Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza aims his hand-held video camera toward a gathering of past and current rivals: a team of LAPD officers and Ramona Gardens housing project residents who are facing off inside a Boyle Heights gym to play each other in basketball.

“I used to chase him,” says Pedroza as he takes a break from videotaping. He’s pointing toward his old nemesis, a wiry bespectacled male making his way toward Pedroza.

“You never caught me,” George Sarabia replies.

Pedroza and Sarabia met in the 1980s when Pedroza patrolled the 498-unit, pink stucco Ramona Gardens complex that Sarabia then called home. Now the two men have joined forces to organize a formal showdown between officers and residents after the project’s beat officers handily lost an informal pickup game to the locals a couple months ago. Pedroza blamed their 63-13 defeat on the fact that they were wearing boots and called up Sarabia, who is a gang intervention supervisor and had recently started up a basketball league in the projects, to arrange a rematch.

“They brought in their ringers,” jokes 40-year-old referee Israel Ortiz about the LAPD’s new improved team, mostly made up of officers from Hollenbeck (plus one SWAT officer) who were the LAPD league champs last April. “They are coming back for revenge.” On the other side is the Ramona Gardens team, which is largely composed of Hispanic men in their teens and early 20s.

“Everyone wants to play,” says 25-year-old Francisco Avitia. “They want to beat the cops.”

By 5:15 p.m., the two teams take to the court and the 50-plus spectators sit in the gym’s small stands. Sarabia notices an officer leaning up against the wall a few feet away.

“He arrested me for robbery,” he says.

“I don’t remember,” shrugs Senior Lead Officer Steve Morales. “I arrested a lot of these guys. Five of them are here today. This game does more good than arresting the five guys. It lets these guys know that we are human beings. We are not just about ‘Put your hands behind your head.’ ”

Half an hour later, the LAPD is up by 20 points. “The cops are already tired,” laughs one spectator, the smell of marijuana hovering around him.

“Someone is getting high coming to the game,” says Pedroza loudly. A group of young men sheepishly look up toward him then turn their attention back to the game.

Last Thursday’s game is just the latest attempt by the LAPD to improve community relations with the 2,150 residents of Ramona Gardens after the police department began its $2.9 million contract with the housing authority last December to patrol five of L.A.’s largest and most crime-plagued projects.

“The cops have been hard on us lately,” says Ortiz, a self-proclaimed veterano and associate of the Big Hazards street gang. “They wanted to find out who was who. And who was on probation. They enforced us for a good two months. It was pissing off the people. They thought we were just drug addicts and alcoholics. There are a lot of beautiful people in this community.”

Ortiz, who is built like a linebacker, pauses and smiles at the smaller Officer Morales, saying, “He did his job. He never liked anyone. I like Mr. Morales. He was mean. We used to run and hide from him.”

Relations between Ramona Gardens and cops hit an all-time low in 1991 when 19-year-old Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez was fatally shot by Sheriff’s deputies around the corner from this gym. The shooting prompted a tense five-hour standoff between officers and residents. The county ultimately settled a wrongful-death lawsuit, paying $450,000 to Jimenez’s family.

More recently, two LAPD officers whom Officer Pedroza described as “heavy-handed” were relocated and relations have slowly improved.

“There has always been some feeling of mistrust,” says Pedroza. “We have received sniper fire in there on many occasions. We are trying to be creative and innovative with contact with the residents. We don’t just want to go in there and provide police efforts. We want a well-rounded communication with them.”

Just after 6 p.m. the buzzer sounds the end of the game. The cops win 78-64. Avitia is one of the top scorers with 15 points for his team — a fact that surprises him. “I drank 30 beers a day since I was 12. I was a passenger in three car accidents. The last car accident my mother told me to get my act together or go live somewhere else. She was embarrassed by me. I haven’t drank for a year. I feel energized. I like getting up in the morning, and George [Sarabia] gave me the extra kick to play.”

By 7:30 p.m. there are only a few people left lingering outside the recreation center. “I got ‘jumped in’ [initiated into the gang life] in this gym,” says Sarabia matter-of-factly. “Now I am using it to save the kids from getting into gangs or drugs.”

LA Weekly