Torres knows, hears and dreams onthe streets of Newton Division.
Torresclimbsintohis gray Toyota and embarks on a tour of car area 13A41, his 1.2-square-mile beat in Newton Division, which covers nine square miles and has a population of 150,000. “Torres for City Council” signs are pasted up and down San Pedro Street, Maple Street, Main Street and Broadway, from Adams Boulevard down to Vernon Avenue. Occasionally he pulls over and gets out to chat with friends in their front yards or working on cars in their driveways. “I live in a community that doesn’t have a name,” Torres says ruefully of the area known as Kearney back in the 1940s, but which now is lumped in with South L.A., or South-Central. “I can remember when the word stuccodid not exist in this neighborhood,” he says, as he drives down streets lined with fading apartments and bungalows and huge dilapidated homes. He slows as he approaches Trinity Park, at 24th Street and Trinity Avenue, where young men are gathered. “This is where the local gangs got started,” he says. In April 2002, a 9-year-old boy named Anthony Ramirez was shot and killed by a gangster chasing another gangster on foot, says Torres. Although he was not assigned to the case, he was moved to help in some way, so he pressed sources in his area for weeks to tell him something, anything to assist detectives investigating the murder. An accomplice was caught and a suspect in the shooting was identified but is believed to have fled the country, he says. “When I saw a photo, I recognized the shooter,” Torres says. “He lived across the street from my parents.” Homicide Detective Richard Arciniega, who investigated the murder, recalls the community reacted with outrage, but that it lasted just one day. Torres says the anger runs deep, but that the root causes of such violence run deeper. “That killing resulted not in talk of improving community services but a transfer of hatred of the LAPD to hatred of the gangs. You know, gang members are people too. There is no neutral energy out here. You’re going to deal with them one way or another.” Gang history in Newton Division, beyond the sets of Bloods and Crips of South L.A., is deep, according to Torres: Ghetto Boys. 36th Street. Primera Flats. Street Saints. “Most of those started as neighborhood football teams, nothing more,” he says. “Some of these 14-year-old gang members don’t even know their history.” Torres focuses on what he calls “shot-callers,” he says. “I know who’s who, and who has warrants out on them. If things are heating up, I’ll approach the shot-callers and say, ‘I know you got these two chickenshit warrants and the holidays are coming, we can talk about what’s going on or I can take you in.’ Then I try to let them know that I recognize what they see in themselves: that they command respect on the street and people will listen to them.” Part psychologist and part big brother, Torres gets into gang members’ heads, relying on common sense, an understanding of human nature — and the police manual. “The manual says true effectiveness is based on crime reduction, but the department doesn’t train officers to set goals, and there is too much emphasis on generating statistics,” says Torres, who has obsessive habits such as photocopying directives and posting them around the precinct. His idea of leadership is limited by the police bureaucracy, however, so he makes the most of what he can control. “We need to take ownership of our areas,” he says, pointing to tagging crews as an example of his own brand of three-strikes justice that diverts teenagers before they advance to more serious crimes. “If a kid screws up once and I catch him, he knows he gets a second chance. I’ll go and talk to his parents and let them know what their kid is into. If they screw up a second time, they might get another chance, but no more than that. Too many chances and they don’t take you seriously,” he says. Part of the challenge is getting through to parents, he says. “They say, ‘My kid is not in any gang,’ and I show them the red paint on their kid’s index finger from tagging and ask, ‘Then what is this?’ If the community knows you are not looking to screw people over, they respect that. And it forces parents to open their eyes. Sometimes they call me and ask me to talk to their kids, if they aren’t getting through to them.” Torres pulls a U-turn and crosses Adams Boulevard, pointing to the building where his parents lived after moving from Guadalajara in 1966. “That’s where I was conceived,” he says, adding that he was born in nearby California Hospital. Moments later he’s honking his car horn and waving to his grandfather, who is sitting on his porch. Torres, who has three older brothers, three older sisters and two younger brothers, lives with his parents Timoteo and Lucia, one street over. A graduate of Cal State L.A., he has run four L.A. Marathons and traveled in Russia, China, India and Tibet. He says his travels and readings on Buddhism have enlightened him to the power of the inner self. His intense introspection and commitment to his job have come at a price. In 2002, he and his wife Diana, a legal secretary, divorced. She grew tired of feeling less a priority than Torres’ job, he says. Their two children live with her in Eagle Rock. “We’re better friends now,” Torres says. In fact, Diana is the campaign treasurer. His father owns Torres Construction, and most of his siblings work in the family business. Such closeness shaped him early in life, he says, although he grew up an introvert. “My parents gave me a bike, and we had a long driveway, and they said here is where you can ride your bike.” VeterancopsinNewtonsensed something different early on about Torres. For starters, officers living on their patrol beats are almost unheard of. Then there was Torres’ work ethic, which was tireless, according to Senior Lead Officer Bobby Hill, who nevertheless opposed his promotion to senior lead. “Peter is one of the few officers who seriously takes his work home with him,” Hill says. “But I was not supportive of him being promoted, and I let him know it. I didn’t think he was ready. We had words. Peter said, ‘Let me prove myself.’ I kept waiting for him to fall on his face. Now, with the least amount of time in the division among our senior leads, he’s delivered the best results in terms of crime reduction, targeting potential crimes and earning respect in the community. Gang members will flag him down to talk,” Hill continues. “He always comes away with active information — without making any promises. He’ll try one approach, and if he doesn’t have success, he’ll try another.” The first thing Torres did when he got promoted was put out a survey to 30 people per block on about 10 blocks to identify the community’s concerns. “I wanted everything out in the open, how they felt about Newton Division, LAPD, everything,” he says. “If I was to use them as an asset, I had to get them to talk with me, otherwise we’d always be bullshitting each other.” Besides gang activity, Torres’ survey — answered by half the recipients and filed by him at the precinct — identified speeding cars and garbage-strewn alleys as common complaints. To clean up alleys, he flagged down sanitation trucks on the weekends and pitched in hauling trash and large items such as old sofas. To slow down speeding cars, he sought out members of the community to take down license plate numbers, then he would find the drivers and engage them in conversation. “Usually they’d have no insurance or outstanding tickets and I’d say, ‘Hey, the last thing I want to do is take away your car, but if I hear you’re speeding, that’s what I’m going to do.’ I might not solve the problem 100 percent, but word of mouth spreads like wildfire in this community, and people see that you’re not being an asshole but just doing your job.” Torres reads all of the division’s paperwork from the previous 24 hours before starting his shift. He says a review of the thick stack of documents allows him to spot the officers who are going the extra mile so he can enlist their support or offer encouragement. For instance, he says, “If I see a guy write a ticket for marijuana possession, I know that person is hustling, because that paperwork is a pain in the ass and nobody likes to do it,” Torres says. “Also, I can look for people who have been arrested who live on my beat, so when I see them I can mention it to them. It makes me look like the Wizard of Oz, like I’m everywhere. If someone’s car is stolen, I’ll know about it, and that surprises people. It gets their attention. Everything helps in its own little way.” Not every technique works, Torres says, and he has had to learn from his mistakes. “You can’t schedule a huge community cleanup day for two patrol areas because maybe five people will show up, and you won’t get anything done,” he says. “The department needs to do things on a smaller scale. I haven’t learned from any way other than going door-to-door. But the department can’t channel that from the top down. It has to come from the street and work its way up. I try to encourage the officers in my area. Some younger guys are altruistic and want to make a difference like this. We don’t need more 45-year-old veterans on the front lines. We need younger guys with more drive on the front lines.” Sergio Juarez, a pastor who lives on 35th Street, has seen the difference Torres has made. “We used to have shootings all the time around here,” says Juarez, a short man with piercing blue eyes. “If the police did not come, we would call Peter, even if he was off-duty. He’s been part of our history.” Juarez points to bullet holes in a pillar in front of his house and recalls a revenge killing several years ago of a teenager who had just gotten out of jail. An atmosphere of intimidation once existed, he says. “The neighbors were afraid to speak,” Juarez says. Torres encouraged residents on the block to work together, and with him, and not to give in to the gangs, he says. “He brought a sanitation truck to clean up the garbage and took us to the Police Academy for seminars on LAPD policy,” Juarez says. “It changed our mentality toward the police.”