Los Angeles Police Det. Sal LaBarbera is a 20-year homicide veteran who heads the Watts homicide squad in LAPD's South Bureau. Photo by Carlos Chavez/LAT
HR: Family members of victims in your area sometimes say their cases are shelved with little investigation, and receive less attention than high-profile cases. How do you respond to that?
LaBarbera: It's not true. This is a small group of detectives--10 people--and we investigate, on average over the last 20 years, 85-plus cases a year here, and with a decent clearance rate. These detectives--they do it for themselves. When it comes down to it, they are the ones who actually care about these cases, regardless of who the victims are. These detectives work 16- to 18-hour days, and review tapes at home. They give up weekends to be on call, and are on-call without compensation during the week. It's a lot to ask, and it's offensive for someone to suggest they don't care. They need to sit down with these detectives and see what they do. They are devoted, really devoted.
And you know, often the victims here are not angels. Some have criminal histories. They're in and out of the [prison] system. They're gang members. But we investigate those cases as we do any other. The way we look at it is this: We investigate each as if it were our own family member murdered.
HR: Does the city place an adequate priority on homicide?
LaBarbera: It's a big city. Each neighborhood has its own concerns, and it's a balancing act.
HR: Would you balance things differently?
LaBarbera: I think homicide throughout the city should be the priority. It's someone's life, and you can't replace it. You can replace a stolen car stereo.... This year the chief [LAPD Chief William Bratton] has combined all the South Los Angeles homicide detectives into one unit, and that should help, but there are still not enough homicide detectives. This group is still handling 10 to 15 cases per team, and that goes back years. I see my detectives leaving here with stacks of blue binders in their arms. Each of those binders is life lost. They are forced to prioritize--to go after the hot leads, and take a step back from the lukewarm leads.
HR: What's your biggest frustration?
LaBarbera: Lack of proper equipment and manpower. Equipment-wise, we are in the early 1990s. We have no laptops. The detectives use the cameras and tape recorders and cellphones they purchase themselves. The department doesn't furnish those. We use our cellphones as our business phones: The phone on my desk doesn't work. It's is a prop.
HR: Is your job like the television program "Law & Order"?
LaBarbera: I've never watched "Law & Order." I watch Fox News.
HR: In the show, detectives go from witness to witness, and learn all about the case.
LaBarbera: It's not like that here. Here, in most cases, we identify a suspect right away--usually within hours. And then, the next days and weeks we spend trying to coax witnesses to come forward. It's very rare for anything to happen to a witness, but they are still afraid. The police aren't driving down their street 24 hours a day. But the gang members are standing out there 24 hours a day. The police and the community here have to come together and force those gang members off the streets and into jail. We need the community's cooperation to do that.
LaBarbera: 20 years.
HR: Has it gotten any better?
LaBarbera: No. It's worse.
HR: How bad is the witness cooperation problem?
LaBarbera: It's the main issue in most cases. The majority of cases are solved with witness testimony combined with circumstantial and physical evidence, but the witness testimony is the hardest part. If you look at this year's cases, except the domestic homicides, witness cooperation is an issue on all of them. Witnesses don't believe the police can protect them.
HR: How do you protect them?
LaBarbera: By relocating them. And by arresting the bad guys.
HR: What's the oldest case your squad solved this year?
LaBarbera: We solved a 1996 case this year. Two years ago we solved a 1978 case.
Years ago, [Det. John] Zambos and I had a goal to investigate a case older than we were. We solved a case from the 1950s. The suspect had been dead for four years. We found his grave.
HR: Some readers objected to the support you voiced for the family of Timothy Johnson (a November homicide victim and also the named suspect on another homicide case). Is it true you are friends with the Johnson family?
LaBarbera: I didn't say I was friends with them. I said I knew them. And I do. I have known the Johnson family through good times and bad. I was part of a team of investigators that put his brother on death row. I have been there to investigate, and I have been there to grieve. It is part of what it means to work in this neighborhood. You meet the same people over and over--as victims, witnesses, and suspects--and sometimes all three at the same time.
This is a prime example of what I was talking about before. This is a family that has been on both ends of the spectrum: as victims, and as also subjects of investigation. We treat them all the same. People can say Timothy Johnson's murder was long overdue, and if we thought that, it would be easy for us to put the book on the shelf. But we don't. My detectives have been working many hours on that case.
HR: How's it going?
LaBarbera: We need witnesses to come forward.
(Above right, the whiteboard at LAPD's South Bureau homicide office, scrawled with LaBarbera's admonition to detectives.)