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Friends, Not Foes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years ago, Leo Thompson was running from the police, Miguel was shooting at them and Filiberto Ramirez wanted nothing to do with them. For these three and many others living in Central Los Angeles, the officers were faceless, indifferent brutes.

Now, Thompson can be seen asking officers for advice about how to handle a citation, Miguel stops by and chats with them during work breaks, and Ramirez dreams of one day becoming a policeman.

More and more, these types of relationships are becoming the norm at A Place Called Home, say officers, members and staff of the community center not too far south of downtown.

APCH, as it is called by members--children and young adults between 9 and 20--offers alternative schooling, recreation and counseling in what the staff describes as a safe, gang-free environment.

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And in the past year it has been a bridge between its 1,600 members, each of whom pledges to leave gang life at the door, and the police.

“I thought all police officers were about getting us in trouble for no reason,” Thompson said. “Now, it’s like they are a part of APCH. When they see us, it’s more like them looking out for us than getting us in trouble.”

For Thompson, 20, memories of being chased by police for no apparent reason and then questioned while on his knees still linger fresh in his mind.

He said personal experiences like his and stories passed around his neighborhood had created a sense of fear or hatred toward the police in Central Los Angeles.

But as local officers have immersed themselves in the community, Thompson said he and the others are gaining a better understanding of the police, and the police of them.

One result: A normal day at A Place Called Home offers a picture that even its founder, Debrah Constance, never imagined.

“It’s just so wonderful to see the little kids walk up to the officers during their lunch break and just talk with them,” she said. “That’s not something you would see two years ago.”

The change was born in controversy in mid-1996, when Constance hired a private security firm to provide armed protection for the nonprofit, privately funded center.

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It had just moved to Central Avenue and 28th Street after spending its first three years borrowing space at Bethel Church of Christ on East Adams Boulevard.

The new security was first seen by the center’s members--many current or former gang members--as a betrayal because the firm employed off-duty police officers.

At that point, Constance said she was always playing the mediator when children coming to the center were questioned by police in the parking lot.

“We weren’t really that thrilled,” said Ramirez, recalling the tense Sunday brunch held to break the ice between officers and the staff and members. “It slowly got better as they introduced themselves and we got to see them more.”

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Newton Division Capt. Jim Tatreau, whose station handles an average of 100 homicides a year, said it’s important for his officers to get out into the community and interact with young people, especially when their only exposure to the police is watching them huddle behind yellow tape, chase suspects or serve warrants while decked out in heavy gear.

“If that’s all these children and young people see growing up, they certainly wouldn’t look at a police officer and think, ‘There’s someone who I’d go up and talk to,’ ” Tatreau said.

The division offers several programs to increase police and youth interaction, including an active Explorers team, a sports league and a weekly outreach plan in which two officers are assigned to visit schools and community centers in the area.

Tatreau said he encourages officers to let their guard down and be themselves, to find a level of trust with the children.

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“I don’t think a youngster ever sees a cop the same way after they have that level of communication,” Tatreau said.

Getting closer allows the officers to give advice and help the young people one on one, the captain said.

With guidance from off-duty officers at A Place Called Home, Miguel, 18, who declined to give his last name, no longer spends his days on the street as a member of the 13th Street Gang.

He is working full time at the center and hopes to obtain his GED and go to college.

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“That’s my goal in life,” he said, “to get my degree so that I can provide for my 3-month-old daughter.”

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Ramirez dropped out of school and was working odd jobs when a police officer advised him to go back and get his diploma.

Now he’s a computer instructor at the center and, with the help of the off-duty officers, is lining up courses that might help him pursue a law enforcement career.

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Constance said the center is full of such stories. Increased and constant police presence has produced an effective “big brother” relationship, especially with the younger members, she said.

“It was really a slow change and understanding, but the change was so major that it’s affected the community,” Constance said.

Ramirez, who lives near the center, said people in his neighborhood are more comfortable seeing police officers around all day.

Growing up, Ramirez said, he thought people, especially children, were supposed to respect police officers, as he saw them do on television.

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However, “I just didn’t see that type of relationship,” Ramirez said. “But now it’s happening.”

For the officers, this change has given them a chance to know young people better and to explain what police do. Gustavo Barrintos, one of five off-duty patrol officers who work security at the center, said the new attitude toward police has raised morale among the officers.

Barrintos said he is looking forward to his transfer from the Central Division to Newton next month because he knows many of the local children, and they know him.

In such a challenging environment, he said, any advantage helps.

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And when police understand young people better, it makes them more effective in trying to help, Barrintos said.

Often, he said, young people ask him about going to college or getting a degree. Or parents drop by the center and ask for advice about dealing with their children, convinced that he knows them well.

Barrintos said he also spends time explaining police procedures. The youths often ask him the best way to handle a citation or why the police act a certain way.

About four months ago, Ramirez said, he asked one of the off-duty officers why he got pulled over and why police were forceful with him.

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“When I told these guys, they said, ‘Honestly, some people are just like that,’ ” Ramirez said.

“It didn’t justify it, but it helped a little. It just made me see that some officers might have an attitude while some may not. They are all different.”


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