A Private Mod Squad Sets Out to Prove Police Harassment—and Stirs a Fight Over Its Tactics

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Two-thirty A.M. Prairie Avenue, Lennox, Calif., outside Los Angeles. Private detective Don Jackson and a friend are driving an aging Pontiac through the streets when, suddenly, lights flash and sirens howl. State Highway Patrolman Kevin Koko pulls them over, accusing Jackson's friend of driving erratically. He has not been, and when Jackson disagrees, Koko tells him he will have to take a sobriety test Jackson refuses.

After a brief argument, Koko abruptly returns to his car without issuing a citation to the two black men. Thinking about the incident later, Jackson says he believes Koko suddenly recognized him and chose not to force a showdown in court Don Jackson is no ordinary citizen. Earlier this year his face was posted in police stations all over the Los Angeles area following an ugly occurrence in Long Beach, just 20 miles south. Jackson had been pulled over there too. And that time the encounter escalated into violence: A police officer allegedly threw Jackson against a plate glass window, which shattered around his head.

That confrontation made the evening news because Jackson, 31, was being videotaped not only by his partners, David Lynn, 38, and Joe Travers, 32, but by an NBC news team they'd tipped off about a possible incident. Such "stings," in fact, are part of the operating procedure for the Jackson Lynn Travers agency, which bills itself as the only public-interest private detective agency in the country. JLT specializes in exposing police brutality, particularly against minorities. Both the agency's mission and its tactics have become increasingly controversial since the Long Beach episode.

"They are heroes," says California State Assemblywoman Maxine Waters from L.A. "No one ever documented racism in the police before." Not surprisingly, the police take a more jaundiced view of their motives. "These stings are theatrics designed for the men's personal advantage. Nothing good comes out of this for anyone except them," says Mike Tracy, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association. "There are examples of police misconduct, but there are more viable ways to expose it."

The Lennox police refused to comment publicly on the episode there—which was also videotaped—but the next day, an internal memo from Sheriff Sherman Block said that the driver's "actions were consistent with those of a person driving under the influence," adding that Jackson's clothing was "similar to gang clothing." (Jackson had been wearing a dark sweater and a baseball cap.) The memo urged officers to be alert to the possibility of such "artificial" incidents in the future.

In fact, JLT, acting on complaints of police brutality in the Los Angeles area, has conducted four such stings in the past two years, incurring three incidents of what they describe as "harassment" (being stopped by police without reason), including the violence in Long Beach. Even before viewing the Long Beach videotape, Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl F. Gates called it "a crazy, crazy, stupid, idiotic act." Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell was more restrained. "Perhaps our police overreacted," he said. "I don't think Mr. Jackson was malicious, but he knew the right buttons to push. We have 680 policeman—maybe one or two overreact. I don't think that what Don Jackson does is the best way to weed them out." Nevertheless, two Long Beach officers are facing charges as a result of the incident—one for assault, both for writing a false report—and the city has brought in an outside investigator to examine charges of police brutality.

When a town is targeted (often through L.A.'s Police Misconduct Referral Board, where Lynn volunteers), Jackson rides through the streets at night in an old car, while Lynn and Travers follow with a minicam. They turn their videos over to lawyers representing victims of police brutality or to community groups. Some of these clients can pay, but 80 percent of JLT's work is pro bono. (They also earn lecture fees and are paid as expert witnesses.)

"We don't do this for money. We didn't even want to do this," says Jackson. "It was shoved down our throats by our lives." Travers and Jackson are both ex-policemen, and Lynn is an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam but was given a hasty honorable discharge after organizing a series of nonviolent protests against what he perceived as racial injustices. ("Black soldiers were victims," he says. "They were given all the dangerous missions.") Since then, he has been a full-time activist for causes including nuclear disarmament and opposition to apartheid. Unmarried, he lives in a Latino neighborhood near downtown L.A.

Joe Travers also served in the armed forces before joining the Hawthorne Police Department in 1981. But during training, Travers says he witnessed repeated acts of police brutality. He complained and was eventually asked to leave the force. That scenario was repeated in 1987, when Travers signed on with the city's Rapid Transit District Police. When he complained about other officers' treatment of minorities, says Travers, it was he who lost his job once again. Married, with a 10-month-old son, Travers has since sued, and the FBI is investigating his charges of civil rights violations by the RTD force. (RTD refuses to comment on Travers's suit.)

Don Jackson's father, Woodrow, served 28 years with the L.A. County Sheriffs Office. But he never told his children of the racism he encountered on the force, so Jackson was surprised when he joined the police himself in 1980. "The officers told me things like 'black women liked being raped,' " he says. Worse were the regular instances of brutality he claims to have seen—and refused to participate in. "The other officers got down on me for not blowing people away," he says.

Jackson was promoted to sergeant in 1986, but the trouble continued. Then in April 1987, Jackson's father was stopped while driving in middle-class Pomona and allegedly beaten by police—even though he was carrying his deputy sheriffs badge at the time. "It broke me for good," says Jackson. "I couldn't stay on the force anymore." He was placed on administrative leave and recently began receiving a $2,200-a-month pension for a stress-related disability.

Eventually, Jackson, Lynn and Travers got to know each other through their activities with various police watchdog groups. Travers had a private detective's license, so the three decided to begin investigating the police because, says Lynn, "no one else would stand up—we felt we had no choice." Adds Travers: "The fact that we've all been on the other side is a real strength."

In 1989 the three formed the Jackson Lynn Travers agency and decided that involving the media would help bring them clients. That has not made JLT very popular. Inglewood Councilman Garland Hardeman, a friend of Jackson's who is also an LAPD training officer, claims he recently saw a photo of Jackson with a bloody arrow through his head on a police bulletin board. "They hate him," he says. "They're just waiting for him to make a mistake so they can harm him."

Jackson claims they've already tried. "I've been run off the road by cops trying to intimidate me," he says. Lynn attests that someone recently broke into his office and ransacked his desk. And Travers says he received several death threats when his wife was pregnant last year.

Still, the JLT partners believe that only a small percentage of officers are guilty of using excessive force. Nor do they necessarily fault these officers. Police training, they say, neglects civil rights. Moreover, says Jackson, "they never teach you how to get along with people, or how to back down. Training teaches you to be a clone. How to take orders and never snitch."

Since Long Beach, Jackson, Lynn and Travers have become minor celebrities, with local television appearances, frontpage newspaper stories and a benefit, featuring Jesse Jackson and Dionne Warwick, which raised money to support JLT's work. A criminal-procedures course at Harvard Law School is even using their sting tapes in class. Too well known now to carry on their work in Southern California, the self-proclaimed "people's detectives" have decided to take their show on the road, perhaps to New York City. In the L.A. area, at least, they've made their point. Last week, Clay Bryant, the Vice Mayor of Pomona—where Jackson's father was allegedly assaulted—said, "I've asked Don Jackson to come up with a proposal to develop a more sensitive approach for our police department. I hope we can bring him in. I think he's brilliant. He exposes the flaws in the system."

From Our Partners