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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cops Shooting Cops

Santa Monica, California

     Albert Covarrabias, Jr., a high school graduate, joined the Santa Maria Police Department in 2007. The Santa Barbara County town of 100,000, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is home to 70,000 hispanics. In 2011, Covarrabias' wife committed suicide. The 29-year-old  patrolman, in mid-January of this year, married again.

     A couple of weeks following his wedding, officer Covarrabias learned that members of his own department were investigating him for having sexual relations with a minor. (In California, the age of consent is 18, unless the parties are within 3 years of each other in age.) The alleged victim, a 17-year-old girl, was a member of the police department's Explorer program. (A police cadet.)

     On January 27, 2012, after intercepting and recording a 15 minute phone conversation between Covarrabias and the 17-year-old, Santa Maria investigators decided to take their fellow officer into custody. According to police accounts of the intercepted conversation, Covarrabias told the girl to deny their relationship, and to implicate someone else. He said he'd kill himself before he went to jail, and threatened her if she revealed their secret.

     At one o'clock the next morning, as officer Covarrabias was dismantling a DUI check-point in anticipation of going off duty, he was approached by his cousin Chris Nartatez, a Santa Maria sergeant, and officer Matt Kline, his best-friend on the force who had been his best man at the January wedding. When informed he was under arrest in connection with his alleged sexual relationship with the minor, Covarrabias backed away and reached for  his gun.

     The arresting officers charged Covarrabias, and as they wrestled on the ground, the arrestee managed to draw his weapon and fire four shots. Officer Kline pulled his gun and shot Covarrabias in the chest. The wounded officer died a few  hours later while undergoing emergency surgery.

     Santa Maria police chief Danny Macagni placed officers Kline and Nartatez on paid administrative leave as investigators with the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office looked into the case.

     The fatal shooting of officer Covarrabias by one of his own, outraged a large segment of the community. Santa Maria police officers have received death threats, and critics of the shooting have called for the chief of police to step down. On February 15, the Santa Maria Officers Association (a police union), called for a "vote of no confidence" against Chief Macagni who has insisted that the actions of officers Kline and Nartatez were morally, administratively, and legally justified. (These officers were not welcome at Covarrabias' funeral.)

     The results of the no confidence vote have, as of this writing, not been made public. If a chief of police loses the support and confidence of the rank and file, he cannot effectively run the department. Based upon what has been reported in the media, the shooting of officer Covarrabias seems perfectly justified. However, if the chief loses support of his department and the community, he will have to go. At this point, the Covarrabia shooting case seems more about identity politics than the use of deadly force.

Long Beach, California

     The Los Angeles area's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office is housed on the 7th floor of the federal building in Long Beach, a town 20 miles south of Los Angeles. As one of the federal agencies that make up the Department of Homeland Security, ICE came into existence in 2003 when two existing organizations--the Department of Justice's Immigrations and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Treasury Department's Customs Bureau--merged. Agents in the combined agencies had to be cross-trained to do the other bureaus' work. Agents, however, remained loyal to their old bureaus, and this has created internal rivalries and resentments that have been difficult to resolve. Administratively speaking, it has not been a good marriage.

     Late Thursday afternoon, February 16, 2012, 51-year-old Kevin Kozak, the Deputy Special Agent in charge of ICE's Los Angeles office, a former Customs Bureau agent, was meeting with 45-year-old special agent Ezequiel Garcia. The purpose of the meeting involved the former INS agent's job performance. Kozak had earlier denied Garcia's request for an office transfer which had created animosity on his part. (In 2005, Garcia and another ICE agent had sued the Los Angeles Police Department after they had been roughed-up when working undercover. The plaintiffs lost the suit.)

     The office job performance meeting, at 5:30 PM, turned violent when Agent Garcia pulled his service weapon. Agent Kozak grabbed the gun, and as the two men struggled for control of the weapon, Kozak was shot in the upper torso, legs, and hands--six times in all. Agent Perry Woo, who happened to be in the vicinity, shot and killed Ezequiel Garcia. Paramedics rushed Kevin Kozak, severely wounded but alive, to a nearby hospital where, as of this writing, he remains in stable condition.

     T. J. Bonner, a retired U.S. Border Patrol Agent who has worked with ICE, has described the agency's formation as a hostile takeover. Since its creation, the agency has seen several scandals involving agents arrested for drug dealing, obstruction of justice, embezzlement, and other crimes. ICE agents have also been accused of having improper sexual relations with informants.


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