged in October 2020 with writing on a plot card that the person they arrested “admitted to being a gang member, even though video from a camera worn on the body showed that the defendants never questioned the individuals about their gang membership, or the individuals denied gang membership if asked,” prosecutors alleged at the time.

The charges came several months after the three other LAPD officers were accused of similarly fabricating such information on multiple maps – with one officer accused of having done so dozens of times.

Pastor questioned a key claim by prosecutors that officers who reported people ‘self-confessed’ to being gang members were guilty of tampering with evidence if video recordings of the encounters did not capture people admitting it clearly.

Pastor instead sided with the officers’ defense attorney, who argued during the hearing that the LAPD at the time didn’t have a clear definition of what that means to someone. of having “self-confessed” to his membership in a gang.

Caleb Mason, the officers’ attorney, said several LAPD officials testified during the proceedings that the department’s definition of “self-admission” refers not just to someone making a verbal admission of affiliation. to a gang, but also to instances where an individual’s demeanor, clothing, or tattoos clearly indicated gang affiliation.

Echoing Mason, the pastor said the officers “have been encouraged by the training of officers and colleagues and supervisors to use their experience and knowledge from the training, as well as their expertise and access to social media and the research, to go beyond the limited nature of express verbal statements”. in assessing gang affiliations.

“And as far as this court is concerned, that’s what the three officers did in this particular case,” he said.

Instead of going “rogue,” the officers were “acting as things stand” in the LAPD, Pastor said, “and the failure, if any, lies not with them” but “more high in the command structure, perhaps at the highest levels.

Mason said his clients were “completely vindicated” by the judge’s decision. Alex Bastian, special adviser to Dist. Atti. George Gascón, said the prosecutor’s office is “reviewing the decision and evaluating our options.”

The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The decision was a blow to prosecutors in the gang tagging scandal, which embarrassed one of the department’s most elite enforcement teams; led to internal allegations of officer quotas to identify gang members; prompted the LAPD and state officials to end the LAPD’s involvement with CalGang, a statewide gang database that for years had been filled with information on gangs collected on LAPD field interview cards; and led prosecutors to dismiss felony cases that relied on the testimony of accused officers.

Critics of the LAPD who have long claimed the department is disrupting people’s lives by falsely labeling them as gang members have hailed the charges and the various actions taken in their wake as a step toward solving a problem that has persisted ever since. decades.

It was unclear on Tuesday whether Pastor’s ruling will have any effect on any of those rulings, or the remaining criminal case against the three other indicted officers, who have been charged with falsifying gang information. on a larger scale.

Officers Braxton Shaw, Michael Coblentz and Nicolas Martinez were charged in a 59-count complaint in July 2020 – three months before Braga, Garcia and Uribe – with conspiracy to obstruct justice and several counts of charge of filing a false police report and preparing false documentary evidence. They were also accused of claiming without evidence on field interview cards that the people they arrested were gang members or associates.

Prosecutors alleged that Shaw forged 43 field interview cards, Coblentz forged seven cards, and Martinez forged two cards. They alleged that videos recorded by cameras carried by the officers showed people who the officers said admitted to being gang members did not make such admissions. In some cases, people had explicitly denied having gang affiliations.

Charges against Shaw, Coblentz and Martinez are pending and a preliminary hearing in their case is set for March 24.

One of their attorneys, Greg Yacoubian, said on Tuesday he thought the pastor “got it right” when he suggested blame in the case might lie higher up in the LAPD with training officials. officers.

The use of field interview cards to identify gang members by LAPD Metropolitan Division officers was first investigated in 2019, after a Van Nuys mother received a letter informing her that her son had been identified as a gang member – a claim she disputed. After a supervisor reviewed body camera video of the encounter with her son and found inaccuracies in the officer’s report, the department launched an investigation.

Mason said he hoped the three officers, who had been suspended pending trial, would soon be allowed to return to duty.

“They got caught up in a lawsuit that shouldn’t have been brought and they were fully vindicated by the court’s decision today,” he said. “They want nothing more than to start serving the people of Los Angeles again.”

Internal records from the LA County District Attorney’s Office show that prosecutors believe at least 10 officers in total may have fabricated gang information on terrain maps, although charges were never brought against them. six.

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