The FBI has joined a widening investigation of a Los Angeles Police Department gang unit whose members are accused of routinely failing to document their actions during traffic stops, an alleged pattern of deception that Mayor Karen Bass called “very disturbing.”
A week after LAPD internal affairs detectives searched the officers’ lockers — a development first reported by The Times — Chief Michel Moore announced that federal prosecutors and the FBI’s civil rights division are launching their own probe.
In a news release Thursday evening, Moore said the officers’ alleged misconduct first came to the department’s attention after a traffic stop earlier this year in which a man reported he’d been pulled over and had his vehicle searched without consent or probable cause.
The two officers involved in the stop were later identified as members of the Mission Division Gang Enforcement Detail, or GED. The department opened an internal affairs case, and investigators found the two officers “had not properly documented the detention, or their actions.” A review of the officers’ other stops found instances where the officers improperly switched off their body-worn cameras or otherwise failed to document the encounter. As the investigation continued, it became apparent that other Mission GED officers were engaging in similar misconduct, the news release said.
“The Department’s expectations are that all traffic stops or detentions can be fully documented, and body-worn video devices will be used as required,” Moore said in a statement. “Consequences for any member who would purposely avoid our requirements will be certain and severe. Such misconduct undermines the public’s trust and tarnishes the badge of the vast majority of officers who conduct themselves with integrity and reverence for the law.”
Bass echoed the chief’s words in her own statement later Thursday, saying such cases “can erode confidence and trust in our police department.”
“Under my administration, transparency and accountability is required,” Bass said. “I am encouraged by the leadership of LAPD taking an aggressive posture towards this investigation to ensure Angelenos are being served with fairness and integrity.”
While the mayor’s comments and FBI involvement underscore the seriousness of the investigation, the contours of the allegations against the gang unit are still coming into focus.
According to multiple sources who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation, internal affairs investigators served search warrants on several officers’ lockers at the Mission police station on Aug. 18. It was not immediately clear what they were looking for or what, if anything, they took. The warrants remain under seal.
One source familiar with the case said investigators have reviewed body cam video from the Mission gang unit looking for any evidence of other misconduct.
As rumors about the locker searches circulated around the department, LAPD officials largely remained mum. The LAPD did not respond to emailed questions from The Times about unverified reports that the entire Mission Division Gang Enforcement Detail unit had been disbanded — with some members reassigned to other units — and that a gang supervisor has been relieved of duty. Instead, the department posted its announcement about the FBI’s investigation on social media late Thursday afternoon.
A department spokesperson, Capt. Kelly Muniz, previously confirmed the internal affairs investigation, but said she couldn’t provide further details because “this is an active investigation as well as a personnel matter.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has been informed of the officers’ alleged misconduct, as have federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to Thursday’s announcement.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles declined to comment and the FBI did not immediately respond to an inquiry.
A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said the LAPD had not presented any criminal cases related to the internal affairs investigation.
According to LAPD policy, an officer who prematurely deactivates their camera or fails to turn it on in the first place would be in violation of department policy, which requires the devices be on during most public encounters.
But violations of the body cam policy typically result in only light discipline. More serious punishment is rare. According to the latest department disciplinary roundup, an officer from an unspecified division received a 10-day suspension for covering the lens of their body camera and for failing “to take appropriate action during a call for service.”
According to an LAPD online dashboard, the Mission gang unit is among the most active in the city’s 21 police divisions, but nearly 10% of the unit’s traffic stops were considered pretextual, meaning officers used minor traffic violations as a reason to pull over vehicles and search them for evidence of more serious crimes. The data show the Mission‘s has the highest rate of such stops among all of the department’s gang units.
In March 2022, the department tightened its rules on pretextual stops, after years of pressure from police reformists and politicians who argued they disproportionately affect people of color.
Under the new policy, officers must record justification on their body camera for pulling someone over before initiating a pretextual stop. A Times analysis of department records found that in the months since the new policy went into effect, officers were stopping far fewer people for the minor violations, such as expired registration or an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror. They were also conducting fewer searches during those stops. Such encounters accounted for 12% of all traffic and pedestrian stops from April 2022 to August 2022, compared with 21% of all stops in the same five-month period the year before, according to the analysis of LAPD data.
The LAPD’s specialized units have seen a series of scandals over the years. In 2020, the reputation of the vaunted Metropolitan Division was tarnished after some officers were accused of deliberately misidentifying people as gang members in department records of field interviews. The fallout led to several being criminally charged, although most of those cases were later dismissed.
Prosecutors also dismissed felony cases that had relied on testimony from the accused LAPD officers, while then-California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra barred police across the state from using any of the thousands of records the officers had entered in the CalGang database of suspected gang members.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.