Rampart: Streets, Cops Are Tough

Times Staff Writer

Officer Doran Christenson has walked the night beat in the heart of the Rampart Division, the Los Angeles Police Department's busiest, for 14 years.

His beat--the MacArthur Park area--takes him into some of the city's meanest neighborhoods in pursuit of robbers and burglars, dope dealers and prostitutes, wife beaters and car thieves.

And like most street cops in Rampart, Christenson loves his work.

"You've got to admit it," Christenson said, turning to his longtime partner, Paul Afdahl, as they raced to a shooting. "This is fun."

Christenson is one of 193 street cops in Rampart, which last year had 64,096 calls for service--more than any other division in the city--and 23,009 major crime reports, second highest in the city.

Despite the heavy action--in fact, because of it--Rampart is considered one of the best places in Los Angeles to be a street cop. No one at Rampart asks to transfer, and officers wanting in must get on a waiting list.

With its guaranteed daily intensity and prospects for danger, Rampart is a street cop's paradise, where officers get the chance to do the work that made them want to join the Police Department in the first place.

"I like going out there and getting the hell scared out of me," said Officer Ron Aguilar, 41, an 18-year department veteran who moved to Rampart in 1974.

"A call goes out about a guy with a shotgun, shooting off rounds. Your common sense tells you, 'Get the hell out of there.' But the cops here fight to go to those calls."

Unlike most divisions, with their homogenous ethnic configurations and routine crime patterns, Rampart has a variety of people and problems that makes each day on the job a unique experience.

'You Never Know'

"You leave for work every night, and you can't expect that it will go any one way," the 41-year-old Christenson said. "It's like fishing. You never know what you're going to catch."

Along with the variety comes the excitement of a busy division that some Rampart officers find addictive.

"We need that adrenaline," Aguilar added. "We're like hypes, but instead of heroin, our junk is adrenaline. We need it. I couldn't work a job eight hours a day where you don't do anything."

At Rampart, the brass leave the street cops alone to do their jobs. The division's day-to-day operations are run by 31 sergeants, most of whom have been at the station for a decade or more and who are known for an easy-going management style. "We don't do so much leading as guiding," said Sgt. Stan Freedman, 40, the assistant watch commander on the night shift. "Take a division like Southwest or 77th. There are so many new officers down there, the supervisors have to rein them in. In this division, the supervisors let the officers run the show."

Rampart includes a large, politically influential gay community in Silver Lake, about half of Koreatown, a good chunk of the densely populated Wilshire corridor, the accompanying Wilshire business district and the gang- and drug-infested Pico-Union District.

Located west of the Harbor Freeway, north of Santa Monica Freeway, east of Normandie Avenue and south of Silver Lake and Echo Park, Rampart has undergone enormous changes since the station opened at 2710 W. Temple St. in 1966, when the division's 11.7 square miles were broken off from the old Central area.

When Rampart opened two decades ago, it was among the least active in the Police Department. Aguilar remembers when the people who called the station were mostly retired folks living in peaceful neighborhoods.

"The calls were like kaffeeklatsches," Aguilar said. "It was like: 'Hello, officer. How is everything, officer? Can I get you a piece of cake while you fill out the report?' "

Rampart's pace has quickened in the ensuing years. Last year, the division recorded 85 homicides, 195 rapes, 2,160 robberies, 4,599 burglaries and 5,304 auto thefts. Only Wilshire Division had more crime than Rampart.

The division's official population of 252,000, according to the city's 1983 estimate, is 57.2% Latino, 20.7% white, 17.9% Asian, 3.5% black and 0.7% native American.

L.A.'s Ellis Island

Those numbers do not, however, reflect the estimated 50,000 illegal aliens who live in a division that has become something of the Ellis Island of Los Angeles.

For tens of thousands of immigrants--legal and illegal--from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Korea and Vietnam, Rampart is their first home in the United States. Filipino and Cuban communities also thrive there.

Rampart street cops view the new immigrants with mixed emotions.

"In some cases, you find yourself feeling sorry for them," Christenson said. "You're not a machine, and some of these people are here to make a better life for themselves.

"But a good many of them, unfortunately, are criminal types who have nothing to offer this country. It's too bad we can't get rid of those individuals."

Included in Rampart's population are an estimated 2,000 street gang members, hundreds of dope dealers, about 800 criminals who migrated to Los Angeles from Cuba after the 1980 Mariel boat lift and about 700 ex-convicts living in MacArthur Park area hotels.

A unique feature of Rampart's gangs is that perhaps the subculture is more accepted in the community than it is elsewhere in the city. A mural at 11th and Lake streets, for example, depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe standing on the shoulders of a slain gang member. A candle burns at the mural--undisturbed--24 hours a day.

Street sales of drugs--mainly marijuana--in Rampart may be the worst in the city. A 20-square-block area near Pico Boulevard and Hoover Street is a virtual drug supermarket, where dealers run up to passing automobiles to make sales. The dealers have been known to become violent when prospective customers turn them down.

"There was this lady who was eight months pregnant, and they tried to force her to buy dope," said Sgt. Bob Freet, the supervisor of Rampart's special problems unit, which spends most of its time in the Pico-Hoover area. "She wouldn't go for it, so they jumped in her car and started punching her in the stomach. The also knocked some of her teeth out." He said this example was the most extreme of numerous such reports his unit has received.

Rampart has a high concentration of recently paroled convicts--estimated at 800--because of the handful of residential hotels around MacArthur Park that take in ex-cons on welfare vouchers.

The assistant regional director of the Department of Corrections' parole division, Jerry DiMaggio, said such parolees have among the highest violation rates in the state "because they are so resource deficient--they have no wives or mothers to keep after them."

One of the ex-cons much on the minds of Rampart officers is Raymond Louis George, 32, who shot and killed a state police officer in 1974 at the end of a crime spree in which he also shot and paralyzed a Los Angeles policeman, permanently disabled an Occidental College student and attacked two sheriff's deputies.

'He Shot a Friend'

At most roll calls, Rampart officers are briefed on George's activities and whereabouts and instructed to call a supervisor if they encounter him.

"He shot a friend of mine," Christenson said. "I think it stinks that they let him out. He messes a policeman up, disabled a friend of mine for the rest of his life and kills a state police officer. And here he is again."

One Rampart crime problem is declining, however. About 2,000 Cuban criminals--known as Marielitos--moved to Rampart's MacArthur Park area after the 1980 Cuban boat lift and were believed responsible for as many as 700 felonies in two years.

Lately, however, their presence in Rampart Division has diminished, officers say. Many have been jailed, they say, and others have moved to the South-Central and Inglewood areas.

Because of heavy crime and dangerous characters, Rampart traditionally has more than its share of officer-involved shootings. Last year, there were five such incidents in Rampart, more than in any other division except Northeast, which also had five.

Christenson has been involved in six shootings. All have been found to be justified, but that did not make them any easier for Christenson to live with. "It's not an easy thing to go through," he said.

'A Likable Guy'

Last Dec. 16, Christenson shot and killed a man he knew, Robert Meza, who was being hunted in connection with a rape and kidnap. He had been arresting Meza on burglary and drug offenses in the MacArthur Park area for five years.

"We talked frequently, and in an odd way, he was a likable guy. But he liked his angel dust (PCP)," Christenson said.

Christenson got to know Meza and countless others like him while walking the foot beat in the MacArthur Park area, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

Along with Afdahl, Christenson spends most of his nights strolling through the neighborhood's dismal bars. The officers scan the characters perched on the bar stools and try to match the faces in front of them with those on the wanted posters back in the station.

They also patrol several of the dilapidated residential hotels that house both criminals and crime victims.

On a recent foggy midnight, Afdahl and Christenson paid yet another visit to the New Strand Hotel, where an illegal alien's encounter with a prostitute had been interrupted by four knife-wielding men who took his money.

With their guns drawn, the officers pounded on the door and identified themselves. The door cracked open an inch, and Christenson and Afdahl burst into the room, ordering the two men inside to kneel with their hands behind their heads.

Suspect Released

One of the suspects was arrested and taken to the station for booking. The next day, detectives were unable to find the robbery victim, so the suspect was released.

The next night, Afdahl and Christenson were back on the streets, seemingly unconcerned by the man's release.

"If you go through this job worrying if they're going to file charges, you'll drive yourself up the wall," Afdahl said. "We know the suspects. In a matter of time, they're going to fall."

"You have to look at it as a game--good guys versus bad guys," Christenson said. "And you have to keep trying until you make your best case."

Christenson, like most of the Rampart street cops, lives about as far away from the division as he can. His home is in San Bernardino County. Others live as far away as Frazier Park in Kern County.

For Christenson, there is a reason for the long drive home.

"I have to unwind," Christenson said. "The shootings, the stabbings, the living conditions of some of these people--you have to be able to turn it off at the end of the day."

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