Sympathy for the Devil: Crime Stats Say L.A.'s Streets Are Safer Than Ever, So Why Are Gang Hoods Still So Bloody?
For more photos, view Sam Slovick and Luigi Ventura's slideshow "Sympathy for the Devil: Inside Look at Gang Hoods."
We will take that most famous shield, the most famous badge in the world — and whatever little . . . tarnish exists, it will be wiped clean, and it will be the most brilliantly shining badge of any in the United States.
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—William J. Bratton, October 2002
On the day his father left for good, Mauricio’s father had some parting words for his son: “Whatever you do, be the best.”
“That’s what he told me,” Mauricio remembers. “So I said, ‘I’m going to be the best fucking gangster in L.A.’”
This happened when Mauricio was 12, the year he started banging. Three years later, on February 24, 2005, Mauricio — not his real name because he is in this country illegally — stopped by his mom’s job to get 20 bucks to buy a part for his bike.
“I kissed my mom and told her I loved her,” Mauricio says. “I was on my beach cruiser, near Gage, near the fucking football field. I went to the school and got some water, then I was ready to go home and get something to eat and shit.
“I was going to the sidewalk. I saw a white Impala pull around the corner. I see two guys looking at me, and a homey I recognized got out of the car. I knew him from before. I used to be with his sister when I was 13. I seen the gun. I was trying to hop the fence to get away.
“He started dumping. I turned a little. I remember seeing the bullets cutting through the grass, then, poof, dirt flying ... like in a fucking movie.
“First one was in the back. It made me do a turn to the left. It went through by my spine, through a disc — missed the nerves. It broke my intestines and [went] in my liver. Then another one hit me in the side, in and out. The other in the arm.
“I was conscious. I was on the floor looking up. A clear blue sky like I never seen one like that before. I was like, fuck, I was having fucking flashbacks of my life. I seen my whole life in 30 seconds. I was a little baby and fucking up till the time I was there getting shot.
“I was on the floor, taking deep breaths. Trying not to panic. Then I saw another fool hit me up, he stood over me, like, ‘Where you from, homey?’
“Then the ambulance came. That was the first time I got shot. I was barely, like, 15. But here I am.”
Here he is, all 18 years and five bullets of him, a plastic tube permanently inserted inside his reconstructed intestine, the most unlikely college freshman, waiting with a bunch of dignitaries and neighborhood school kids to meet Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, a city that seems to get safer every year. Just this week, Congressional Quarterly came out with its annual City Crime Rankings, and Los Angeles has improved its position from the 103rd highest-crime city in 2007 to the 158th in 2008. Mauricio, inactive in gang life for several months, is one small part of the turnaround. And now that he’s about to meet the mayor, Mauricio is ecstatic. It’s as if he’s been on a trajectory to this moment for 18 years and didn’t even know it.
“I just had a dream about it, like, three days ago . . . that I was talking to him,” Mauricio says. “It just came through. I’ve always been like that. Like I know who’s barely about to call before the fucking phone even rings. Hey, take my picture with him after.”
Mauricio’s psychic scar tissue is substantial but the prognosis, oddly, is excellent. He’s hopeful for the future. With a lineage traceable to a cartel in Toluca, Mexico, Mauricio inherited brutality as a birthright. Jumped in, hemmed up, locked up, jammed up, searched and cuffed by the LAPD more times than he can count before his nuts dropped (and he’s pretty good at math). Mauricio, in his usual long white T-shirt, baggy jeans and shaved head, is transfixed as he watches Villaraigosa work his mayoral magic at the mike here at L.A. Trade-Tech College. The mayor is unveiling something called the Triple Crown Initiative, a college-prep and work-experience program seeded with a $1.2 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to bring high school students from the Santee Education Complex to Trade-Tech for classes in tourism, culinary arts and other fields.
“Today we are building a bridge that connects two campuses less than a mile apart, and which will lead to dreams and real options for our kids,” the mayor says for the record. “At a school where almost one in two kids now drops out, our students will be graduating with a double diploma, and with double the opportunity.”
Then Villaraigosa stumbles through a Spanish rant that sounds a little different from what some of these kids are used to hearing at home, but everybody understands his closer: “I love you, and I believe in you.” With that, everyone in the room rises for a big collective cheer. Amazing. I’m guessing it’s the thing that nobody told the mayor when he was a kid. That someone loved him and believed in him ... but here he is.
Mauricio’s already glad-handing his new best friend before I can get over there to take the picture. The mayor tells Mauricio he believes in him, shakes his hand and hugs him.
I hit up the mayor in the parking lot before he gets into his big black SUV, with the shadow people lurking behind tinted glass in the back — his handlers, I guess. He’s suspiciously reachable to discuss police culture, my reason for tracking him down, but Mauricio doesn’t seem to notice, he just wants to take more pictures.
Whatever his damage, the mayor’s from the barrio and you gotta love that. This is L.A., and I hear he’s sleeved-up to the pits, which means that more than any American big-city mayor, he understands all about the collisions of epidermal pigmentation and police culture.
So, Mayor, what about these kids in the hood systematically abused by the police for so long that they don’t even identify the harassment as abusive anymore? Seems like it’s a big part of the problem. But you care about the kids, rite? Every last little thug — because you’re the mayor and you’re, well, you. And if you don’t care, we’re collectively fucked.
I tell Villaraigosa about a little kid I recently saw getting violated by the cops. I was a few blocks from Nickerson Gardens, driving with my 19-year-old criminologist friend D-Black and his associate Marky-D, both smoking Black and Milds in the back seat. As I rounded a corner, three squad cars appeared from the vapors with an eye in the sky, an LAPD ghetto bird, whirling above the streets. In precision-guided maneuvers, the cops descended on their target. Screeching to a halt, they corralled the suspect against a chain-link fence. Nowhere to hide, he surrendered. I watched as the officers performed their search up his shirt, down his pants, in his face, his socks and shoes. They interrogated and then released their suspect: a 12-year-old Mexican kid on his way home from his afterschool job at a market, riding a little blue bicycle, an off-brand, swap-meet faux-motocross affair. He said his name was Juan, but it’s not. He’s about 5 feet 2 inches, maybe 110 pounds. Short hair. Clean-cut, knees shaking. A small stain appeared on the front of his basketball shorts, where he presumably pissed himself a little. After the cops left, the kid, respectful of his elders, answered my questions, but his sneakers were spring-loaded and it took a lot for him to stay put.
“I didn’t do nothing,” he said. “I’m barely coming from work. I gotta go. I gotta go. I gotta go home. My mom is waiting for me.” Then he took off on his bike.
At first, I assumed the kid didn’t want to talk to me, didn’t trust me, because I’m white.
“Nah,” Marky-D said. “He shaken up. He scared. He wanna go home. Cops scared him good.”
“Yeah, he shaken,” D-Black added. “Probably his first time. Shit.”
I was shaken too. D-Black and Marky-D, though, took the incident in stride, which is tragic. Because the message the kid came away with was clear: He’s nothing ... nobody, and he’s not going to be anybody, so he might as well just ... insert tragedy here.
But you care, rite, Mayor? Because I promise you, the kid has no idea.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” Villaraigosa says, “I grew up in a home of domestic violence and alcoholism ... I saw really ugly things as a young boy. I saw my mother beaten. I recognize that a lot of what happens in our communities happens because of the breakdown of the families, poverty, drugs, domestic violence and the like. And so ... the way that I try to communicate to all of our kids — but to that young boy you mentioned as well — is through my work, and through what I say to them in that work.”
Apparently the mayor’s got a few things in common with Mauricio. When Mauricio was 9, his dad beat up his mom so bad she was hospitalized for two months. “I would beat a wall till my knuckles were bleeding and shit,” Mauricio remembers. “Like you can’t do nothing.” He says the mayor’s a homey.
Hey, Mayor, you’re Catholic, rite? I mean, isn’t that where you’re coming from in the middle of all this — with the programs and the focus on education? From a spiritual platform, rite? It’s like a slow-motion uprise for the underclass. That’s why the kids love you. You’re like Che and JFK, in L.A.
“In my faith there is a notion,” the mayor tells me, “a principle called social justice — that we all have a responsibility to improve the human condition, particularly where that human condition is based on social or economic inequality. And I feel strongly that who I am comes, in part, from the sense that we have a responsibility to those who are less fortunate.”
Whew. That’s a relief, especially with the gaping chasm between LAPD command staff, which espouses community policing, and the rank-and-file boots on the ground, who aren’t always so nice. Some call it paramilitary suppression/containment policing or radio-call policing, even unconstitutional institutionalized abuse — stuff like that. And with the kids caught in the fray, it’s a disaster. At least, that’s what some people say.
“I recognize that there are times when injustices occur, and when they do, I’m committed to rectifying them,” Villaraigosa responds. “That’s why we appointed what by most estimates is the most progressive police commission in L.A. history: a former civil rights leader, John Mack; a former U.S. attorney, Andrea Ordin, who actually worked on the Christopher Commission; former Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Pacheco, from the Rampart Commission investigation.
Tru dat. It’s great. It’s all there on the LAPD Web site, and anybody who doesn’t think William Bratton is good for L.A. hasn’t been looking at the stats. It’s amazing. Incredible. Fantastic. So hopeful. Even a lot of people in Watts say so. The LAPD is almost transparent, rite, Mayor?
“We put together protocols in the department, which ensure, as much as possible, that we are holding people accountable when their conduct does not conform to policy regulations and the law,” the mayor says. “We’re always open when we make mistakes as a city, whether it’s the police department or another department — we’re always ready to correct them.”
That’s dope. Fact is, crime rates are down all over the U.S., but L.A. has done particularly well. Violent crime in the city, according to the LAPD’s crime-and-arrest weekly statistics, has been reduced by 45.9 percent since 2002, the year Bratton took office. (Part of that drop came after the department stopped reporting child and spousal simple assaults as aggravated assaults in 2005 to comply with FBI guidelines, but there has also been a steady drop each year since the change.) The problem is that Los Angeles still has some of the country’s bloodiest neighborhoods. Not Third World police-state bloody. Not Tijuana bloody. But still bloody. Even as overall violent-crime numbers decline, justifiable homicides by peace officers for all of Los Angeles County have remained fairly constant: There were 34 in 2000; 28 in 2001; 30 in 2002; 35 in 2003; 30 in 2004; 21 in 2005; 30 in 2006; and 36 in 2007.
LAPD use of critical force resulted in the deaths of 16 people in 2000; 7 in 2001; 15 in 2002; 14 in 2003; 16 in 2004; 11 in 2005; 13 in 2006; 20 in 2007; and 21 to date in 2008, according to Force Investigations Division (FID). From January 4 to July 15, 2008, there were 17 officer-involved shootings (OIS), with hits that resulted in the suspect’s fatality.
The flip side is commensurately grim.
Six officers were feloniously killed during 2006 in California, the state with the highest number among the 48 totaled nationally that year. Historically, those numbers used to be highest in the Southern states.
And yet they say the stage is set in Los Angeles for a long-awaited new paradigm in law enforcement. Community policing is on the table, even if no stable financial infrastructure exists in L.A.’s poorer neighborhoods — let’s just say Microsoft won’t be opening an office in Watts anytime soon. But for any of this to matter, minds must be changed, minds that have been shaped by a myopic, hood-based worldview. Minds like Mauricio’s.
“There’re a lot of fuckin’ crooked cops,” Mauricio says. “They just play the part. They used to fuck around with me when I was 13 and 14, 15. They were the ones that got me caught up in the system for stupid little shit. They wanted me to go and fucking fuck someone up for them. They wanted me to do dirty jobs for them. If I wouldn’t do it, they would be, like, ‘Imma take you to fucking jail.’ So you’re, like, fuck, what can I do? I don’t have no choice.”
“It’s gotten more violent in the field,” says Sergeant Jeffrey Wenninger, of the LAPD’s Categorical Use of Force division. “Chief Bratton’s leadership style is getting us more bang for the buck — improved intelligence and directed patrol. We’re focusing our resources toward more violent criminals. Technology like cameras and facial recognition all plays a role. Now one guy can do the job of four or five observation posts.”
But more bang for the buck can extract a bloody price.
“People aren’t just angry with the police. They hate them,” says civil rights activist and litigator Connie Rice. “The sniper fire on cops went up 83 percent from ’04 to ’05. It went up another 65 percent from ’05 to ’06. And I know why. The public hates the police. The good thing is, Bratton understands that the public-trust issue is huge.”
That may be true, but the battle for public trust is clearly not being won in communities where the black and Latino underclass are taking the hits. Even so, Rice says, “2008 polls show across the board that middle-class, working- and upper-class African-Americans are expressing increasingly favorable views of the LAPD, and particularly Bratton. This is not to say that all problems with LAPD are gone, or that African-Americans don’t still see problems with LAPD, but the open hostility and expressions of hatred of police [that] I still do find are less prevalent in my interviews with members of the black underclass.”
So if things are getting so good, why all these dead brown and black people? I decide to follow a thin blue line to an easy target for some straight answers to tough questions.
LAPD Chief William Bratton is so old-school, he’s like James Cagney as Eliot Ness: untouchable. He’s a superstar and a PR genius. You just know he’s got a paperback edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War tucked under his pillow next to the annual edition of the Fortune 500. Thing is, like the mayor, Bratton is relatively reachable these days on the issue of the culture of policing. So is L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who recently told me it’s “the most important, undiscussed issue in law enforcement today.” These guys are smooth operators, but neither is dodging a single bullet about this stuff. It’s more than possible that the city is actually ready for a conversation that could lead to that paradigm shift. Add a major budget overhaul, say, half the cost of the L.A. Zoo’s $42 million elephant habitat they’re fighting about, and we might actually get the party started.
So, Chief, is it happening? Has the tarnish on that shield been wiped clean, the way you said it would be back in 2002?
“I think so. I think we have been relatively free of scandal since that time. All police organizations will always have incidents of corruption, brutality, breaking of the law.”
You can say that again. But, umm, hello? The May Day thing in MacArthur Park?
Still, I gotta give Bratton his propers. All things considered, he’s handling the job smooth as see-through silk. He’s got a year or so before the duck waddles lame on his second term, but he’s a reformer, and under his leadership we do have the new translucent LAPD thing.
So people can rest assured that it’s just going to keep getting clearer and clearer, rite, Chief?
“It is not my belief that we’ve got systemic corruption and brutality problems in the department. When we do detect problems, either proactively or with our stings or investigations, when things come to light, I think we’ve got a pretty good track record of moving aggressively on it.”
Okay. Fair enough. So, you’re Catholic, rite?
“I’m basically Catholic, but I’m not a practicing Catholic. I’ve been very fortunate. I had two great parents in my life. So I had what some of these kids don’t have. I grew up in a very poor family. A very poor neighborhood. Cold-water flat, didn’t have running hot water till I went in the Army. My parents, most times in their lives, didn’t have two dimes to rub together, but what they had, they cared for. They made sure we did our school work, et cetera.”
Damn, that’s rough. Straight up Grapes of Wrath. But, Chief, you’re like the mayor, rite? You care, don’t you? I mean, I know you’re a law-enforcement icon and everything, but still.
“Your heart goes out to these kids, but to be quite frank with you, some of them reach a point where they’re callous killers, and I’m sorry, the compassion stops. Life was not dear to them, but you gotta arrest ’em, gotta put ’em away. Do some of them have a potential to turn around? I think that one of the frustrations the cops have is that they see so many try and fail, and others who never try and continue to fail.”
Yeah, that’s bad. Cops and gangsters. It’s just a matter of time till somebody makes the first move, and the kids absorb the inevitable collateral damage. It’s a fact of life in a contest of nerves. So what’s your strategy?
“In playing chess, you’re not just moving one piece at a time, you’re literally watching all the other pieces on the board, and you have to have an endgame. You have to have a strategy that the move you’re making now ultimately helps the moves you hope to make three or four down the line, while at the same time constantly anticipating the countermoves from your opponent.
“The first thing we have to deal with here, in regards to the Watts community, is to deal with the violent crime, which in South Bureau has been prevalent for so many generations. That’s where the boots on the ground [come in], the cops who are face to face with this incredible violence, not only the incredible toll on human beings but also the dehumanizing of people. It’s very difficult to get control of it without the potential for alienation,” Bratton says. “You’ve been down there enough to see these incredible scenes of grief and anger, frustration, and the cops trying to sort it all out.”
South Bureau oversees 57.6 square miles, with a population of about 640,000 people, which includes Watts and Inglewood, so it’s no joke. There’s always a lot of bad news down there.
“The good news is, like that trauma surgeon, like that chess game, the first major moves have been made, in that it is undeniable that the crime levels in those areas are down, and down by phenomenal numbers,” Bratton notes. “While people there still live in great fear, and there is still a lot of violence, it is nowhere what it was in the early ’90s. And frankly, it is significantly down in the six years I’ve been here. We can give you those figures ad nauseam. Case in point, our July homicide numbers: Last year we had 42. Quite likely we will end the month with a 50 percent decline in what is traditionally one of our worst crime months. Benefiting significantly from them is the area that you’re concentrating on right now.”
Well, that’s great about the numbers and all. Good job. Nice work. Well done. But what about community policing and police abuse? What about the disconnect? It seems that cop behavior still might be fueling the problem in ways you can’t calculate in digits yet.
“You’re correct about the disconnect that occurs occasionally between the cops on the frontline and the bosses, but remember, all the bosses in this department, they worked their way up in the LAPD. Cops on the ground, the nature of their jobs is that they’re so busy dealing with the trauma, they oftentimes don’t have the luxury senior officials in the department have, to have this type of [big-picture community] interaction.”
So you get the picture, but maybe all the street-level cops, maybe they haven’t received the community-policing memo because they’re too busy with all those thugs with guns. I wonder how that enlightened vision is going to work its way down the food chain, and when?
“We have come a long way, and the more we can get the crime situation stabilized, then we can get to the point where we are less negative with those young kids. [We can get to] a position with those young kids where they can get out and play, get into the gyms and not be hassled on the street by us. But the violent crime continues to be out there. We have to be very proactive and aggressive in seeking it out, and the reality is that among that youth population, there are some very bad kids. We can’t get around that. I still have all these murders and shootings. So let’s not kid ourselves, in that population, there are a lot of characters.”
Characters. That’s an interesting choice of words. When I mentioned to some kids in Nickerson Gardens that you’d used that word, they fuckin’ flipped. They weren’t feeling that at all. I’m thinking they need to be collectively embraced instead of demonized. Like that’s a big part of the problem. A little sympathy for the devil, you know?
“I can’t help it if some of the gangbangers you’re talking to basically wanna see that as a racist comment. They see race in everything we do. I’m sorry, that’s not the case. It’s a term I use all the time. I can call them mutts, I can call them crooks, I can call them sociopaths, I can call them characters. Characters is actually a benign term. These people are actually sociopaths who will put a bullet in your head just as soon as look at you.”
Touché. Regardless, in the interest of justice, I have to consult D-Black and Marky-D for another point of view. They promise to shed some light from the streets.
I gotta admit the two black teenagers do kinda look a little thuggish when I pick them up at their home in Watts. Baggy jeans, big shirts and hoodies. I saw some Jewish kids in the Valley working the same look. I don’t think they’re affiliated. I’m not aware of any Chabad Crips.
“Characters! CHARACTERS! That’s just another name for nigga.” Marky-D is livid. “They talk about us like we just trash on the street. We not characters. We American citizens living around this neighborhood, being mistreated by cops fucking with people, not even protecting and serving, just fucking with people!”
The learned D-Black jumps in, “Shit ... make me feel like a slave. Police being racist is making more people corrupted into doing more crimes. I know they too much stuff going around, they start not to trust nobody ... but everybody not a suspect. Everybody not a criminal. Everybody have a right to be treated well, you feel me?”
D-Black and Marky-D aren’t feeling any trickle-down transparent rainbow love from the city. Like that 12-year-old kid we spotted, they’ve been getting hemmed up every time they leave the house, since they were 13. They go out for some chips and end up on the curb in handcuffs. Their ideas about the police were still forming when puberty presented. D-Black was thinking about becoming a cop. He grew a few inches and, on a visual level, he became a perceived threat and subsequently a target for the cops. Cops treat them like criminals and now they hate them for it. It doesn’t take a law-enforcement visionary to see where this is heading and why.
Chief Bratton and Sheriff Baca say they understand and are actually attempting to move the culture of policing into an area where it’s never been before: this century. Obviously, there’s a lot to be done. And D-Black and Marky-D are going to need some of that elephant-habitat money to get the community-policing thing implemented in their hood.
“Community what?” Marky-D asks. He has no idea what I’m talking about when I ask him about community policing in his neighborhood.
“I run a community-policing department. And anybody who doesn’t think that — too bad,” Bratton says when I share the feedback from Marky-D. “This is a department that tries very hard. It is a department that has many demands placed on it. At the same time, it is a department that had a very checkered past, like many police departments in America. We are working very hard to deal with legacy, history and the streets we police.”
Just contemplating the disparity between the opposing voices is enough to make a sensible citizen develop multiple-personality disorder. Who’s the good guy here? Who’s the bad? We need cops, but does every black and brown kid deserve to be treated like a criminal? How do we know the cops are doing what they say? How do we know they’re on point and it’s not a sleight of hand, like D-Black, Marky-D and Mauricio say? What are the facts in evidence?
“There isn’t a police department in America that has as much oversight as the LAPD,” Bratton bites back, “so I’m sorry, but I’m not in the business of satisfying everybody all at the same time. My role is to reduce crime, reduce fear, reduce disorder. Keep the city safe from terrorism. And to have a police department that’s reflective of the city we police — the percentage of officers matched almost exactly to the racial and ethnic makeup of the city. One of the things in policing, we’re never going to satisfy everybody, and if we try, we’re doomed to failure.
“This is a damn good police department, probably one of the best, if not the best, in the United States,” Bratton continues. “It’s doing one hell of a job making this city safer. When you look at the crime numbers in the city [today] versus the early 1990s, they’re phenomenal. If you look at the homicides, about 400, you’re gonna have to go back to the 1970s to see a year when they were that low. And if you’re looking at per capita crime numbers, you’re going to have to go back to the 1950s. Right now, we’re right behind New York. We’re the second safest large city in America based on those per capita figures.”
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca could be a motivational speaker. Not like the sycophant guy with acromegaly. More like Fran Tarkenton. I heard that if Baca had hair, it would be on fire about this police-culture stuff. His bedside reading is probably The Secret; William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience; and a standard-issue copy of Deanes’ Manual of the History and Science of Fire-Arms. He’s a man of God, with a badge. For the most part, Baca has his heart screwed on straight. But don’t get confused. He’s a cop, and he’ll lock your ass up (with compassion).
“First of all, I think the police culture is the most undiscussed issue in law enforcement today in the United States. In my opinion, it’s all about the culture.”
All right, now we’re finally getting down to business. So what exactly is it all about?
“It’s called public trust,” he says, “the essence of strong policing is strong public trust. It’s a question of leading-from-the-heart. The biggest secret in America today is that most cops do lead from the heart. LAPD, Sheriffs Department — that’s true of all police agencies.”
Yes, yes, I love this whole leading from the heart thing. It really speaks to my sensibilities, but are you sure it’s true? My friend Tharell, a 26-year-old black born-again Christian in Watts, says deputies keep leading him from the heart to a curb seat when he goes out to buy diapers for his kids. True, he looks a little thuggish, it’s the clothes again ... but have you seen what the people who work at Parker Center are wearing? There oughta be a law!
“I think I’ve been very effective in getting the politicians to see a new model of how to coordinate things with the intervention, recovery and enforcement elements,” Baca says. “Education, recovery, enforcement — we’ve finally crystallized our planning process.”
Zzzzzzzz ... zzzzzzzz ... oh, sorry. I must have dozed off for a second. But it sounds great. Yeah. Umm, what were you saying? Something about bringing education, recovery and service tools to people who are meandering. That sounds expensive. Are you sure politicians know how to organize resources effectively enough to make it happen? I’m thinking they don’t.
This cop-culture stuff is so multilayered it’s hard for a simple citizen like me to wrap his head around it. So many points of view. Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but invoke the Connie Rice factor. It’s unavoidable. She riffs out on this shit so hard your ears will start smoking.
Operating from the inner sanctum of a clusterfuck of law enforcers and adjudicators, she’s compassionate but has razor-sharp talons. After suing the cops for 20 years, Rice is now adopting a different tactic, operating inside Parker Center as a constructive critic. Bratton says she’s “inside the tent.”
“When you use aggressive policing in a containment-suppression mode with a war on drugs and a war on gangs,” she says, “you end up with a mass-incarceration strategy that creates extraordinary levels of alienation. It’s not even a question of trust, it’s what’s the level of antipathy and hostility.”
Rice always does her homework. She’s interviewed 365 cops, including FBI, L.A. Sheriffs and LAPD for one of those big reports she serves up to the politicians, which they then use for doorstops. In the course of her research, she asked a gang of young LAPD officers how you get into SWAT.
“Every last one of them said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. You get assigned to South Bureau or Hollenbeck, where you can do whatever you need to do. And hopefully you’ll get a righteous shoot, and you’ll be really aggressive, and SWAT will pick you up.’”
Ouch. That sounds like bad news for D-Black, Marky-D and Mauricio.
“The cops [on the street] are telling us we’re full of shit, and they’re right. We pay lip service to community policing that serves community problems and bonds with the community,” Rice says, “but then we run a police force that’s too small to do problem-solving.
“There’s never been a point in time in L.A. where we’ve had policing leadership like this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I’m not blaming the police. They’re doing what we’ve asked them to do. I’m blaming the politicians, because they don’t have the backbone and the will and the sense of urgency to actually position the approach to this problem on a solution footing. They’re not willing to put the resources in because these people don’t matter. L.A. is to violence what Bangladesh is to diarrhea. That’s how violent our hot spots are. Even though the crime rate citywide has gone down and keeps going down, it’s concentrated around the hot spots.”
So we’ve decided to leave it to law enforcement to wipe up the shit but forgot to give them a WIC voucher for toilet paper?
“The right people are dying. That’s the politics of it. That is the body politic,” she says. “That’s us. Our politicians are only looking at a headline and a poll, and so they’re not going to solve anything. We’ve got another 10 years of work to do, but I thought we’d never get to the point of saying that, ‘Okay, now we can start.’”
Ten years seems like a long time. It can be half a lifetime for a young man in Watts, but it’s big movement in a department with a “checkered past,” as Bratton puts it.
“We got on them to agree to end the wanton brutality,” Rice says. “It’s kind of like getting the South to admit that lynching wasn’t okay. They no longer shield the brutality. They no longer shield the hunter-killer cops. Over the last 20 years they’ve weeded those guys out, and the ones they can’t get out, they’ve isolated and no longer cover for. It used to be that the good cops were so afraid of the underground cops that the underground cops totally ruled everything and could get away with everything, from summary executions to all kinds of stuff you’d only think could happen in a Third World country. Another thing that’s changed is the thinking at the top. It’s night and day on the sixth floor at Parker Center in terms of the attitude and openness to outsiders they consider constructive critics, regardless of whether or not the fundamental DNA of the LAPD has changed. That’s huge.
“The thing that has not happened inside the police force, that I have never had an honest discussion about, is the policing tactics themselves and whether they create more blowback than not. They agree that they can’t be gratuitously brutal. They agree they need to do everything constitutionally and respectfully. That’s at the top. I’m not saying the graveyard and patrol cops have gotten the memo yet. I don’t think that a lot of them have.”
Which is odd, because that seems like the only conversation to start with. How to stop abusing people on the bottom rung. I think somebody wrote a big essay or something on this once. Oh, yeah, now I remember, it was called the Constitution.
“The police feel so thinly spread,” Rice says. “They know they’re adding to the destruction of these kids’ lives, and they don’t wanna do it. They’re asking, ‘Can’t you give me a civic backup team? Once I put him in the system, I feel like I’m contributing to his slow death.’”
This stuff sounds really familiar. I can hear an echo of Rice’s considerations from another dimension.
“The new generation of cops,” Mauricio says, “they’re graduating and getting their fucking gun and going out there and they’re fucking rookies, so they’re trying to prove themselves. It’s like gangbanging. Putting in work trying to earn their name. Trying to earn respect. Trying to do a little dirty shit here and there.”
Like Rice, Mauricio makes the distinction between command-staff shot callers and the rank and file. He doesn’t take it personally, but it is personal.
“I don’t hate the cops. I hate the system. To the cops, I’m a suspect. They think I’m a criminal or a terrorist, a guy who doesn’t have nothing — no future in front of him, going to end up in jail, drug addict or death. They see a guy like me walking down the street and say, ‘I’m going to get this guy. He can’t do nothing. He has no lawyer, he’s nothing.’ They don’t hate me. They don’t care about me. If they’d a cared about me, they’d help me. They could tell me, go to Yo Watts, [the community program] where they get you books and help get you into college. But they don’t tell me shit.”
On the second floor of a Washington Mutual bank building, a community meeting of the Watts Gang Task Force is just beginning. Smooth operator Francisco Ortega, a policy adviser from the City of L.A. Human Relations Commission, officiates in the best blue suit I’ve seen in days. The three-minute timer he brought is a gesture. It’s relatively useless here. The stakes are too high. Too many lives hang in the balance in the precarious dance between the people and the man.
Gang interventionist Michael Cummings, a.k.a. Big Mike, gang interventionist Bow Wow from Jordan Downs, task force founder Betty Day and others sit in a circle of chairs with South Bureau commanding officer Kenneth Garner, Assistant Commanding Officer Andrew Smith and Captain Phil Tingirides from South East. They’re all here to listen. To talk and to listen.
People from different factions of the community with varied agendas sit quietly, while others draw attention to themselves with manufactured intensity. Captain Tingirides reports on crime and punishment, then absorbs the force of the blow, as community members fire at will about everything and anything, from last week’s deaths, kids, jobs, sports, summer camp, city-funded programs and random complaints to recent successes. It’s grass roots. It’s hopeful. It’s respectful. It’s productive. It’s a fucking miracle.
The meeting descends into a minor melee, then crescendoes in a flurry of raised voices all vying for position, when one voice rises above the rest. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute!” Sista Soulja (a.k.a. Cynthia Mendenhall) takes the room hostage for 10 minutes. The community activist and former PJ Crip in a short wig and big, dark sunglasses has earned the right to speak. She’s paid for the privilege in blood. She’s lost two sons in the crossfire. Betty Day has lost one.
“They police, they not the problem,” she says. “The problem is us! The problem is the community. We have a better relationship with the LAPD now than we did in the last 40 years!” Applause all around.
Outside in the parking lot, I hit up Tingirides and cut to the chase. He’s possibly the most reasonable person I’ve met out here. He sees a solution through the schools.
“We’re targeting kids that have significant issues,” he says. “They’re not in big trouble yet, but they’re going to be if there’s not some sort of intervention. That intervention is happening at a much greater scale than it has been.”
Sista Soulja butts in, and he lets her have her say. She puts her hand on his heart.
“Tell [the mayor] to call me,” she says. “Tell him I’m out here suffering, trying to help people. We need more housing and jobs. We need more programs — and stop sending everything over to East L.A. He promised us, and it’s not happening.”
“[Community policing] is extremely expensive for me manpower-wise, but it’s worth it. Four years from now I’m not going to need as many officers taking crime reports. We’re making a big difference in violence.”
That’s fantastic. Really. But are you alienating the population and creating kids as criminals? That’s something you can’t count in numbers.
“I would disagree strongly that we’re creating criminals. Listen, we have a crime, see this kid and he matches the description, we have to check him. If it’s not him ... he goes on his way. Everything is a battle out here. I make it clear to the officers, be patient. That’s one of the things I’m trying really hard to do here, to get the officers to have more dialogue and to understand that the lack of respect from the community toward the officers ... it’s not against you. It’s against something that has been there for a really long time.”
At South Bureau on Broadway, Commander Andrew Smith is a straight shooter. The former Skid Row captain breaks down exactly what they’re up against, starting with the level of weaponry. “Down here, in Division 77 on a Wednesday night — nothing special, just regular Wednesday night — one of our units in the space of just a couple hours came up with 18 guns. Most stolen, all in possession of people who shouldn’t be carrying them. That’s just in one division.”
Still, he gets the community thing: “We’re doing much more than answering radio calls and jamming bad guys. A few bad experiences with LAPD could make a kid say, ‘I’m going to join a gang.’ A lot of these kids think they’re not gonna live to be 21.”
The commander’s cell goes off. It’s a lieutenant calling from a crime scene. Black female. Blunt-force injury. She just died in the hospital. We roll out.
As we drive the streets of blight, three black teenagers fly by through traffic on minibikes: wife beaters, baggy jeans, no helmets. They make Smith, smile and wave. He couldn’t catch them in traffic if he wanted to.
A banner on a streetlight overlooks the crime scene on the 5900 block of West Boulevard: Express kindness. The message doesn’t resonate on this occasion. Two 30-year-old women got into a fight; one bashed the other with a stick, or maybe she O.D.’d and fell. It’s not clear. One thing’s for sure, somebody’s dead.
Small groups gather on the sidewalk, others casually watch from balconies. Two cops in cheap suits and two in uniforms take notes.
A beat-up Cherokee slows to a roll. A 40-year-old woman in the passenger seat asks, “Where did they take her? That’s my niece.” She doesn’t know she’s dead.
Lieutenant Lyle Prideaux looks like he’s been on the job for 20 years but turns out to be 34. Wearing an unfortunate blue-and-gray pinstriped suit, he’s running the scene.
“I think it’s interesting when you get people who talk about the way the police should be treating people is with respect,” he says. “Like we haven’t been.”
When Prideaux came on the job, there were fewer than 7,000 cops in a city of 3.5 million.
“Now we’re less than 10,000 in a city of more than 6 million,” he says. “Do the math.”
Mauricio has done a lot of thinking lately on the philosophy of police culture and how it has affected his life. He’s sees both sides. He sees all the players. The full spectrum, beyond the black, white and brown.
“There’s three of ’em,” he says, “Plato, Aristotle and fucking ... ah, what’s the other one? Socrates. He’s one of the greatest fucking philosophers of all time. Ignorance is bad, and good is fucking, like, knowledge. If you don’t know nothing, like I didn’t know nothing, everything goes bad. If you’re ignorant, you don’t know shit, like I didn’t. That’s a lesson I learned.”
We’re inside Mauricio’s new home, a few miles and light years from South L.A. Christ on the cross is prominent on the mantle of the tidy two-bedroom apartment. Mauricio’s mom is Catholic and grew up with nothing ... like the police chief. She’s a child of domestic violence and addiction, like the mayor.
Next to Jesus, a tightly rendered portrait of Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec emperor who ascended to the throne of his besieged city when he was 18 years old. Mauricio painted it during one of his incarcerations. On the floor is his backpack and a textbook from school, Automobile Technology. It’s not much, but he’s an alchemist committed to transforming a scrap from the middle-class table into a vehicle of emancipation. He’s decided he wants to be an auto mechanic.
“Every mind is a new world, it depends on how you see, you know?” Mauricio says. “There’re a lot of different personalities — more being born every day. That’s our future. And that’s why I’m hoping that it’s going to be better.”
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