ELITE LAPD UNIT KNOWN FOR ARRESTS, CONTROVERSY.
The LAPD created an elite squad called the Special Investigation Section in 1965 in an effort to track and arrest violent, habitual criminals.
The unit has since become one of the most storied and controversial in the Los Angeles Police Department, responsible for the apprehension of scores of the city's most wanted - many times at the price of the suspects' lives.
Over the past two decades, the unit has killed 44 suspects and seriously wounded 22 others, claims Stephen Yagman, a civil rights attorney who has pressed several lawsuits against the squad.
But, according to an LAPD report last year, the SIS unit has killed 15 suspects and injured 14 during the past 15 years. During that same period, the unit conducted 900 surveillance operations and arrested 700 suspects, including 300 armed suspects.
``We've taken down hundreds and hundreds of armed suspects in our careers. We've taken down kidnappers, cop killers, killer cops, you name it. We've arrested the worst of the worst,'' said Phillip Wixon, a 16-year-veteran of the controversial unit who will receive the LAPD's Medal of Valor next week.
Wixon and fellow detective Larry Winston are the first SIS members to receive the LAPD's highest award, which comes as the pair is fending off a civil rights lawsuit charging them with wrongful death.
The SIS has cultivated a mystique as a macho group of gunslingers in body armor who take on the city's most wanted and most violent. Cowboy mustaches and over-the-collar-length hair, generally frowned on by the LAPD brass, are common among SIS members, as well as bluejeans, T-shirts and cowboy boots.
SIS members wear large brass belt buckles which depict a cloaked spy wielding a big dagger. At the SIS headquarters near Skid Row, a picture of a skull and crossbones hangs on the wall.
No woman has ever served on the SIS. About 50 officers apply whenever there is an opening on the 18-man squad. Despite its hard-charging approach, which has led to many heavy gunbattles, the unit has never before had a member receive a Medal of Valor - possibly, some suspect, because of controversy surrounding the unit.
The SIS has been the focus of strong criticism from civil rights groups for its tactics. In several lawsuits over many years, Yagman has called the SIS a ``death squad,'' saying it should be disbanded. He has criticized the unit's practice of putting known criminals under surveillance, observing them commit a crime and confronting them in a manner that Yagman charges is guaranteed to result in a fatal gunbattle.
Critics say detectives often have evidence to arrest suspects on lesser charges before they commit additional crimes that could put the public in jeopardy.
``Some of the tactics have seemed suspicious to me,'' said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. ``The thing that disturbs me the most is they have even witnessed crimes in progress and not moved in on them.''
The FBI has investigated four SIS shootings and closed two of those inquiries without action - a Newbury Park shooting that Winston and Wixon were involved in, and another at a McDonald's in Sunland in which SIS detectives shot and killed three robbery suspects as they emerged from the restaurant.
Federal authorities are still reviewing an SIS shooting last year that resulted in the death of three robbery suspects cornered in a Northridge cul-de-sac.
In 1995, a federal judge approved the payment in a lawsuit of $9,109 in punitive damages to the 5-year-old daughter of one of the robbery suspects in the McDonald's case.
Mayor Richard Riordan, LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks and the City Council have rejected calls for the unit's disbanding and have defended it in court.
Three other SIS lawsuits have resulted in judgments against the city that Deputy City Attorney Cory Brente estimated cost less than $1 million in settlements and attorneys' fees.