By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"He's wearing a flannel and has a shaved head," one says, the subtext being, of course. When the footage shows the car, the other officer shouts, "And driving a Monte Carlo! With rims!" A cutaway to the victim's weeping father brings a stereophonic, "Do the math, people!" and the sentiment is clear: The kid was a gang member, he knew the risks, his number came up. The officers go back to their beers and their backslapping.
"Typical response is, 'No victim, no crime. Retroactive birth control,'" says Mike, who teaches ethics and law at the Police Academy and who becomes my occasional drinking buddy. "But I'll guarantee you, most of them don't really believe that. Seriously, it's not normal to expect a parent not to show grief. But their gut reaction -- the gallows humor, the way to deal with all the carnage -- is, immediately, it's not a problem. It's got to be that way. We just see too much."
More news: Cops in Koreatown surrounding a burning car, in which they've discovered a bullet-riddled body stuffed into the trunk. Officers on the scene on the 5 freeway, where someone has run into traffic and wound up a pile of hamburger. Everywhere, blue uniforms, running into places other people are running out of, cleaning up messes. And always nameless and faceless, and affectless.
"We don't have the luxury of showing emotion. If I show emotion, I may be perceived as weak, and if I'm weak, you won't have confidence in me," says Mike. "We're taught command presence, self-assurance, that no matter what, we can handle it. Do I think most officers feel a lot more compassion than they show? Yeah. Do I think that they hide it? Oh, yeah."
While this can be construed as a pretext for insensitivity, it's probably a pretty accurate reaction to the anonymity and efficacy the public expects of its police. (Do we really want to see Officer Jones become squeamish at the sight of blood, or pout whenever someone calls him a pig?) Mike says this unspoken compact, an essential "us against them" rule, is firmly in place.
"First off, our country was founded on freedom and challenging authority. People don't like to be told what to do. We [the police] are the most upfront, visible force of government, and if I tell you to do something, you will, eventually, and people don't like it. Nobody likes it. So how do you come away with a good feeling about the police? Second, while I have never seen, within the police, a built-in, automatic 'I hate this group,' or 'I hate that group,' the thing I have seen is, 'We're the police, and everybody outside that group is suspect. Everybody.' That's pervasive. And that's the reason why I think the police develop the camaraderie you see here. If I walk into a place, other than here, everybody looks when I walk in, and they think, 'That guy's a cop.' It's the silly haircut, or it's the way I walk, or it's my head going side to side. They're uncomfortable, I'm uncomfortable. Here it's comfortable. It's a safe environment."
Safe from the public?
"Yeah. I can come in here, and know I'm probably not going to have a threat, I'm probably not going to have some fool getting in my face and screaming, or wanting to challenge me. I'm not going to have gambling going on in the back room, or somebody trying to sell dope in the corner, okay. When I come in here and I sit down, unlike trying to sit down at a sports bar in Pasadena or wherever, I can talk to the guy next to me and he'll know exactly what I'm talking about. The bartenders here, they know. You can tell them you had a 459 [breaking and entering], and they'll know what you're talking about."
"You have to give them a place to de-stress," says Deana, tapping Mike his fourth beer. (He allows himself six; she keeps count.) "And that hardness you hear about? That's just maintaining a façade. It's like a movie star. You only see them all in their makeup, but underneath, they're just a person."
Jesus walks in from a day in court, and begins telling Deana about his testimony against a gang member. Tall, handsome, 30-ish, Jesus is usually on the street wresting drugs from the gangs as part of CRASH unit, Rampart.
"We've got Mara Salvatrucha [a Salvadoran gang whose name loosely translates as "a bunch of Salvadorans"] trying to do battle with the 18th Street gang, which is the biggest in the city, something like 100,000 members, pretty much all Mexican," says Jesus. "It's so big because these 18th Streeters never leave the gang, they join it young and stay. Not like the black gangs in South-Central. I used to work Jordan Downs. You bust those guys and ask their gang, and they deny it. This never happens with Latino gangs."
We talk about which drugs are making a comeback: PCP and ice. ("Korean gangs run that. They get it from the Mexicans.") Meth. ("Used to be the white guys, the biker gangs up in Sunland. Now the Mexicans run that, too. They cook it up in labs down in San Bernardino.") Cocaine. ("The Mexicans get it from the Colombia cartels, process it in Oklahoma.") Crack, which Jesus says is here to stay.