The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has a secret weapon in its war on crime. The department’s Special Investigation Section (S.I.S.) is an elite tactical detective squad with a straightforward mandate: Track down the City’s most dangerous offenders and take them off the street. S.I.S. are possibly the hardest-working, most dedicated men and women Detectives to wear a badge.
Working undercover, they wear street clothes and disguises to blend in. They have developed and refined surveilance methods for over four decades, they shadow their targets, sometimes waiting until the actual commission of a crime to move in and take down their man.
These “hot take downs” are the most dangerous situation for an officer: “… these guys don’t want to come in quietly,” a senior training officers explained, “many of these individuals are looking at their Third Strike, and facing Life…” For that reason, exchanging gunfire with desperate, heavily armed suspects including bank robbers, serial killers, and drug dealers is more the norm for S.I.S. Former commander of the S.I.S., Capt. Dennis Conte explained to TW, “Public safety is our concern, because if we arrest someone for ‘attempt,’ the likelihood of a conviction is not great.”
The S.I.S. is protective of methods they have developed for being in the right place at the right time, without being compromised so they can move while a crime is in progress. Having honed these skills on L.A.’s mean streets, S.I.S. officers have nerves of steel and the best investigative skills in the entire LAPD. As these methods are their edge against the bad guys, TW has agreed to honor their confidentiality in this report. The folks in our photos are either retired members or non-S.I.S. agents.
Typically, S.I.S. has about 20 members. They’ve been forced to use deadly force on 28 suspects between 1965 and 1992, inciting political and community activists and prompting the “L.A. Times” to dub them the city’s “Death Squad.”
Taking Down L.A.’s Worst Criminals
S.I.S. was formed in 1965 and comprises the “cream of the crop,” detectives who have attained the highest level of performance in the field. Just as every member of LAPDs’ S.W.A.T. team had to first achieve the highest level of performance on the street, the detectives chosen for S.I.S. must have exemplary records in their Detective Division. Possible team members are selected by the LAPD. They must pass physical and psychological tests along with other requirements. In four decades, only 110 candidates have made the cut.
Staying on the Squad is as hard as getting on. There’s no free ride. All S.I.S. officers are expected to train like professional athletes, on and off the gun range. They constantly have to qualify, and when they can’t cut it, room is made for a new team member. But few want to go back to their old duties. “This is the most dedicated group you’d want to be involved with,” former unit commander Tom Burke told TW. “So dedicated, they work the job like it is their life.”
This elite branch of LAPD has operated to remove hard-core criminals from the streets. Their special skills have been brought into some of the most infamous cases in Los Angeles history, like the Alphabet Bomber and the Hillside Strangler, and more recently in the murder of Bill Cosby’s son Ennis.
Unlike their sibling officers in LAPD S.W.A.T., S.I.S. is a mobile force of investigating officers who assist other divisions by tracking down active, known criminals. Along with kidnappings and bank robberies, divisional detectives throw their unsolvable cases to the S.I.S., when they have a suspect—but no evidence.
Multiple Weapons, Monthly Qualifications
As the level of violence and firepower among criminals has increased, so have the skills, training and equipment of the S.I.S. They’re constantly refining (and inventing) the surveillance techniques that have made them legendary in LE circles. LAPD requires officers to qualify on the range six times a year, S.I.S. team members must qualify every month, with every officer checked out on their side arms, the Remington 870 and M4 .223 rifle they carry in their vehicles.
S.I.S. targets bad guys that other detective divisions have identified as habitual offenders, and use their surveillance techniques to make sure that they will be there to take the suspect down during the commission of a crime. This keeps S.I.S. rubbing elbows with hopped-up, heavily armed criminals, which lead to the myth among those elements sympathetic to lawbreakers, that somehow S.I.S. was being “unfair” and not “playing by the rules.”
“L.A.P.D. has guidelines for S.I.S. but they are still coming to grips with the complexity of the Unit’s mission. “Improvisation,” Burke pointed out, “not impropriety, is the policy of the S.I.S.”