Training Day was just a movie. Four real-life rogue cops–and one ambiguous whistle-blower–are now at the center of the most dramatic police-department investigation in Oakland history. The fallout: a $10 million class-action lawsuit, more than 80 dismissed cases, and one seriously divided city. And the jury still hasn’t delivered a verdict.
(Details, May 2003. Photos: Peter Rad)
ON THE MORNING OF JUNE 27, 2000, Keith Batt sat white-knuckled in the back seat of an unmarked Dodge minivan, getting ready to jump. Tonight would be the 23-year-old rookie cop’s fifth shift on the force, and he was about to hit a corner.
Hitting corners. Jump-and-fucks. That’s what the cops call it in Oakland, California. Ride up on a bunch of crack-dealing lowlifes, burst through the van doors, and before they can swallow their stash, shove ’em against a wall and pry open their mouths.
You’re bound to find a rock or two. A gun stuffed into Mavi jeans. A parole breaker.
Batt, a slight, doe-eyed, and untested teacher’s son from grape-drunk Sonoma County, had already been scorned as “timid” by his fellow cops. On his first shift he was warned, “You’d better not be some kind of pussy.”
As the van glided down 32nd Street, a poverty-packed West Oakland labyrinth of shabby Victorians and graffitied liquor stores, Batt’s partners–Jude Siapno, the driver, and Frank Vasquez, riding shotgun–spotted a man lurking in the shadows near an infamous crack house.
Like most people in the Dirty Thirties, Delphine Allen, 21, a previously convicted dealer, knew about the Riders, an alleged gang of ruthless cops who worked the overnight “dog shift” in the city’s most crime-ridden precinct. Street thugs complained about the Riders’ habit of doling out black eyes and busted ribs; they told each other (and disbelieving defense lawyers) how the cops planted crack when they couldn’t find any. Allen, seeing the van, didn’t need that kind of trouble tonight. He turned in to a friend’s front yard and started walking.
Vazquez was the most notorious Rider, the reputed ringleader, a five-foot-six fireplug with a rabid temper who taught skittish rookies that staying alive meant striking first and striking hard. The street hustlers called him Choker, because he allegedly like to wrap his fingers around their necks. Siapno, his sidekick and an international amateur boxing champ, had reputedly coined his own nickname, St. Jude the Foot Doctor; it was said he had a flair for beating people’s feet.
The van lurched to a stop behind Allen and the three cops barreled out, Glocks drawn. Hit the corner. Jump and fuck. “Get down, get down,” screamed Vazquez, who landed on Allen first, cursing and slapping his head. As Batt cuffed Allen, he claims Vazquez and the detained man began trading violent threats. Batt says Vazquez wanted to release Allen so they could fight it out. Then a woman walked past, and the officers instead stuffed their collar into the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, according to Batt’s account, a still-fuming Vazquez marched back to the yard, pointed to the ground, and said, “Search right here.” As Vazquez walked away, Batt looked down and found a piece of crack tied in a baggie.
As soon as Allen heard about the crack discovery, Batt claims, he started kicking the rear window of the patrol car and shouting “It isn’t mine!” By then two more cops had arrived. Now, according to Batt, all five officers descended on the screaming Allen, squirting him in the face with pepper spray, kicking and punching him as he flailed. Batt claims that Siapno began beating Allen’s shoeless feet with a metal baton.
The screams brought residents to their windows. Allen was howling, “Mama,” and his mother, who lived a few doors down, leaned out a window and yelled, “Why are you beating him?” Vazquez and Siapno took off in the patrol car with the prisoner while Batt and two more Riders, Chuck Mabanag, his bullying field-training officer, and Matt Hornung, followed in the Dodge van. The plan was to reconvene at a nearby Arco station. But on their way, Batt and his crew stopped a driver for speeding and lost touch with the squad car.
Roughly fifteen minutes later, the two teams found each other. Allen, no longer kicking, sat slumped in the back seat, weeping. His head was swollen, and he was bleeding from one eye. His face and clothes were filthy. As Batt recounts, he seemed scared.
After Batt and Mabanag delivered Allen to a hospital (his face were so bruised he needed a wheelchair), they rejoined the other cops for breakfast at a Broadway greasy spoon. Vazquez was in a genial mood, Batt claims. He allegedly told the rookie that what had transpired after the two teams lost each other “would have shocked your conscience.” Waiting for their food, he drew a caricature of Allen on his place mat–a circle with a bump near one eye and an upside-down smile–and jokingly told his colleague Siapno to “peel that guy’s cornea off your elbow.”
After the incident with Allen, Batt’s conscience held four more nights with the Riders, and then he spilled his guts to Internal Affairs. What subsequently tumbled forth ignited the most dramatic police-corruption scandal in Oakland history. Batt related a litany of alleged misconduct: Suspects had been beaten, crack seemed to appear from nowhere, phony reports were filed to cover dubious arrests, and there were constant reminders about loyalty, with Vazquez warning him that “snitches lie in ditches.”
Though not nearly as vast as Los Angeles’s infamous Rampart scandal of the 1990s, which involved 70 cops and $42 million in legal settlements, the case of the Oakland Riders ignited a $10.9 million federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of 119 citizens. The Alameda County D.A. would review 350 criminal cases the Riders had filed between 1996 and 2000–and ultimately dismiss 82 of them. The four Riders–Siapno, 34, Hornung, 32, Mabanag, 38, and Vazquez, 46–have been fired. But if the scandal, which has polarized the police force and enraged residents, seems like a real-life version of Training Day, it lacks two ingredients critical to the big screen: greed and a righteous hero. In fact, the Riders pocketed nothing tangible–no money, no drugs–from their alleged rampage. And Batt, the overmatched whistle-blower who quit after nine shifts, may have feared the citizens he was sworn to protect as much as he feared the Riders.
Today, nearly three years later, Siapno, Hornung, and Mabanag are on trial in Alameda County Superior Court for a combined 26 felony counts, including kidnapping, assault, conspiracy, and filing false police reports. All three have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they face five to eighteen years in prison. Vazquez is believed to have fled the country and is the subject of an FBI manhunt in Mexico.
This month, a jury in the third-floor courtroom is expected to decide the fate of the Riders, but many are asking whether more rogue cops are still employed by the Oakland Police Department. After all, the Riders trained dozens of rookies over the years. While these four have been singled out as bad apples, critics wonder if the whole tree is rotten and the Riders are far more than four men. Civil-rights lawyer John Burris, who filed the federal class-action suit naming some twenty officers, claims the Riders ran wild in a culture that displayed “deliberate indifference” to their alleged abuses. “The city wanted arrests,” he says. “There was a complete lack of accountability.”
Meanwhile, the defense has portrayed Batt as a babe in the woods, a light-weigh who mistook department-sanctioned aggressive police work for criminal activity and who lied to cover up his own failing as a cop. Though many cops worked the same overnight shift, no one complained until Batt showed up.
“These guys were out there dancing on the head of a pin of probable cause every day,” says Ed Fishman, one of three attorneys representing the Riders. “Batt is a rookie who had no idea what kind of justifiable force was needed out there.”
Keith Batt was an odd candidate for an urban police officer. A strict vegetarian like his parents (“for animal rights,” according to his brother), he’d considered becoming an aeronautical engineer but failed several required course in college. When he decided to become a cop, he didn’t land in a place like his hometown of Sebastopol, California, a predominantly white hamlet of eucalyptus-lined culs-de-sac and blown-glass and tie-dye storefronts. Instead Batt wound up in Oakland, as he later told Mabanag, “because it’s the first place that hired me.”
Oakland must have seemed like a Hobbesian jungle to Batt. By the time he had finished his 27-week academy training and entered the force, in June 2000, the city’s murder rate was creeping toward a seven-year high (peaking last year at 113 homicides). Residents reported stepping around dead bodies outlined in chalk just to get to their corner grocer. At night the streets were open-air drug markets punctuated by the gunfire of warring crack dealers.
When Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, the former governor and onetime presidential hopeful, took office in January 1999, one of his top goals was crime reduction. “Our problem in Oakland is serious,” Brown told me. “The drug dealers make life miserable. They shoot people, they miss, they shoot innocent people. There’s a lot of oppression coming from criminals, and they’re not bound by the Fourth or the Fifth Amendment.”
In an effort to reform the department, Brown forced out the incumbent police chief and appointed Richard Word, 41, a former narc who’d risen through the ranks. Brown had his eye on Rudy Giuliani’s community-policing program in New York City, which had led to a dramatic drop in crime. At a 1999 Crime Strategy Retreat, Brown brought in former New York top cop Bill Bratton, architect of that plan and now the chief of police in Los Angeles. Bratton emphasized the need for proactive policing in Oakland but also cautioned that zero tolerance as a crime-reducing strategy “lead to intolerance and oppressiveness.”
Remarkably, however, when Oakland implemented the get-tough policy, it dismissed Bratton’s advice and opted for a “zero tolerance for street-level drug dealing”; by the following spring, both Brown and Word were hammering home this doctrine. Word specifically told his officers to “create a hostile environment” for criminals.
The results were nearly immediate. By the end of 2000, crime had dropped 31 percent, from 36,000 incidents in 1998 to 25,000. “It felt good,” says Hornung of the new policy. “Like I was doing the most right thing in my entire life.”
At the same time, however, complaints of police misconduct nearly doubled.
When I tried to track down Keith Batt last winter at his parents’ home in Sebastopol, his older brother Peter told me to leave a card. Keith would call me, he said in a wary tone. Peter had recently had his own brushy with infamy. On May 18, 2001, he was in a motorcycle accident in San Francisco. While the police were investigating, the allegedly told one cop–in a misguided attempt at small talk–that his brother was the Oakland whistle-blower. The cop testified in March that the older Batt said his brother “couldn’t believe how tough the neighborhood was and how hard it was to be a cop there, especially a white cop,” that he was “afraid to be around” black people.
Peter Batt, who later denied those statements on the stand, was understandably unwilling to talk to me. A few minutes after I left, Keith Batt called me. Curt and defensive, he declined to be interviewed. “You can talk all you want,” he said; he had no intention of responding. Batt is now a cop in Pleasanton, a small town not unlike
Sebastopol; it’s a job he likes, his brother told the San Francisco officer, because “nothing happens.”
West Oakland is a community of 24,000 people, 35 percent of whom live in poverty, jammed between two freeways and the harbor, with a view of oceangoing cargo ships, skeletal cranes, and the gleaming office towers of San Francisco in the distance. The area was once a haven for World War II shipbuilders but later sank into a cesspool of crime from which it hasn’t emerged. Today its cramped streets are a mix of chop shops, Wendy’s drive-thrus, and Victorian row houses, many of them painted in cheery California primary colors and pastels, with dusty orange trees on the few feet of crabby yard not covered by rusted Bonnevilles and Corollas. It is a jumble of rough neighborhoods with grim nicknames. Ghost Town. Dirty Thirties. Lower Bottom. The drugs of choice are typical: Crack. Heroin. Crank. On any given night, cops are walking into a war zone, Beirut by the Bay, as they call it.
On June 18, 2000, when Keith Batt strapped on a Glock and showed up for his first night of field training as an Oakland police officer (a job that paid $4,302 a month), he was assigned to Chuck Mabanag. A six-foot former Marine reservist, Mabanag had received a merit award for his work as an undercover narcotics cop–and had shot and killed a man in 1993 for pulling a gun on several fellow officers. Batt says he had heard from cops in the academy that Mabanag was a badass who mercilessly teased recruits. Mabanag lived up to his reputation from their first phone conversation, when he ripped into Batt for not calling sooner: “Usually, when you start with somebody, the glass is half full,” he taunted–as Batt later told Internal Affairs in a rambling four-hour testimony–“but starting with you, it’s already half empty.”
It could indeed have been a scene straight out of Training Day, except for the fact that Mabanag is Filipino and the pie-faced Batt, with his delicate chin, lacks movie-star bone structure. Nevertheless, Batt, as he would later recount it, soon learned that he’d got himself assigned to a crew that seems to spit out bad dialogue like a third-rate screenwriter. Vazquez, “Fuck all that shit you learned in the academy.” Siapno: “You want to see the dark side?” All of them were facing numerous citizens’ complaints, many for excessive force. According to Batt, Vazquez had even paid an informant with crack. A fellow officer once lifted Batt in a bear hug–while they were both on duty–and made like he was humping him while other cops laughed.
Batt got a taste of the crew’s aggressive M.O. on his first shift with Mabanag. That evening the pair was dispatched to take a stolen-car report. At the scene, Mabanag threatened to shoot the victim’s Rottweiler, which was chained, snarling, in the yard. When the victim’s apparently drunk cousin challenged Mabanag, he snapped and attempted to arrest him. According to Batt, when the drunk struggled to get free, Mabanag put him in a carotid choke, designed to cut the blood supply to an aggressor’s brain. Instead, Mabanag squeezed his larynx–and kept choking. “The guy … couldn’t breathe,” Batt later told Internal Affairs.
The man was later charged with assaulting a police officer. Writing up his arrest report downtown, Mabanag allegedly showed Batt how to manipulate the prisoner’s statement “to cover” his injuries. “He wrote I’m sorry for giving the police a hard time,” Batt testified. “I apologize to the officers…they were not the ones who beat me.” Over the next two and a half weeks, according to Batt’s Internal Affairs statements and court testimony, Mabanag would falsify numerous documents and instruct Batt to do the same – which he did. (Batt has admitted in court that he broke the law, but he has not been charged with any crimes.)
When I first sit down with Chuck Mabanag in a waterfront condo his lawyers have rented for the duration of the trial, a two-bedroom amid a strip of upscale lofts and yuppie coffee shops along the city’s revitalized waterfront, he is disconcertingly upbeat.
The trial, which has just entered the defense stage, was supposed to be over by November, but it has lasted for a remarkable eight months, as additional witnesses are called. During his time, Mabanag’s life has been in limbo. He spends his days at home, caring for two nieces he is in the process of adopting from an alcoholic sister, while his wife goes to work as a human-resources manager. The couple are expecting their first child this fall. By then Mabanag could be embarking on a fifteen-year prison stretch.
Though I detect a strain of unfiltered testosterone beneath his caffeinated grin–he justifies the jump-and-fuck technique to me as a “habeas grabbus” (“These guys on the street don’t play”)–it’s hard to dismiss him as a cardboard-cutout bad guy. In fact, Mabanag and his co-defendant Hornung face the case’s lesser charges–falsifying reports, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Only Siapno and the fugitive Vazquez have been charged with the violent offenses of assault and kidnapping. Nevertheless, Mabanag’s lawyers won’t let him discuss specifics (though he denies ever falsifying reports, using excessive force, or planting drugs). Still, when he revisits his job as a training officer, he takes on an evangelical tone.
“Drug dealers win every day,” he tells me. “I used to teach guys, ‘Hey, this little beat of yours, it doesn’t have to be all of Oakland. It could be, like I used to call it, Mabanag-land. You’re not God, but you can make a little difference for the folks who live here.’”
But behind that earnest sentiment lie the seeds of potential abuse of power. When I point this out, Mabanag thinks for a moment and then tries to rationalize, vigorously reiterating the dangers of police work. To his mind, staying alive is the primary goal, and that, he says, is what he was trying to teach Batt. “As long as you’re within the limits of the law,” Mabanag says. “But it’s stretched at times.”
Batt certainly didn’t like that tightrope.
“I hate this shit,” he said bitterly. “I’m not having any fun at all. I really hate this.” It was the evening of July 3, 2000, six days after the arrest and savage beating of Delphine Allen, and Batt was griping to a fellow rookie at the shooting range as they prepared to clean shotguns. Just moments earlier, in Mabanag’s patrol car, Batt had decided to reveal what he really thought about the training process. He complained to Mabanag that he was “talking down” to him, and he criticized the Riders’ use of force. Mabanag was livid. He told Batt they would discuss it all after target practice.
When Batt and the other rookie had cleaned eight guns, Mabanag returned. Behind him were Vazquez and Siapno, looking furious. They shut the door. As Batt reported to IA, the next couple of hours went as follows:
“I’m hearing that you feel bad for these suspects,” Vazquez hissed.
Batt was “in dread.” He knew these guys were dangerous. “Look, I’m not like you,” he said. “I don’t want to be like you guys.”
“You’ll never be like me” Vazquez yelled. “I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to do your fucking job.”
Back in the car, Mabanag ripped into Batt, but the rookie stood his ground. He demanded to know what happened to Delphine Allen.
Steering the patrol car downtown, Mabanag told Batt he’d have to ask Vazquez. As they pulled into a parking lot off Broadway, a meeting area called the Light Cave where copes gathered for pre-shift take-out dinners, they spotted Vazquez in his patrol car.
“Frank,” Mabanag yelled, “get out of the car.”
“You’re going to be a man,” Mabanag told Batt as they walked up to Vazquez. “You’re going to tell Frank what you think to his face. Go ahead, be a man. Go ahead.”
At this point in the Hollywood version, the scared but determined young officer makes his big speech, and the corrupt cops either buckle under his moral authority or kick the shit out of him. But the Riders’ story refuses to follow the contours of the movies. Instead, Batt complained again and was ignored. So he got back in the car–and began to cry. “I’ve got feelings,” he blubbered, “I can’t turn them off.”
“You’re going to get someone else hurt,” Mabanag said.
Then Batt asked Mabanag if they could just go out and “take calls” together.
The older cop was incredulous. “Did you really think about what you were doing when you applied for this job?”
“No,” Batt said. And then he told Mabanag how Oakland was simply the first place to accept him.
On July 4, Batt quit “for personal reasons.” The next day, he changed his mind–and his story. As a result, the defense, which opened its case in March asserts that the rookie cop is only trying to save his professional hide. Batt knew he’d never get another police job if he simply threw in the towel and walked out. But if he turned in a bunch of dirty cops, he’d be a hero.
In March, John Burris, the lawyer who led the 27-month-long class-action lawsuit against the city, finally helped bring it to a close. He wasn’t just looking for money for his 119 clients, he says. He was looking for institutional change. In a court-approved settlement, the department agreed to set up a tracking system to alert its brass when abusive patterns emerge and to send supervisors on every arrest that involves a felony, drugs, or the use of force. It also calls for an independent monitor to review the reforms for the next five years. Rank-and-file cops, who started a fund for Mabanag and Hornung’s defense and who fought the proposed changes, fear that the new rules will hamstring them in the field, make them tentative in a world where hesitation can cost you your life. “You told us to make life absolutely miserable for these drug dealers,” Mabanag says. “And that’s what we did. We rode with the other guys who were doing the same thing. And these projects still go on today.” But for the Riders’ alleged victims, Burris says, it’s well-earned vindication.
“This is a defining moment,” the lawyer says. “Whether you can bring real reform to a police agency that has a long history of doing things a certain way, I don’t know. That’s what we’re hoping.”
Inside the Alameda County Superior Court, not far from where the Riders conducted business, the three cops watch their accusers come and go. From his new perch in Pleasanton, Batt is suing the Oakland Police Department for “wrongful constructive termination,” claiming he couldn’t continue to work in “an atmosphere where he would he treated as an outcast.” He’s also suing for infliction of emotional distress.
Meanwhile, the Riders have seen nearly a dozen victims–many of them ex-cons who will receive tens of thousands of dollars in settlements from the city–sit in the witness box and point fingers at them. Siapno is largely silent and sullen; Mabanag and Hornung try awkwardly to break up the monotony by joking with a bailiff during recess, helping fill in an ever-fattening book of crosswords. Vasquez was still at large at press time.
In the streets of Oakland, opinion remains divided. When the scandal broke in the summer of 2000, Chief Word received two angry phone calls from residents–supporting the Riders. They believed the officers were “doing a good job,” striking fear into dealers. I heard similar stories as I drove through the Dirty Thirties. Many residents appreciated the Riders, including one 48-year-old shopkeeper on Market Street, who asked me to not use his name. The merchant told me that the Riders had chased the drug dealers and brawlers from his stoop and scared away the punks who had robbed him more times than he could remember.
“You think these are angels out here?” he said. “No one is an angel here.”