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Rampart Roller Coaster

The invite came unexpectedly. The drive downtown would be monotonous, but it was ”Dave,“ a friend I hadn’t seen in years. And we were meeting at his office, a certain LAPD gang unit that only days later would detonate in controversy.

After sizing me up, the badge at the desk didn‘t bother with eye contact. I feigned interest in chain-of-command portraits and recruitment literature as I waited. I felt like I’d been begging for spare change.

Dave finally appeared, looking more pumped and NFL than ever. His arrival brought me credibility. The guy at the counter smiled and waved goodbye.

Guilty till proven allied.

Inside the station, each officer had a tiny cubicle, many of which were decorated with gangster hieroglyphics, mug shots and tattoo photos alongside family snapshots. Some of these collections were proudly explained to me as though they were baseball cards . . . or friends.

I nodded politely, silently questioning the difference between these people and those they pursue. Some of these men and women develop a rapport with their ”scumbags“ that indeed rivals their personal relationships. That ”comes with the badge,“ as the saying goes.

We headed over to the police garage and climbed into a patrol car. Dave revved the jacked-up Chevy 350 police engine and we shot out of the garage, my blood racing. When I reached for my seatbelt, Dave flicked his wrist casually.

”Don‘t sweat that.“

I hesitated. It wasn’t a ticket I was worried about; it was being upside down. Still, for fear of seeming wimpy, I let go of the strap and kept quiet.

At the intersection of Fifth and Figueroa, a woman with a stroller and two other children was trying to cross against the light. Traffic sped past her so fast her hair whipped around. Finally seeing a break, she took her first step. Dave snatched the microphone handset off the dashboard.

”Dammit lady!“ he barked. ”Do you have any idea how long it takes to complete paperwork on you if you die? Four hours! Four!“

My jaw dropped. The woman froze. Business-district bystanders gawked. I looked away, then up at the visor. His voice echoed off the tall buildings around us.

”Would ya‘ get back onto the sidewalk for cryin’ out loud?“

We drove through the intersection past her.

”You‘ve got two kids there! That’s six hours! And a baby too!? There‘s another four!“

I wondered if people thought we’d stolen the car.

And this wasn‘t just a regular patrol car, either. It’s called a hybrid. Nickname: ”slick-top.“ It was stripped of roof lights, its console computer and the nice-cop DARE sticker. The shotgun was locked to the floor between us, and the car had pickup like a dragster. This was a CRASH car. Anti-hassle, anti-gang and driven by my new antihero.

Proceeding further down Fig, Dave lowered the dispatch radio‘s volume and cranked an Offspring song on KROQ. Now it really felt like we’d ditched third period.

Until he unholstered his gun.

”Look man, I‘m takin’ you to pretty much the roughest neighborhood in the world,“ he said with pride, flipping up the strap on his .45. ”If I get dumped . . .“

”Dumped!?“ I said. ”Whaddya mean dumped!?“

”Dumped. You know, dumped. If I get dumped, grab this thing and return fire. The safety is right here, look.“

He sat there wiggling the handle at me, staring down the driver of a gardening truck that had cut us off.

”Or do you want the shotgun?“

Nearly everyone on the street noticed us. Some either froze in an ”is-he-looking-at-me?“ kind of way or paused until we passed. So this is what it feels like, I speculated.

As we made our way to Alameda, he waved to several other patrol cars in the area. They were running red lights too.

”On the way back we‘ll go to Skid Row and barnstorm the crackheads.“

Barnstorming the crackheads? I thought. Dinner could wait.

At First Street we hung a right, hopped the river and entered an area he knows better than his own bathroom.

”Welcome to my workbench,“ he said, sounding badge bitter.

”This city is lost, bro. Gone. People have no idea how much the gangs control. No idea.“

As we cruised he talked about 18th Street, White Fence, Nazi Lowriders -- the ”newest menace.“ On Mission Street he translated graffiti. Not tags, but warnings and zones. In East L.A. graffiti is like a Thomas Guide. From a wall near Gless and Third he read the names of six ”Viva TMC“ soldiers before I could even decipher the first.

”Chucky, Bala, Cisco, Bird, Smoker, Lil’ Bullet.“ Adding, ”I know the guys who iced two of those fools.“

Did he mean cops or other gangsters? And iced?

Around the perimeter of Aliso Village housing, he pointed out people signaling to unseen wrongdoers, then vanishing. This part of the ride was the quietest. It was here that I realized how much stress my friend must shoulder. No wonder his wife had bailed with their son.

At Fourth Street, he began running stop signs. We drove up Maple, closing in on Third Street.

”Can‘t stop. Sometimes they fire .22’s at us. Should keep moving.“

He hadn‘t mentioned that part. I rolled up my window.

He cruised slowly through intersections, looking for lung-size puffs of smoke. We were surrounded by zombies who didn’t react to our presence at all. These weren‘t his targets.

But once he’d located the smoke signals, he‘d hit the lights and floor it, finally screeching to a fishtail halt and scattering the cluster. Vials, pipes, matches, beer cans, lighters, crack, you name it; it was in the air as if someone had yelled, ”Pull!“

I felt bad for laughing, but kept laughing anyway.

I realized that everywhere, there were people in cars that were lookin’ to score. A dazed, emaciated black woman in a decaying Honda must‘ve passed us in the opposite lane six times. Likewise with a worn-out Buick, a half-charred ’81 Mazda, and a Jeffrey Dahmer look-alike in an old van. Our recurring presence did nothing to deter them, not even with Dave‘s false-alarm pranks.

On the sidewalk, people stayed put, some glaring back, some acting comically preoccupied. Across the street someone attacked a box shelter with a stick. People smoked rock from their pipes right next to us. Others pointed and yelled at nothing.

Dave remarked, ”See, the only way all this’ll stop is if we could empty this dump. I think the perfect solution would be to round ‘em up and stick ’em all on buses, each and every one of ‘em.“

”But where would you put them?“ I asked, afraid of the answer.

”The Westside Pavilion, of course.“

Now there was the Dave I remember.

Laughing like idiots, we left for another corner.

On San Julian an enormous woman with a trash hat approached the car, with her arms spread out and up.

”Officers, you doin’ a great job cleanin‘ up. Good job! Great job! These people all messed up. I’m so happy seeing you fellas patrol this street!“

On we went, back down Skid Row, menacing the street wreckage, laughing at the refuse, the gutter sex, the smoke and the smell.

Taking one last spin through Doomsville, Dave hit the brakes when he saw two men arguing angrily with a small fella about half their size. They were backing him into a doorway. Dave pointed his vehicle at them and stomped on the gas pedal. Again, at the sound of the engine‘s rev, the activity stopped. The wheels locked up when his other foot slammed the brakes. We slid up next to them. Dave is good at this maneuver, I thought. All three men shrugged, like they were ready to offer excuses, alibis and witnesses, but Dave would have none of it.

”You two get lost. You, little guy. Start walkin’ that way. Go!“

”To protect and to serve, eh, Dave?“ I taunted.

Getting back in he said, ”Whatever. I would take you around the block again so we could catch ‘em red-handed, whoopin’ the guy‘s ass, but we gotta go.“

”I see.“ I said matter-of-factly. And with that, we were gone.

Back at the garage I thanked him for the joyride and left. Driving off, I couldn’t help but wonder about the evolution of my friend since high school. Christ, he‘s one of the good guys. Imagine what loose cannons the bad ones must be.

Didn’t have to imagine long.

The other day I asked Dave about the controversy involving other CRASH officers. ”All I can say is, if you cross that line, you‘re done. This Perez guy is an idiot. A drug dealer. He’s talkin‘ out of his ass and trying to save it at the same time. Those guys he implicated? Betcha more than half of ’em return to work. Just a hunch.“


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