Photos by Gregory Bojorquez
To the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay envelope and escapes responsibility.
It is just past midnight, within the first half-hour of Friday, July 26, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire Division radio band has come alive with chatter about a high-speed chase tearing through Venice. Patrolman Teodoro Ureña is nowhere near the pursuit, but he sends a message to his supervisor via his mobile MTTP computer to his supervisor, who is patrolling ahead of him. “Wnt to hd to Arl ovrps?” Want to head to the Arlington overpass of the Santa Monica Freeway? It is clear by the time Ureña types out this message that the perp is going east, back to home turf, somewhere in the brecciated streets that spread unremittingly into the balmy night. This is a chase that’s too late for the 11 o’clock news, too early for the 5 a.m. broadcast. But it is a chase that, if it passes anywhere near the Arlington overpass, will be “fun,” as they say at Ureña’s Wilshire Division.
The radio crackles with a Chick Hearn–like play-by-play. The stolen white Toyota is now heading toward Motor Avenue, and Ureña’s supervisor announces excitedly, “He’s heading this way.” Minutes later, the Toyota jumps onto the eastbound 10 freeway, and within moments Ureña and his partner, Renee McAlonis, are parked in their black-and-white on the Arlington Avenue overpass, peering down on the speedway below. The oncoming cars move like a school of illuminated fish. From their midst, a pod of bright white lights appears — police keeping a discreet but tight distance behind the runaway car. And then the fun begins. The kid driving the Toyota shoots up the offramp, swoops south on Arlington, west on Adams, not only with half a dozen Pacific Division cars on this tail, but an armada of Wilshire and Southwest cruisers trailing swiftly behind. Thirty seconds later, he gives up, pulling into the Chevron on Adams and Crenshaw. Barely three minutes later, the runaway driver and his passenger are safely spread-eagled on the ground, and Ureña is standing in the middle of Adams Boulevard, kibitzing with his pals and former partners, who, as if from nowhere, have descended on the scene.
“The ends of chases are like reunions,” he remarks, introducing his former partner from Southwest and another officer who was a classmate at the Academy. Awash in a swirl of amber and blue light, the incandescence of the gas station casting a chilly white mist across Adams, the police officers and their battalion of cars are suspended in time. Nothing else exists. It is as if, for 10 minutes or so, the LAPD owns that street — and it does.
“That was fun,” Ureña says as he slips back into the driver's seat of Adam-4.
Ted Ureña is bright, thoughtful, conscientious and invariably polite. He does not drink, he does not smoke. He addresses everyone as “sir” or “ma'am” in a supple voice that conveys respect and authority, without condescension. He is alert, and he has a sharp memory. When he is inside Wilshire Division, the two-story concrete bunker station house on Venice Boulevard near La Brea Avenue from which he works, he is anxious to be back on the streets, where, he hopes, he'll land a “caper,” a felony, if not in progress, then soon enough after the fact to make an arrest. With seven years on the force, he thanks God that he has never had to fire his service pistol, a 9mm semiautomatic Beretta 92FS, or the Remington 870 shotgun he checks, with cozy precision, from ejector to extractor to shell carrier and chamber. He never tires of the task. “You can't do that too many times,” he says, before he begins another all-night shift. Not that he hasn't drawn his pistol or reached for his shotgun. He has, and he has come close to firing, a split second away in one case, in which, he says, “a couple of seconds changed the whole situation.”
Guns do not make Officer Ureña nervous. Of his own and those belonging to his suspects, he says, “Never assume a weapon is unloaded. Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you do not intend to shoot.” Although he does not want to use deadly force, if it comes down to his life or yours, he will shoot you. Which is to say: Ted Ureña is a good cop. ä
TED UREñA MAY NOT LOOK MUCH LIKE THE OFFICERS we've seen for decades on myriad L.A.-based TV cop shows, but he is, in many ways, typical LAPD. He is 30 years old, 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, and he fits right in. His fellow patrol officers attending roll call for Watch 7, the 3-in-the-afternoon-to-4-in-the-morning shift, are also around 30 — though a few of them are younger. They are fit, but none of them are beefy college fullbacks. And they do not seem to have been recruited from Idaho or Iowa. They are black, Hispanic, Asian and white. Half of them are bilingual. Today's crew of 14 includes six women, one of them his partner, McAlonis. They have a predilection for gallows humor, and they banter freely, like camp counselors on the first day of summer — not exactly the military discipline you'd expect from a group who came up largely under recently ousted Chief Bernard Parks. Unlike several of the officers in Wilshire, Ureña isn't ex-military. He didn't spend time in Somalia, like some of his young contemporaries, a man-child posted overseas, armed with an automatic rifle and cut off from the easy drift of life immediately after high school. He didn't make the natural transition from one uniform to the next.
Still, from the age of 12, he dreamed of becoming a policeman — of being LAPD. He graduated from La Puente High School, enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, then transferred to Cal State Long Beach, where he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He absorbed the lessons of “differential association theory.”
“This may sound simplistic,” he says. “We share common societal values. Certain people don't do well in that system. They find another value system. For example, I would be no good as a gang member, because I look at it this way: They give little or nothing to society. They take and take and take. That doesn't go with my background. So what these people who chose to reject society's values do is get together with others. A young gangster sees how to steal cars, he is rewarded by becoming an expert at grand-theft auto. He appreciates these new values. Do I apply these theories? No. My basic concern is whether somebody committed a crime, not why they did it.”
If you were to meet Ureña off duty, say, in a burger joint in Pomona, near his two-story, four-bedroom tract house for which he paid $136,000 four and a half years ago, you would not guess that he's LAPD. His Oscar De La Hoya good looks and sparkling chocolate eyes throw you off. Ureña's quick, broad smile and tranquil composure, along with the fact that he does not have a mustache, give the impression of a schoolteacher, hardly an ill-at-ease cop. He has a scrubbed, unused seminary face. He speaks so softly at times that you've got to strain to hear him. These qualities carry over into his on-duty demeanor, causing some people to openly compliment him on his manners. Usually, they are disarmed to find that he isn't a stiff, or a roughneck.
Perhaps this has to do with Ureña's upbringing. He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and he spent the first two years of his life there. His father, Pablo, a house painter, moved the family — Ureña's mother, his older brother, Pablo Jr., and younger brother, Bulmaro — to La Puente, where three sisters were born. But his parents' village, Totatiche, a Nahuatl area on the northern border of
Jalisco, has been a kind of magnetic south for Ureña and his family. (In Nahuatl, Totatiche refers to “the place of our beloved and revered parents.”) Every five years, the Ureñas would drive to Totatiche and stay on a ranch outside town. He still makes regular pilgrimages to the settlement of 4,000, joining in the Sunday tradition of “dando la vuelta,” a promenade of jóvenes around La Placita, the town square, in which the young men move counterclockwise and the young women clockwise, in a choreographed ritual of courtship.
“Every Sunday, after 7 o'clock mass, the band plays in the gazebo, and if you see somebody that catches your eye, you'll ask them if they'll grant you a turn. If they say yes, you start walking and talking. And that's how a lot of boyfriend-girlfriend relationships start over there.” This is how his brother “Moro” met his wife, whom he brought back to Pomona, where they live in Ted's house, and where Spanish remains the vernacular.
In other words, Teodoro Ureña, like others out of Wilshire Division Watch 7, looks and speaks a lot like the people whose neighborhoods — rugged, ramshackle intersections like 21st Street and 10th Avenue — he patrols. Elsewhere, among L.A.'s show-biz liberals, who make princely sums off dramatic TV series depicting “realistic” cops, then clean their consciences with a tithe to the ACLU — the LAPD might be regarded as an army of occupation. But in Ureña's view, he is taking the bad guys — the brutalizing husbands, the carjackers, the armed robbers — off the streets. His view is that simple. He says, “We may not make a difference in any given crime, but even if it is just a couple of minutes with a righteous victim, somebody who's an innocent victim, who didn't contribute to what happened to them, we bring them a little peace. A lot of times you go back to the car, you kind of sit in the car for a split second, and you smile and you say, 'That was all right, that was okay.'”
He is a realist, with a core of idealism. “A lot of the time, our job is to put a Band-Aid on problems, and I'd be a fool to believe that I'm going to solve the world's problems. But maybe it is the way my parents brought me up not to be cold-hearted. Last week I caught two suspects in a stolen car, and when I got them in the back seat of our cruiser — one was from Guatemala, the other was from Mexico — I asked, 'Is this really why you came to this country?' You try to talk to them. I'd rather do that than use profanities against them. Perhaps I'm forgetting the victim. But it is better to give them a couple of words, and hopefully they'll think about it.
“Once we put them in the holding cell, I'll look back and say, 'Good luck.' As hard as they can be, there's just a better way of living, and they don't have to be in that situation. My partner, Renee, says when I try talking to these suspects, I talk philosophy. I expect good things from people, and when they choose to do evil, they are not living up to what God put into them, or created them for.
“I can't believe I'm doing what I'm doing,” he continues. “It's what I always dreamed I'd be doing. A common saying is, 'We're lucky to be here.' 'It's a great job.' I look at my badge, and I smile. I wish each officer would feel as happy about the job as I do.”
But make no mistake, Ureña is no religious naif, or a kindly sociologist who dresses up in a Kevlar flak jacket, midnight-blue slacks and a shirt with a gold badge pinned to the breast. After recently arresting a pair of boys, one 13, the other 17, for attempted robbery, Ureña says, “As smooth as it gets.”
“Lucky them,” he jabs back, crisply.
“I've heard it said, and I believe it,” Ureña says a few days later, “that some police officers are 'gunfighters.' Somebody who actively seeks the hardcore element. I would be happy to be called that: 'Here come the gunfighters.'” He smiles slyly. “It's been said of me, and I don't mind it.”
Check out the northwest corner of Cochran Avenue and Westhaven Street, and you'll encounter proof that Ted Ureña is a tough cop. The Smiley-Hauser clique, a branch of the 18th Street Harpies, took advantage of a newly poured wheelchair ramp to immortalize their LAPD adversary. “Fuck Ureña. Police K. 0-3 Killers.” Translation: Teodoro Ureña is a killer, and a marked man.
“PEOPLE SAY THAT CRIME IS ABOUT ENVIRONMENT, that people who commit crimes grew up in bad neighborhoods,” Ureña says. “But why do they use environment only to explain the bad? There are far more people who grew up there to do good than bad.” Ureña believes, simply, that criminals “take the easy road.” Crime, he insists unswervingly, is a matter of choice, not necessity. “They are not willing to make the sacrifices to do good. I think all people are born with a sense of right and wrong. Some people just choose to ignore that voice that tells them what they're doing is wrong. I don't really fall for reasons or excuses. 'I had to steal because of this.' No, you didn't have to steal. You chose to steal. And if you're in your bad situations, it's because of the choices you made that led you directly right there.” It is that cut-and-dried.
This unsentimental view applies as well to the subject of punishment. “I feel confident that the majority of people in jail deserve to be in jail,” he says, as if thinking otherwise defies common sense. As for incarceration, it is retribution — period. “I think convicts are incarcerated to be punished. I don't expect them to be rehabilitated. I don't.”
In uniform and out, Ureña will reiterate this seemingly unyielding conviction, which borders on a priestly view of good and evil. Yet, at the scene of a crime, his attitude can quickly soften. At 11:30 on a Thursday night, for instance, Ureña and his partner, McAlonis, answer a call about a man brandishing a knife on Arlington Avenue, on a block of crumbling apartments just south of Washington Boulevard. It turns out that the man has actually disarmed his stepdaughter, a 20-year-old woman who had her first child at 15, who was having a fight with her drunk boyfriend. The boyfriend, it seems, burst into the woman's apartment and picked a fight. He hit her, and she grabbed a knife. By the time Ureña leaves the scene, the girl is in handcuffs, charged with assault with a deadly weapon, while her boyfriend faces a much lesser charge. “In these kinds of situations,” Ureña says on the way back to Wilshire Division, “you feel bad. You sometimes wish you could arrange it so that justice is done. He came here drunk, and then she lost her head a little bit with the knife. So I feel a little bit badly for her.”
A week later, Ureña, who makes it a practice to forget about a call as soon as he leaves for the next one, is still thinking aloud about the boyfriend-girlfriend spat on Arlington. “Technically, the girl pulled the knife. Now, if a person were there to see it all the way through, I believe they would have compassion for the girl, and realize that she was not the person who instigated, it was the guy being drawn upon. So you would have sympathy for her — at least I did. I mean, for me it's never 'It's just a body in jail,' another statistic. I know we are dealing with human lives here, the same way I would not want to be put in jail for a mistake of the heart. So sometimes people do technically commit crimes. But are they really guilty of being a criminal? I don't know. Sometimes it's hard.”
DESPITE HIS ABILITY TO EMPATHIZE, TED UREñA IS a policeman whose views of his brethren are shaped by his own tough experience on the street. So when it comes to conduct and misconduct, he does not bend. He sounds like a policeman whose script was written by Jack Webb, and certainly not by James Ellroy. Policing involves violence. There is no therapeutic middle ground from which to mediate between a civil society and an uncivil society. Sometimes someone gets hurt. Ureña will not second-guess the appropriateness of a police beating or shooting. He sees it this way: “A person should put himself in the officer's position, and not ask, 'Why did the officer shoot?' Instead, turn the question around, and ask, 'How many times would you be willing to be shot at?' 'How many times would you allow yourself to be stabbed before you believe your life is more valuable than the person who's trying to take it?' I'll tell you right now, for me, zero. Absolutely. I consider myself to be a good man, a person who has something valuable to add to this world. And so I value my place on this Earth. And to defend that, to continue with that mission I have, even if it means taking someone's life if that person is dead set on taking mine, I truly believe that I will not hesitate. And I think that's important. I think you have to be clear as to what your limits are going to be and also clear on what you are capable of doing. Because a parolee's life — yeah, in the eyes of God, we're equal, he created us equal, but the choices that we've made right here on Earth have made us different people.”
The public, Ureña says, almost never sees the natural progression as force escalates to the dramatic incidents sometimes caught on video. Rodney King was on PCP, he resisted the officers, he wasn't stopped by Tasers, Ureña reasons. There was nothing left to do but employ overwhelming force. Donovan Jackson, slammed onto the trunk of an Inglewood police car, allegedly grabbed an officer's scrotum. “This is strictly my opinion, but I believe the officer's statement that he grabbed at his groin and began to squeeze it. I'd ask any man out here, how much of that are they going to take before they are going to do something to make him release his grip?” A year after Margaret Mitchell, the mentally disturbed 102-pound woman, was fatally shot for threatening an LAPD officer with a screwdriver, Ureña argued with a sergeant who believed the shooting was excessive. “I said, 'Sir, you cannot say, you truly can't say, and I don't think you should say, that the officer may have been incorrect, because, sir, neither you nor I were there. You're a big guy. Maybe you would take the chance of trying to wrestle the screwdriver out of her hands, but again, sir, I'm not going to be stabbed. I value my life too much to allow myself to take an injury in order to give another person a chance. How much do you value your life?' And I think that's what's necessary for the public to ä understand. Now, we are humans. More importantly, probably as individuals, we'll take chances for the greater good. But how much are you willing to sacrifice so that one person can live? You are putting yourself in a position where your family may lose you. It's a risky business.
“Let's not kid ourselves,” Ureña says. “All violence is ugly, unless it's a choreographed fight scene. It's not as if we can fight somebody, and then at the end of the day, everybody goes their own way. If we have to use force, it's only because they've done something to instigate that force. Even before that, they committed a crime that they now need to be arrested for. I wish the public would remember that we can't retreat. They don't pay us to retreat from fights or from incidents. How would that be? An officer can't say, you know what, you're too big for me, I'm not going to deal with you. He has to get the resources there, and then use whatever is available to him — even if it appears overwhelming. But we can't lose fights. Now, officers do lose fights, we're only human. But as a department, we can't lose. It has to be a win situation.”
And yet, throughout a 13-hour shift, on one long night of policing Wilshire Division streets, Ureña never raises his voice. At one loud-noise call, on South Cloverdale, just after 1 a.m., he does lower his natural tenor to do an imitation of Martin Milner, of Adam-12, himself impersonating an LAPD basso profundo. “POLICE,” Ureña sings out to a locked apartment door, reaching for a register two steps below his lowest pitch, turning the scene into a comic-opera send-up of a fearless copper on the beat. Ureña can barely keep a straight face.
An hour and a half later, at yet another loud-music call — this one on South Gramercy Place — Ureña demonstrates his “knock,” a tap as timid as that of Ed Norton, Ralph Cramden's Bronx sidekick. Renee McAlonis, who often cracks a crooked smile and with wry disbelief utters, “Yeah, right,” as part of a running monologue she maintains evaluating her own conduct and the conduct of others, strides confidently to the door, lifts her arm, forms a bruising George Frazier fist and with exaggerated glee pounds away. “Your police knock doesn't match your police voice,” she quips as the officers return to their cruiser. They both laugh. Shuttling to and fro in the deep of the drowsy night, it is easy to believe that Ureña and his comrades are no different from the civilians whose lives they fleetingly enter.
But police are different. It goes beyond feeling special or powerful because you wear a badge and a uniform and carry a gun. Countless hours imbibing the petty, the menacing, the tyrannical, the brutal, the ugly — as well as the good — make officers feel, in Ureña's words, “above the public.” He does not mean better. He means that police officers have an encyclopedic perspective, a view of things with the lid pried off. And even for an officer as idealistic as Ureña, the awareness persists that you stand apart from the crowd.
Concrete warning: The cop as target
This sensibility cannot be shaken, even when an officer is off duty. Asked why he carries a sidearm at those times, Ureña replies, “For personal safety, and for the safety of my loved ones. I guess the thing is you know how things can happen to people who are unsuspecting, and you want to be prepared in case something does happen to you or to somebody that you love. I don't try to live a life that's full of paranoia, but basic things, such as going to the movies and stuff, I look around. I look around to see where the exits are. I look to see who may be a problem. I don't know these people in a theater, so I have to go on the image they are presenting to society. The image they want to portray to the public. If it's a male Hispanic, with a shaven head, baggy clothes, well, in my opinion, he wants to portray the image that he's a hardcore guy. He wants to give the image that he's a gang member. That's what he wants me to see. And for that split moment that I happen to have him around my surroundings, that's the way I look at him.”
“From where I sit, that sounds paranoid,” I say. “I suppose from where you sit, I seem naive?”
“No,” Ureña says. “I think if there is a difference, I'd say you are willing to take more chances than I am.”
AND YET, THERE IS ALWAYS FUN. FUN IS ONE OF THE most frequently used words around Wilshire Division. Ted Ureña parses it this way: “Let's go have fun. If we're lucky, we'll have fun. Did you have fun? Now, that was fun.”
Fun means “chasing after the bad guys, chasing after real criminals, hardcore criminals, and eventually catching them. It's chasing after a car, it's proning a guy out, it's catching a guy with a gun before he's able to do something. It may look intense, it may be scary to some people, but when you can actually do what you initially thought this job entailed, now, that's fun.” Ureña's voice quickens. “Those are stories that you form for the rest of your life. And those are stories that you share with your partners. 'Ah, remember that moment?' 'Yeah, that was fun.'”
Talking about fun is fun. It inspires Ureña to have more fun. He puts it like this: “I have such a great time out here. It's not just that cliché that every day is different. There are possibilities out here for an endless number of things to happen. I want to be part of that. More stories. You can add more stories when you're out here. Just all the things you can get into when you're out here on the streets, that's what matters to me.”
Here is a story about fun. “I was working with Frank Dominguez, my partner in Southwest. We were working F.B., foot beat. There was this one guy, a local gang member. We knew he sold dope. But as soon as we came down the street, he would lock the security gate behind him. What can we do? We don't have enough to do anything with him, but we know he's dirty. So one day, we see him in an alley, and we come up with our game plan. We temporarily separate so that we can cover all angles of what he does. A lot of times gang members carrying narcotics, they'll run, and they'll start tossing the dope to get away. Something similar happened here. This guy would just talk and talk and insult and insult. Then he started running directly toward my partner and screaming as if he was going to attack him. So at that time we were able to take him into custody, and upon searching him, you could feel that he had something in his pocket. And people were coming out of the apartment complex, 'What are you guys doing with him, why do you guys always mess with him?' We found a little baggie of marijuana, no big deal. We said, 'Well, he has this.' 'Is that such a big deal?' We searched further, came out with a little revolver. 'Well, we found this.' 'Oh, well, we didn't know about that.' Now, this guy is a hardcore gang member, an admitted gang member with the Black Freestone Gang. But the public wants to side with him, because he's a local. Because they know him. Maybe they've seen him grow up. But he's part of their problem. He's part of the problem that brings shooters into their area to do violence, to do ADWs and stuff. And yet the people who live in those buildings look at us as being the bad guys.
“They say you're not supposed to take it personally, but it was personal. It was a personal goal of the both of us to eventually get that guy, and it worked out perfectly. He went to juvenile hall. I remember driving him back to the station, and both of us had these huge grins on our faces, and it'd get to the point where we'd say, 'What did you call us last time?' 'Remember, partner, he called us this last time.' You're not even really steamed or anything. You're reliving from the very beginning, from his insults to catching him with a gun. 'Pigs. Assholes.' The words don't matter to me. It's that he would regularly challenge us. Eventually he's the one who lost. In the end, the bars are shut on him, and we win for that day. Now, he'll get out, and I'm sure he is out already, but there will always be that memory that we were able to catch him that one day.”
In reality, most of a patrolman's shift consists of anything but fun. It usually involves crisscrossing the division, bouncing — though often at slow speeds — from one radio call “for service” to the next, rarely encountering a crime, let alone making an apprehension or an arrest. It involves separating former business partners squabbling over the couches and computers in a Miracle Mile office tower. It involves answering a false alarm at a coffee joint near Third and Fairfax. It involves rousting a bum who's passed out in the bushes of a quiet side yard on Stanley, near Olympic (and nagging yourself afterward over how it was you didn't see him lying there when you pointed your flashlight straight at him). It involves calming an irate wife who has just discovered her husband plying another woman with drinks on another woman at a bar on La Brea. It involves placating an upstairs neighbor whose downstairs neighbor is deliberately playing the television loudly enough to rattle the walls of their Blackburn Avenue four-plex. It involves telling a hostile, acerbic 40-something with a Carol Channing rasp to take her nattering indoors, because it's 3 a.m. and the rest of the people living on Croft would like a break. At its lowest ebb, it involves baby-sitting a trio of ADT private security cops standing on Washington near Western, who've called the LAPD to register a complaint of a hit-and-run against a woman who tapped one of their brand-new cars, they admit, at “maybe 3 or 4 miles an hour.” The night ends in the stillness of the 4 o'clock hour. Not gloomy, just hollow.