Three LAPD officers face felony charges for falsely labeling people as gang members

According to a 59-count criminal complaint, three officers were charged with conspiracy, filing false reports, and prepping fraudulent documents for court.
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Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters on Sept. 10, 2017.Raymond Boyd / Getty Images file

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By Eric Leonard and Andrew Blankstein

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County prosecutors have filed dozens of felony charges against three LAPD officers suspected of falsely labeling innocent motorists and pedestrians they stopped as gang members.

Braxton Shaw, Michael Coblentz, and Nicholas Martinez were notified Thursday that they were to surrender in court early Friday, according to multiple law enforcement sources.

According to a 59-count criminal complaint, the three were charged with conspiracy, filing false reports, and preparing fraudulent documents for court. It was not immediately clear how many of each of the charges applied to each officer.

The three defendants are accused of falsifying cards used by officers to conduct interviews while in the field.

In some instances, the defendants allegedly wrote on the card that a person admitted to being a gang member even though body-worn camera video showed the defendants never asked the individual about gang membership, prosecutors said.

In other instances, the defendants allegedly wrote that a person admitted to being a gang member though the person had denied gang affiliation.

Shaw is accused of falsifying 43 field interview cards. Coblentz is accused of falsifying seven cards and Martinez is accused of falsifying two cards.

If convicted, Shaw faces up to 31 years and eight months in county jail, while Coblentz faces up to seven years and eight months and Martinez faces up to four years and four months.

“Public trust is the bedrock of community policing and these allegations shake that foundation," said LAPD Chief Michel Moore in a statement. “The actions of these few tarnish the badge we all wear. The Department is committed to continuing this comprehensive investigation in our effort to restore the confidence of the people we protect and serve.”

There are currently 21 additional officers under investigation by detectives from the LAPD's Internal Affairs Group. Ten are assigned to home pending the outcome of the investigation, eight are assigned administrative duties and five remain in the field. One has retired since the investigation began.

NBC Los Angeles first reported in January that more than a dozen LAPD officers were under investigation for allegedly submitting field interview reports that falsely labeled people they questioned as gang members, data that was later added to a statewide law enforcement database of gang intelligence information called "CalGang."

Chief Moore ordered officers last month to stop using the system, and was expected to announce a reorganization of the department that included changes to the Metropolitan Division, where two of the charged officers worked, and the size of its staff.

"Based on recent audits and ongoing complaint investigations, the accuracy of the database has been called into question," Moore wrote in an internal memo obtained by NBC News.

"To strengthen community trust and avoid any adverse impact on individuals, particularly in communities of color, the Department has enacted a complete moratorium on the use of the CalGang System," Moore wrote.

CalGang is managed by the California Department of Justice and the office of the state attorney general. Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced in February his office would begin to "independently review" LAPD submissions to the database, and said the LAPD could potentially lose its access to the system if widespread problems were detected.

"As we learn more, we may need to do more," Becerra said in February. "We can, and will, take further steps as authorized under AB-90, including suspending or revoking LAPD's access to the CalGang database."

AB-90 was the bill that gave Becerra's office oversight of the system. The state is also in the process of revising and limiting the criteria for when a person's profile can be added to the database.

The LAPD was also expected to announce organizational changes Friday following the false entry investigation and complaints from community groups and activists that Metropolitan Division officers had been pulling over a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic drivers during crime suppression patrols in South L.A.

The law enforcement sources said those changes could include the removal of large groups of officers, called platoons, from Metro Division and their reassignment to neighborhood police stations or other roles.

In internal memo obtained by KNBC, Capt, LeLand Sands told Metro Division officers, "I want you to know that no decisions have been made for the future of Metro."

"At this point, it's simply speculation on the part of everyone."

Only one officer suspected in the falsified data investigation had been publicly identified before now. A criminal case against officer Braxton Shaw was submitted to prosecutors early in 2020 and Chief Moore confirmed that the same officer would be sent to an internal administrative trial, called a Board of Rights.

Shaw was previously investigated in 2016 after his courtroom testimony in an unrelated matter appeared to conflict with a video recording from a camera mounted in a patrol car. No action was taken against Shaw in that case.

Shaw and the other officers under investigation were assigned to the "C-Platoon" of the LAPD's Metro Division. The unit was rapidly expanded in 2015 and often dispatched to conduct street patrols in areas of South Los Angeles that had experienced spikes in crime.

Multiple law enforcement sources told KNBC that Metro Division officers had been pressured by their commanders to show that their patrols were productive.

Officers assembled daily statistics about the number of people they stopped and questioned, the number of contacts with gang members, the number of arrests, and other metrics. Each day's statistics was captured for analysis by LAPD executives, and the sources said officers were told, "the more gang contacts the better."

Chief Moore and other LAPD officials have denied there was pressure to produce any particular type of statistics, and Moore has said the motive behind submitting the alleged false reports wasn't clear.