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Hell Week : Nine Attacks on Police Remind Force That It’s a War Out There

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The whimpering man was laid out on his belly in the ambulance, a pose more considerate of medical efficiency than dignity, his pants yanked down and his bloodied buttocks swaddled in gauze. Across the street, the storekeeper who had shot him in the behind was handcuffed, still glowering from the argument that had gotten out of hand.

A young fireman bent down to the open window of Sgt. Gene Lewis’ police car, idling alongside the ambulance.

“What’s going on, all you guys getting shot at?” the fireman asked. “How come we have to keep taking you guys to the hospital?”

Lewis, with 20 years’ worth of stripes on his sleeve and a black elastic mourning band across his sergeant’s badge, wrapped his hand around the steering wheel and gripped until the knuckles got white. “Geez,” he said, “I don’t know.”

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Make it Hell Week, and then some. Nine times in the 10 preceding days, nine men had gone after Los Angeles cops, or looked as if they were going to, with everything from an AK-47 to a realistic toy handgun and a carving fork. Five times, they connected: Four cops were wounded, one was killed--the first woman to die wearing a Los Angeles Police Department uniform.

It remains business as usual in station houses such as Hollywood and Newton, but with an edge. Not even the Police Department, made out to be superhuman in TV series and film, could let 10 days like these just roll off its back.

Lewis’ patrol captain in Newton Division--"Shootin’ Newton” they’ve called it for years--is Jim Tatreau. “No one can remember a more active period of time. . . . (Veteran) sergeants can’t remember so many officers involved in these kinds of incidents.”

The words of 2 1/2-year veteran Officer Kelly Artz cut through wary police jargon: “We’re getting pounded . It worries me. Seems like the war has gotten everybody gun-happy or something.”

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She meant the Persian Gulf War. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates had another war in mind when he spoke to the press within hours of Officer Tina Kerbrat’s death last week, his bitterness unstemmed, flowing in expletives that were bleeped or deleted for public consumption.

In Los Angeles, too, there is combat, Gates made it clear. Kerbrat was making just about the least perilous kind of police stop there is, citing a man for drinking beer in public, and she got shot in the face. As far as Gates is concerned, anyone who thinks the only war is in the Mideast is fooling himself.

Most among his 8,400 line troops would probably agree. Yet, when it comes to the rules of engagement in their war, that is something else again.

President Bush promised Gulf-bound troops they would not fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Police officers say freely that they feel hogtied and hamstrung by rights and laws and procedures that look proper on paper but have as much to do with the reality of crime fighting as Batman. The Hell Week shootings give new voice to old grievances.

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“People say, ‘Oh, I feel so bad about the officer who was shot,’ ” said Hollywood station Officer Lynda Putz, with 10 years on the job. “I say, ‘Really? Then why don’t you untie our hands and let us do our job?’ ”

Like the two North Hollywood officers wounded Feb. 3 by a man they pulled over for running a stop sign. They fired back 41 times, reloading as they were wounded.

“And the supervisors are talking about ‘no fire control’ ” by the two officers, said Putz. “That is the most asinine thing. If someone is trying to shoot you, you’re going to shoot until they stop. I don’t care if it takes 10 bullets or 1,000.

“You’re fighting crime and part of the public and ignorance and sometimes department policy as well as the law: ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ ”

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Officer Ralph Dagnesses is expecting the phone call any moment, the one that sends him to Saudi Arabia. It’ll be a different fight, that’s for sure.

“They may call this a war,” he said, “but we don’t react to it as a war. The courts are not helping. Anytime we do something physical, we can get dumped on.” The people they arrest are wise to the law. “The first thing they say is, ‘Go ahead, I’ll sue.’ ”

Everybody in the station was aware that morning of the arrest of a suspect after a chase on a man-with-a-gun call. An officer opened a holding cell to check on the suspect. “You worried about your reputation?” the cop asked him. “You want to go get your gun?” But the man retorted dryly: “I’m worried about you guys. You didn’t find a gun.”

That’s what Dagnesses is talking about. “Combat is when you’re aggressively going after someone. We’re not doing that. They may be going after us, the way it’s going.”

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For five days, every time a patrol car pulled out of the Hollywood station parking lot, there on the right was the flagpole, its colors at half-staff to remind them of Kerbrat and the cop mantra: It could have been any of us; it could have been me.

Two days after she died, and two days before her funeral, the day-watch officers sat in roll call. A sergeant had just mentioned the funeral, and a voice came from near the back: “Eight policemen getting shot (at) in a week, and we have five L-cars out there. I’d like to know what the watch commander thinks of L-cars.”

L-cars are one-officer patrol cars. Not all divisions use them. Some, such as Hollywood, only use them in daylight, and some do not use them at all.

L-car or not, Lt. Thomas Moselle said: “It’s something you can’t guard against, pulling up on a 41.27C (drinking in public) and getting out of your car,” like Kerbrat did.

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“But if she was alone,” the voice from the back insisted, the shooter “would be gone and she’d be lying in the street. You hear officer safety every day, then you see management put out five L-cars every day.” A murmur of assent moved through the rows.

Studies show them to be safe; no L-cars had a part in the recent shootings. “Fact is,” said Moselle, “we’re not getting killed that way.” Still, they unnerve the line troops. It is a barometer of their concern.

Right after Hollywood officers held roll call, the man-with-a-gun call came in. Something got screwed up, and for some long and awful moments during the search, communications lost track of where a couple of officers were.

Sgt. Carol Aborn-Goldstein chewed out some communications people over it, and although her officers kidded her about her annoyance, they understood. “I pointed out to the communications officer we’ve had all these shootings, almost a shooting a day, and we need to know where people are.”

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The subject at Newton Division’s roll call that afternoon was safe driving. Sgt. Paul Hast sent up and down the rows a binder full of pictures of mangled black-and-whites.

“I don’t want that adrenaline to interfere with your judgment,” he told his officers. “Don’t lose control. Take that minute and assess. It’s bad enough seeing an officer shot, stabbed, whatever, but when you see someone literally torn apart, you think, what a terrible, wasteful way to go.”

The hard part, said Newton Capt. Dennis Conte, is keeping a lid on siege mentality.

“You have to remind them that not everybody is out to get them. We go to roll calls and remind these guys, ‘Let’s be careful so you can get home to dinner at night.’ By the same token you don’t want to get caught up in a mind-set that it’s us against everybody out there. . . . When you see this level of violence against police, they’re going to be more apprehensive.”

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In the field, said Lewis, “The last couple of weeks, guys are going back to basics, they aren’t being complacent. They’re being more vigilant, don’t think everybody’s a good guy. Here in Newton, every call we get . . . is man with a gun--gun, gun, gun.”

Aborn-Goldstein was at Parker Center a year or so ago when she looked at the marble memorial, the one that reads: “In memory of the men of the Los Angeles Police Department who have given their lives in the line of duty.”

A thought struck her. “There’s no need to change it yet,” she told her friend then, “but one day, they’re going to have to change it.”

And now they have. The memorial was dedicated in 1971, two years before the first woman police officer entered the academy. For years thereafter, an awkwardness remained. Some male cops would walk around the car to open the doors for their female partners.

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“It’s hard for (men) to realize that women have always felt that way about men going to war,” said Aborn-Goldstein. “And now men know something of how it feels, and they don’t like it. You realize it’s not easy for anybody.”

Alive, Kerbrat no doubt took her ration of good-natured guff. Dead, she is considered first and last an officer.

After she was killed, said Putz, “In roll call, nobody said, ‘Oh, she’s a female,’ or ‘She screwed up.’ They usually rag on women, but not this time.”

It’s funny when you think of the fuss made about women in combat in Saudi Arabia. “Nobody likes to think of women in combat, but that’s what we do here. I wasn’t here six months before I thought, ‘Hey, we’re in combat.’ You put on all this gear, boots, gun, baton, Taser. It’s a different kind of war, but it’s still a war.”

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