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City’s Danger Zone : In the 77th, It’s Life at Mach 2

Times Staff Writer

The 77th Street Division is one of 18 police divisions in the city of Los Angeles. It covers 11.8 square miles of South-Central Los Angeles, shaped by census figures, spread from the edge of Watts on the east toward Inglewood in the west, and sliced irregularly by the Harbor Freeway.

It is home to 150,000 well-behaved, clock-punching citizens and some thoroughgoing villains with automatic guns or gravity knives or chair legs or whatever is handy, providing endless hazard and grief to their neighbors and gainful employment to the division’s 256 uniformed Los Angeles police officers.

Inhabitants of 77th summon a cop nearly 60,000 times a year, more than half the time for urgent reasons. Savvy callers have been known to jack up the stakes, just to get a cop there faster. Pam lives half a block from the station; “You gotta say you being held at gunpoint.”

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“Here you are on the list, ma’am,” a cop at the front desk tells the distressed voice on the phone. “I know, but there’s unfortunately about six calls ahead of you. Someone will be there when they can.” Early on a Friday evening, the screens of the Digicom MDT-800 two-way computers in police cars are already imploring: “Holding 12 calls . . . someone please please please help.

The 77th by the numbers: More yellow crime-scene tape gets strung up in this division than anywhere else in the city. More rapes, more robberies, more assaults. More murders. In the record year of 1987, 155 people were murdered--often victims of the street war, fueled by drugs, that crackles around it. On average, fewer people are murdered in 20 American states than were killed in the 77th last year. It has a per capita murder rate higher even than Washington, D.C., the nation’s newly proclaimed murder capital.

Two thousand people a month are brought through the 77th station in handcuffs. On a wall of the booking room, an antique cubicle of glass and wire, is a fortune from a fortune cookie. Some sly hand taped it up at precisely the level a man’s eye will seek as he leans forward to be inspected by an officer who snaps on a pair of thin black rubber gloves for the task. The fortune says: “Your luck has been completely changed today.”

Basement Full of Guns

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The basement property room in 77th is a concrete-lined chamber that once was part of a subterranean pistol range. Heaped on its shelves like the take from some wartime surrender are the yellow-tagged guns gathered up just in 77th and just since the first of the year: shotguns, rifles, pistols by the hundreds, AR-15s and AK-47s.

Whether or not a cop has read his Hemingway, these are trophies, the bad guy’s manly equipment right there on a shelf in your basement. “That’s part of the spice of life,” purred a ranking officer who worked here years ago. “That’s part of the fun.”

The 289 miles of streets in 77th offer life at Mach 2, get-your-heart-pumping duty, more jolting than the battery-acid Folger’s on the assistant watch commander’s desk. The assistant watch commander is on the phone, his voice cool and amused. “Yeah, we’re in here trying to conduct business and these bastards were shooting at each other right out in front of the station.”

Lest it sound unseemly that someone should find a thrill in misfortune, riding the police radio from calamity to calamity, there is the other reason a cop may prefer these parts to more decorous divisions, whose citizens can make a cop feel like the “servant” in “civil servant.” And after spending 20 years here, Officer Jack Reidy puts it forth as succinctly as anyone: “You get the feeling you are accomplishing things because the bad guys and the good people are distinguishable. The good people in the division always supported the police. . . . The police are what’s between them and the bad guy.”

Instructive Mayhem

One year in 77th can pack in as much instructive mayhem as two or three years somewhere else. The tempo whets a taste for more, or it satiates. “One man’s fun is another man’s stress,” is how Jim Jones, a 77th alumnus and now a West Bureau commander, sees it. Some thrive on it, ache for it, wither away of boredom without it. Some glut out, and move on to different, subtler police work.

And sometimes, says a 77th alumnus, you just get tired of coming to work every night and knowing somebody is probably going to die.

This busiest and bloodiest of Los Angeles police divisions is headquartered in the oldest and crummiest station house. The Watts riots burned and fumed outside it. The Black Panthers plotted to bomb it. The earthquake inspectors have condemned it. The plumbing stinks, but so does almost every other part of the edifice.

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When the 77th station was built in 1925, it was two stone-fronted stories of authoritarian civic architecture in a placid suburban setting, a place that a mid-1930s LAPD document serenaded as “essentially a home-loving typical American family community, an ideal section in which to bring up children . . . more members of the personnel of the Los Angeles Police Department live in the 77th Street Division than in any other.” Cops of the 1980s find that their cars parked in the lot outside may get broken into like anybody else’s.

Study in Grime

The grime of the station house is the despair of any cleaning solvent. Walls are rubbery-looking from successive paint jobs. On occasion, phone lines to the vice department get tangled; a puzzled local gentleman once found himself getting calls about lewd and lascivious acts. Until they put a trailer out back, women cops had to dress in the basement, standing on benches to pull on their pants to keep clear of the dirt and vermin.

Last month, voters approved a bond issue that, in some future age, will convert ratty old 77th into a veritable palace of police and public facilities. In the here and now, Ron Kilby writes up an armed robbery report six feet from where under-age prisoners sit handcuffed to a bench because there is nowhere else to put them. His tone is sardonic: “Hey--modern equipment. That’s what makes us No. 1.”

In the worn old lobby, the walk-in trade waits its turn. What calamities don’t come in over the phone come through the front door. A man burned over a third of his body crawled in for help one night last year. Lt. Bob Hansohn has come to work at night “and found people lying on the front steps shot. They know where the station is and their tendency is to try to get here rather than call.”

There is nothing for them to read but a notice of a victims’ assistance program, advising them to contact Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, who last held the office in 1984. So the fat woman in tights and a sweat shirt studies the brass cards below six pictures on the wall. She lifts a bag of Corn Nuts to her lips and sucks them out, one at a time, and chews slowly, moving from picture to picture: six officers, all killed on the job.

Six Who Fell

Roland White, May, 1950--shot five times answering a “routine disturbance” at a tavern by a troublemaker who issued the usual challenge--"Go ahead and arrest me"--then blasted away.

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Charles Hallenbeck, July, 1962--killed in a car chase, sideswiped by three bandits.

Richard Kent, December, 1960--surprised by a bandit he caught holding up an auto parts store.

Michael Edwards, found dead in May 1974, five days before the legendary Symbionese Liberation Army shoot-out a few miles away. He had been shot through the head, perhaps with his own gun, his hands manacled behind him with his own handcuffs. They chased tips as far away as London, but never found his killer.

James Choquette, August, 1979, killed when his unmarked patrol car was broadsided en route to a purse-snatching.

And Daniel Pratt. Dan Pratt isn’t just another face on the wall. The cops here now, they knew Dan Pratt, shot in the face last September with an automatic weapon by a thug in a yellow Pontiac. The only new and immaculate thing in the watch commander’s office is a large color photograph of Dan Pratt’s funeral. The picture’s messages are manifold, and foremost among them is, be careful: It can happen again.

Listen Up

Edmund Wilson, a sergeant of imposing height and demeanor, is upstairs conducting roll call, reminding the morning watch that there is still time to apply for city-paid bulletproof vests.

The room had filled up like a classroom, the attentive ones in front, a few cut-ups lounging in back, firing up cigarettes three feet from the “No Smoking Sec. 41.50 LAMC” sign stuck behind a wall-mounted baseball trophy whose bat had been snapped off.

On the overhead TV screens, the tape rolls with the weekly video word from downtown. Assistant Chief Bob Vernon is congratulating the LAPD on new crime stats. Homicides are down 12%. The music swells, and Vernon says, “The bottom line is, I want to pat you on the back.” “How about a raise?” a back-row voice calls to the face on the screen.

A gang revenge hit is in the offing: “The people who are going to do this have scanners; they’re monitoring Southeast, 77th, Newton and Sheriff’s. The information is they’ll shoot anybody. A lot of guns, AK-47s, pistols--they got it all.”

The Attitude

In 77th, the enemy can come better armed and better bankrolled. One cop explains: you pull a 19-year-old gang-banger out of a brand-new Corvette. In his pocket is the pink slip and $500. You, a cop, have $1.32 to take you until payday, and a battered, payment-burdened Honda to take you home.

This can be demoralizing if you let it. What tips the equation toward the cops is attitude. We are in charge here, the attitude says. Walk wide of us.

There is a catechism that the 77th’s cops have been known to pose to gang-bangers: Who’s the toughest gang? Their own, the gang-bangers guess. No, the cops answer. We are. A fortnight ago, as two gang members lay cuffed on the sidewalk, one turned his head to his partner. “See you in 10 years,” he said.

A certain malefactor on the loose, Wilson reminds the cops assembled at roll call. “This sociopath executed a fellow gang member for snitching on him.” A back-of-the-room voice: “What’s wrong with that?” Wilson, mimicking the tone of a disappointed teacher: “What’s happened to our compassion?”

Little Sympathy

As incensed as the public gets at appallingly brutal killings--the ones that blow away innocents--police expend little sympathy on criminal-to-criminal mayhem. An acronym drifts unwritten about the system; those are NHI crimes--No Human Involved.

Such talk is severely not part of official policy, which decrees dignified treatment of everyone by that icon of courtesy and readiness referred to in their human relations handbook as “the police professional.” The guidelines can sound as fit for a butler as a cop: Remain politely impersonal and you remain in control. Courtesy is more effective than cursing. " . . . Without compassion,” the handbook says, “police work is a dead-end job.”

Those are fine rules and sound ones. But inevitably, from some cops, the frustration vents and spumes. Get real, it says. Those lofty dialogues on constitutional rights, treating predicate creeps like they were Founding Fathers--it can all start sounding a little effete to a guy who comes home from work with somebody else’s blood on his clothes.

‘So Angry . . . ‘

Said one 77th veteran: “Day after day, night after night, going on these calls and dealing with these idiots, you really do become so angry at that element . . . I don’t care how much of a liberal or a humanist you are.”

And another: “They have to be dealt with with old-fashioned police methods. If it means violating the civil rights of a few . . . of these (expletives) for the sake of these people who live around here, so be it.”

And another: “When you see the same dirtbags coming in again and again, and the court lets them go, no wonder some of the officers get fed up and say they’d just as soon shoot ‘em and save the taxpayers’ time and money.”

The Police Department, one of its ranking members said with momentary disregard for firefighters, is the only agency in town open 24 hours a day, with house calls. It is also, he points out, the only agency that people fear.

Upon that odd compact is built the menage of 77th, police and people. Here, the cops are not mere visitors, walk-ons in the civic scenery. Here, they are major and potent players, with partisans and detractors. To the daily performance of gore and disorder, no one is indifferent. Old ladies bake them pies. A single mother brings her son in and asks if there isn’t some program for him, meaning some program that can do what she, alone, cannot. Then there are those whose feelings lie in their eyes--averted in fear or hostility, or looking right back in a game of visual chicken.

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Candy Machines

Partly because it’s close, and partly because their mothers would rather have them buying their candy five feet from a cop than at some liquor store that gets knocked over more regularly than payday, the kids from the 75th Street School cross the playground daily to buy candy from the vending machines in the 77th station.

In the waxing days of August 1965, at the outset of the Watts riots, a sergeant who was there swears that the schoolyard was the most dangerous place in L.A.; hundreds of cops were out there trying out new shotguns. Price tags still dangled from some of them, on loan from Sears and Montgomery Ward for the duration of the emergency.

The same third-graders lined up at the candy machines every afternoon painted some of the drawings that hang in the hallway of 77th. So few years and so much change gape between those drawings and the benign icon of police work that hangs in the captain’s office, a Saturday Evening Post idyll of a tyke on a soda-fountain stool alongside a cop.

Life Under Siege

For 77th is like no place Norman Rockwell ever saw. Make a picture of how the police help us, the teacher had instructed the children. Back came finger-paint unpleasantries, life under siege: dope, gangs, graffiti, stick-figure police with guns ablaze. How does that help us? the startled teacher had asked. Because, the kids replied with sweet reason, they’re shooting the bad guys.

Several large untruths have been yoked around the neck of 77th, its officers say. Not everyone down here is a low-life. Not everyone down here tolerates the violence. And most people down here do not think cops are the enemy.

In fact, it seems to be a social dynamic that a police officer’s status rises in a crime wave the way a doctor’s does in an epidemic.

In the 1950s, the 77th had in some quarters a reputation as a kick-ass place, the back end of nowhere, where a cop who got in trouble elsewhere in town might be safely sent. If he made a little free with the night stick, nobody outside heard about it.

Complaints on Decline

Then came the Watts riots, the Black Panthers shoot-out a few miles up the street, complaints of police brutality, chokeholds and battering rams. In the half-dozen years following Watts, police internal records show, the 77th Division got more citizen complaints of excessive force than any other division--80 in the peak year of 1970.

In 1987, with the gang war at its height, 77th Division received 15 complaints of excessive force, fewer than several other divisions.

Jerry W. Conner is a black captain who has been in and out of 77th since 1964, most recently out. Almost his first act as captain was ordering that security doors, put up in the late 1960s between lobby and offices, be taken down. “We have gotten past that siege mentality that caused us to put them up,” he says. Because in 77th, “you are embraced. That’s why officers drive from Palmdale, Lancaster to work there--not to shoot somebody.”

Within the bounds of 77th are 218 Neighborhood Watch groups, businessmen liaisons, clergy councils, kids’ programs--all loyal police supporters. Twenty years after Black Panthers handed out coloring books showing police as slaughtered pigs, 77th cops distribute “McGruff’s Crime Prevention Coloring Book.”

Cautious Approval

The South Central Organizing Committee, a church-based group that has found fault with police over the years--for deployment problems, chokeholds, a special police tax--cautiously finds things better. People “really want to see something done about the crime,” said committee crime team chairwoman Gwen Cordova. “Everybody in the community is affected by it one way or another.” What many people want these days from police “is (to) pick up the criminal and arrest him,” she said. “When you’re in that kind of mode, you don’t think so much about whether it’s brutal or not.”

This is not to say the 77th is without troubles. In February, two big-time gang members escaped from its jail--with a key. A 77th civilian janitor, a “broom,” was arrested last year in the shooting of an Upland cop during a bank robbery. Public-interest lawyer Hugh Manes has filed a city claim and a lawsuit against 77th officers who he said battered a 42-year-old retarded black man at a hamburger stand a year ago. And last August, some 77th officers were along on a Southwest Division anti-gang raid in which they allegedly trashed apartments and roughed up residents.

Among the 18 police divisions, 77th ranked somewhere in the middle in the 1988 tally of police shootings, with five. One of them was fatal, a jail parolee brandishing a gun in an alley. The others were a teen-ager with a .22, an attempted-murder suspect with a pistol, an attempted-robbery suspect with a Daisy BB pistol, and a naked man, shot in the wrist late one night as he aimed what turned out to be an auto timing light.

The Fear Factor

There are people in South-Central who will tell you the LAPD is as high-handed as ever.

The Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service, a private watchdog organization created eight years ago in the wake of the police shooting death of Eulia Love, a knife-wielding South-Central widow whose fatal confrontation began over an unpaid gas bill, dismisses the 77th’s declining complaint numbers. People afraid of the police, said service coordinator David Lynn, won’t complain to the police.

Said Mary Lee, a Legal Aid attorney and Referral Service member who insists that the cost of reduced crime not be reduced civil rights: “We’re in need of law enforcement in this community, so we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Who do you call when the police are the people you’re afraid of?”

Every police guideline mandates equal treatment. Yet every radio call dispatches them to conflict. On the street, where is the balance between law and order?

‘Yes Sir, Mr. Officer’

A City Hall employee who lives at the edge of 77th has drilled her teen-age son in how to behave to cops. “You have to warn him how to talk--'Yes sir, Mr. Officer sir,’ even though he’s talking to you in any kind of way, or else you’re beat up.”

The standards may decry profanity, but a 77th veteran said you couldn’t police without it. “If you’re dealing with someone whose every other word is (expletive), it won’t do you any good to talk at anything but his level. It works.”

A needling rain had fallen for upwards of an hour as two police dogs, their wet fur twinkling in the light of the police helicopter, stalked from house to house, hunting for whoever had put guns to the heads of a young Air Force veteran and his buddy and stolen their burgundy BMW as they pulled up to Church’s for some chicken.

As the dogs narrowed in, an angry man stomped up to Sgt. Wayne Okamoto.

Third Night Straight

“What’s going on?” he said, pointing up at the helicopter. “This is the third night that thing’s been up there. What is it now? Dope? That liquor store? I’m getting damn tired of this.”

“I don’t blame you,” said Okamoto.

Around the corner, the dogs had routed two young men from a house. They knelt, shirtless, on the wet grass, hands cuffed behind them. The victims identified them, and a crowd collected, unhappily.

”. . . And if we’re wrong, we’ll say we’re sorry,” a cop was saying.

“And let ‘em stay in the cold?” an angry black man demanded.

“Unfortunately, sir, they didn’t come out the first time,” the cop said. “They had ample time to put on a shirt.”

Sakina Rashid had come out of her house across the street. “I don’t understand this at all. It’s like everybody is guilty because they black. They wouldn’t have them out here with nothing on otherwise. All black people are suspect. This happens all the time. We’re not all garbage, we’re not all criminals. It’s not right to have them out here embarrassing the mother and the family.”

‘That’s Me!’

She pointed to the two. “That’s me right there. That’s me you’re doing that to.”

“That’s a robbery suspect we’re doing that to,” one of the cops said.

“That’s me!” she repeated.

One mother stood opposite the police car: “The harder we work with these boys, the more (the police) harass them. I’ve been very cooperative with the police. The last time, the police tore up my house . . . they harassed my son for years.”

One police car’s battery had died, and the people on the sidewalk exchanged amused looks. At last, a woman from down the street brought jumper cables. “Thanks,” said the cop, then, “You live in the area?” He looked at the people on the sidewalk. “You might not be too popular around here.”

“I don’t care,” the woman said. “I didn’t break the law.”

Face down, he drooled into the shaggy-rugged hallway of a halfway house he had broken into.

“What the . . . you talking about, black sergeant?” he screamed, at once promoting and insulting Officer Monte Houze.

“I rebuke you,” he howled. “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He reared up and began kicking the walls. “Handcuff me? Handcuff a Black Panther? George Jackson?”

“Please stay down sir, all right? Thank you. Sir? On your stomach, sir.”

“I will kill you.”

“Yes sir, I know, but on your stomach.”

Good Feeling

Five years a cop, and no complaints, no problems: “You ma’am and sir everybody. Keeps me out of trouble. A lot of people come into the department to fight crime, and you know you have it here. It’s a good feeling to find people who need help, and you help ‘em. A lot of people think all the police do is hassle. Out here you got victims who really need you.”

Nothing has made quite so much of a difference in South-Central, the police thinking goes, as having black cops on the street. Within the force of 7,661 officers, 12.6% are black, 19% Latino, 11.3% women, 2% Asian. (There are no breakdowns by division). The 77th’s piece of the city is largely black, but its nearly 40% Latino figure is rising, as is its 5% Asian population.

LAPD’s black officers are persuaded that minority recruiting has “cut down the fear level” in the community. Deputy Chief Bernard C. Parks: “All of a sudden they begin to see people who look like them. They could talk to us like us.”

Black cops insist that it does not bother them, hearing the same calls hour after hour, “suspect is a black male . . . .” Being black, growing up there, said Jerry Conner, is “a plus on one hand, a negative on the other. The first three or four years you end up seeing a lot of people you grew up with and that is stressful. But you grow out of it.”

Problems Within

The biggest adjustment to the comes-in-all-colors-and-sizes cop “was within the LAPD, and I’m not sure we’ve completely adjusted yet,” Conner declares. “We had to realize (for) police work as it’s done today . . . you don’t have to be 6 feet tall, blond and blue-eyed.”

Or male. In her early uniformed days in 77th, a detective said the grief she got was from young white men “who wanted to think they were macho ghetto gunfighters, and didn’t want to work with women.”

A longtime Latino sergeant who has served in 77th was saddled with a nickname during his academy days: Burrito Maker. “You put up with it, and you didn’t say anything . . . . We still play games, we do.” Higher-ups may excuse such jokes as letting off steam behind closed doors, but “it comes out. You go out into that same community and, maybe not directly, maybe inadvertently, maybe with a sneer or body language, it comes out.”

Every four weeks, the “wheel” turns at the 77th. Some officers are transferred out and new ones are dropped in, uneasily or eagerly. 77th has a reputation. Things go hot and heavy down here.

Rookie Territory

The 77th’s area captain, Scott LaChasse, sits the newcomers down in roll call for a two-hour chat on law enforcement theory, the use of force, the nature of the community. And then they adjourn for brunch at a house in the neighborhood.

Many are just out of the academy, as fresh as the three creases on the backs of their shirts. 77th’s average officer experience is lower than elsewhere, because so many, maybe 40 at a time, begin their careers here. All are “keyed up, wound up,” said LaChasse. “We have to point them in the right direction.”

Everyone remembers the first night. You learn what they mean by the sanitized word, “underprivileged.”

For Jack Reidy, a kid from Long Beach, it was a burglary at Muir Junior High School. A security guard found a teen-ager breaking into a classroom, stealing pencils, and fired a warning shot to stop him. He was handcuffed when Officer Reidy got there.

Jolt for a Cop

“This was real new to me. I’m taking the report, casually talking to this kid, and I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You could have been killed.’ He looks right at me and said, ‘I don’t care.’ And he was serious.”

To East Coast urban eyes, South-Central, with its palms and candy-bright bungalows, is no ghetto. To a suburban Los Angeles kid, though, the shock can be palpable: barred and boarded-up shop windows, broken street lights, carcasses of abandoned cars.

A sergeant who earned his stripes in 77th began his first shift there at a family dispute. It was a “four-burner night” in the cold little house. The heating bill was unpaid, and the gas stove blazed for some feeble aura of heat. He pulled aside a neighbor, a minister, and pointed to the burners. “Please tell your parishioners,” he said prissily, “that this is a dangerous practice.’ The look on his face was, ‘You stupid white boy,’ and he was right.”

Their spurs are sharp, these new ones, and they may sometimes dig too deep. The John Wayne-Annie Oakley syndrome, police psychologist Dr. Martin Reiser has labeled it, “seeing things in black and white, tending to come on strong, be authoritative in a high-risk situation, to be wrapped up in police work 24 hours a day.”

Cautionary Tale

The work, they find, is not always clear-cut heroes and villains, but sometimes of more equivocal stuff.

A 77th newcomer was “trying to show compassion” to a particular victim, the way he had been taught, and his partner took him aside. The guy was a major drug dealer. His cautionary tale: “In 77th, today’s victim may be tomorrow’s suspect.”

They learn.

It is Easter Sunday, and 77th cops have been dispatched to the house of a nervous man who reported hearing noises in his attic. A cop listens to his concerns, and as the man talks, she reflexively probes her night stick through his leather jacket as it lies on a chair.

Friday night, on a street in Crips turf, veteran Dave Graff and rookie Lori Gabrielson have stopped a car with a 13-year-old driver.

The 13-year-old said he is an Eight-Trey Hoover Crip, in the voice someone else would use to declare he is a Marine. He glowers from the back seat of the patrol car.

The black-and-white has drawn a cluster of little boys, who play a raucous sidewalk game that imitates a gang initiation, a roundelay that sends one boy into the circle, bent over and fending off the blows. If he endures, he takes his place as a beater. The cops ignore them.

Graff is talking to Sgt. Greg Glodery about what to do. “If it’s a misdemeanor, and I book him at Juvenile, it’ll take me half the night,” Graff is saying. “The bottom’s gonna fall outta this division pretty soon. It usually does on a Friday night.”

The radio comes alive again, summoning anyone who can take the call to an address on West 52nd Street. “Suspect armed with a machete.”

Graff lights a cigar; the night wind throws the smoke back into his face.


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