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Back to the Future Cop 

Peter Torres is the only LAPD officer who calls the hard streets of Newton Division home. Is he the next generation of L.A. policing?

Thursday, Mar 3 2005
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Photos by Ted SoquiPeter Torres remembers the day he decided to become a cop. He was working as a community organizer in the neighborhood where he was born and raised, two miles south of downtown on the grittier side of the 10 freeway. One day in 1994, while helping students at Thomas Jefferson High School develop after-school programs, he met a senior lead officer from Newton Division named Debbie McCarthy. Until then, Torres had a bad perception of the police. They not only couldn’t solve the problems in his neighborhood, but sometimes seemed to make them worse. He had never seen an officer working in the violent areas around Jefferson High unless they were making an arrest. McCarthy’s personal involvement in the community inspired Torres. He pictured the gangs, drug houses and prostitution rings that plagued his neighborhood as McCarthy talked about how she could take on any problem, by whatever means, and solve it in a way that two officers on a radio call could not. “I saw her as having the resources and opportunity to have a direct impact on organizations, schools and kids,” Torres says. “She was like a mini–council member. I became motivated and thought I could take it up a notch.” Eleven years later, 38-year-old Torres still hasn’t moved out of Newton, but now he has McCarthy’s job — senior lead officer. People on his beat say he is always on call and particularly effective cleaning up entire blocks by simply knocking on doors, and by enlisting — in his off-hours — passing sanitation trucks to help neighborhood cleanup efforts. Lean, muscular and with graying hair, the 5-foot-8 Torres is chided by his colleagues for having no life outside his work. They don’t laugh when his contacts on the street yield useful information. His hands-on style has reduced crime in his tough division, a bloody, graffiti-laden nine-mile stretch of industrial and struggling residential areas in the shadows of downtown Los Angeles, from Skid Row to South-Central. In his nine years with the LAPD, including four as a senior lead, Torres, in a low-profile way, has brought innovations to the science and art of policing, as well as relied on old-fashioned instincts. The mere fact that Torres is the only cop who lives and works in Newton also makes him a standout in the LAPD, where only 15 percent of its 9,300 officers even live in the city of Los Angeles. And Torres is not looking to leave anytime soon. He has decided that being a mini-councilman, as McCarthy described the job of senior lead officer a decade ago, is no longer enough. He wants to be the real thing and is running for City Council in the 9th District against incumbent Jan Perry. He’s overmatched, of course. Perry is a veteran of City Hall, endorsed by influential members of Congress and the state Assembly, Mayor Jim Hahn and Sheriff Lee Baca. Her campaign is well-financed, with overwhelming support from real estate companies and developers who are changing the face of downtown Los Angeles. For Torres, who is relentlessly upbeat, time and money are running out on his campaign to bring the community he loves closer to City Hall. At once a candidate, an innovative officer, a community activist and a defender of the blue uniform, he has a youthful enthusiasm and inner peace that endear him to some; to others, Torres just might be an enigma. He’s used to people feeling uneasy about his ambitions, and recalls the reaction when he applied to be senior lead officer. “Nobody was on my side,” he says. “I got shit from everyone just walking down the hall. Some of my friends stopped talking to me.” Usually senior lead officer is reserved for veterans who have been training officers for a long time, he explains. He had been doing it just three months. “They thought I didn’t know the street, the job or how to do the job. I never second-guessed myself. I knew I could do the job better than anyone.” On a recent Saturday Torres steps out of his campaign headquarters on San Pedro Street and heads to his car. Ranchera music blares from nearby storefronts. Mention the recent fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown after a traffic stop by fellow Newton Division Officer Steve Garcia, and Torres launches into an impromptu re-enactment. In his pressed slacks and oxford shirt, Torres crouches behind the open passenger door of his Toyota Corolla, brings his hands together as if clutching his gun and envisions a car heading for him, in reverse. He backs up and braces himself for contact, imagining that he must make a quick decision: fire his weapon and hope to disable the driver, who in his mind he can barely see, or try to dive out of the way. Either way, if he were in Garcia’s shoes, he could be crushed, he says. He’s been the lead on a car pursuit and knows what it feels like. Yet he declines to speculate on another man’s level of fear. Then he toes the department line: Let the facts lead, don’t be rash in judging Garcia’s actions, and don’t get carried away with the LAPD’s sordid past, he says. Torres has never fired his gun while on duty. Nor can he imagine an outcry against him if he did. On his beat he is known to have defused hatred and suspicion of the LAPD. The trick is to convert citizens into a tool of crime prevention and neighborhood empowerment, he says. And to appear omnipresent, but not overtly threatening. Talking to gang members as individuals and living in the hood has earned him cooperation and respect, he says. Some stop running when they see who is chasing them. “They say, ‘Man, you don’t run from Torres,’ ” he says. “If I’m ever in a dark alley in civilian clothes with no weapon and no backup, and I run into someone I once put in jail, I want them to say, ‘I know that guy.’ ” In January 2004, Torres picked streets with the most shootings and robberies and began organizing block clubs, a concept he has embraced. He would park his cruiser in the middle of the block with the light bar on and knock on doors until neighbors came out. Once they were face to face with one another — and him — barriers came down, he says. Trust was established. In one year, he reduced violent crime on his beat from 308 incidents involving a deadly weapon to 237 — a drop of 24 percent. It went from the most violent to the third least violent. His method: a personalized version of the broken-window theory, and a commitment to reducing crime rather than increasing arrests. If you live in Newton, it’s nearly impossible not to run into Torres. Sixty-five-year-old Edward Roberson was shocked to see the officer on his stoop one night. “I’ve been involved with Neighborhood Watch for years, and I never had a senior lead officer come to my house,” he says. “I didn’t think officers did that.” Making himself available to residents like Roberson anytime day or night has paid off for Torres, who also has reached out to disenfranchised members of the community, including homeless people, and encouraged them to act as his eyes and ears. Like the time Roberson passed along a tip that someone was parking stolen cars on 32nd Street, between Main and San Pedro. “Some of these people don’t vote or even have jobs, but they are constantly coming to my house with information for Officer Torres,” Roberson says. “We’ve seen the difference, and not just on my block. He’s worked with the city to secure some of these abandoned buildings. We used to have drive-bys, but now you see folks out on their porches again.” Says Geraldine Mannino, a block-club leader and longtime Newton Division resident, “Torres is never too busy to help us, and we’re not even on his beat. He’s in our community and he listens when we talk.”

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