Oakland struggles with police scandal

Thursday November 30, 2000

The Associated Press 


OAKLAND — He was young and inexperienced – a 23-year-old police officer just three weeks out of training. He went straight to the night shift, where most officers start their careers. 

There, on patrol in west Oakland, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, officer Keith Batt met The Riders. 

Nearly every day from June 13 until July 3, prosecutors say, the rookie watched his fellow officers beat, harass and falsely arrest at least 10 victims.  

His training officer, Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag, warned him not to be a “snitch.”  

His superior officer, Frank Vazquez, told him to forget everything he had learned at the police academy. 

And he tried to. For nearly three weeks, he silently stood by and watched. 

Then, on July 3, prosecutors say, the training officer told another rookie to falsely report that he had seen 19-year-old Rodney Mack discard 17 rocks of cocaine and to arrest him.  

The rookie did as he was told. And Batt had seen enough. 

Batt, who quit the force almost immediately after reporting what he saw, set in motion a police corruption scandal that shows no signs of being contained, despite repeated statements from Police Chief Richard Word that abuse was limited to the four officers who worked the late shift in west Oakland. 

“It’s burying one’s head in the sand to assume these cases are confined to a short period of time involving these four officers,” said lawyer John Burris, who has talked to at least 15 people arrested by The Riders about suing. 

The four officers – Frank Vazquez, 44, Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag, 35, Jude Siapno, 32, and Matthew Hornung, 29 – were charged Nov. 2 with offenses including assault, kidnapping and filing false reports. Three are expected to enter pleas on Dec. 6; Vazquez is a fugitive, believed to be hiding in Mexico. 

Lawyers for the three officers, who are on paid leave, said they have seen no evidence backing the charges. Mabanag’s lawyer, Michael Rains, said the officers are “both sad and anxious to have their stories heard.” Vazquez’s lawyer has not returned repeated calls. 

While the charges are limited to what Batt witnessed, the department is re-examining the officers’ records and looking at whether other members of the force were involved. 

Prosecutor David Hollister said 49 mostly drug-related cases - convictions and pending cases alike – have been dismissed and more could fall apart as his office sorts through all cases involving the four officers dating back 18 months before they were taken off the streets. 

Community advocates said calls and letters are pouring in from people saying they were mistreated by The Riders, and several lawsuits are expected. 

Some fear juries may not be so quick to trust the word of police officers anymore. 

And everyone hears echoes of the Rampart scandal that rocked the Los Angeles Police Department this year. Three Los Angeles officers have been convicted of framing suspects, more than 100 cases have been thrown out and more than 70 civil rights suits have been filed. The city attorney estimated the scandal could cost Los Angeles at least $125 million. 

It is hard to find people in west Oakland who have not had or heard about a run-in with The Riders, particularly Vazquez. Nicknamed “Choker,” the officer is short with close-cropped hair, a pockmarked face and an earring.  

He bears a tattoo with his wife’s name, Pilar, on his right arm. 

The Oakland department had reason to be proud before the scandal broke. Crime in the city of 370,000 had dropped 15.8 percent from 1998 to 1999, more than twice the national average. 

Mayor Jerry Brown, who demanded the resignation of Oakland’s popular police chief shortly after taking office and replaced him with Word last July, had made safer streets a key part of his economic development message, arguing that Oakland is on the rebound and ready for the same infusion of money from high-tech companies that have poured into San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. 

“The vast majority of people would like to see more police in Oakland and no slackening in the vigilance against crime,” Brown said Tuesday. As for the scandal, “you’re talking about a fraction of the police department, and people make mistakes. We’re taking corrective steps.” 

Some critics said officers are under too much pressure to produce arrests. 

“Many of these officers are young people in their 20s and when they hear the mayor of a city making warlike statements, that this drug activity should be stopped at any cost, those directives can be misapplied. That may be what happened here,” said Jim Chanin, a lawyer who has filed the first federal civil rights lawsuit in the scandal. 

Chanin’s client, the young man whose arrest prompted Batt to report his colleagues, alleges police planted crack in his pocket when they broke up a dice game. He spent more than a month in jail before the charges were dismissed. 

“They could’ve arrested him for playing dice,” Chanin said. “There was pressure to clean up the area and what better way to show that than with a large number of drug arrests?”