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A Police Officer-Parent Praises a Crackdown That Snared His Son

June 25, 1989|ROD BERNSEN | Bernsen, a Westlake Village resident, is a Los Angeles police sergeant and free-lance writer. At his request, his son's name was not used in this story.

When I opened my front door that night to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputies John Cater and Gary Spencer, I didn't realize how serious the problem was, despite the evidence. Teen-age "acting-out" had consequences far beyond a petty crime.

The deputies had come to warn my son. He and some other teen-agers were mimicking gang members, spray-painting their "tag" on the side of a storm drain near his high school. They also were dressing in a distinct, suspicious way.

The evidence was always there but I just didn't see or hear it. It was the biblical saying, ". . . none so blind as those who will not see." I should know now. I'm a Los Angeles police sergeant. I've worked in the gang-ridden parts of town. I've seen it happen again and again. But this was my town--my own house.

Months before the deputies came to our house, my son had asked about how he and his friends could spray-paint a wall of a local business. He was told that he would have to have written permission from the business, the occupants of the building and the property owners, including representatives of the original Spanish land grant. My son was given an artist sketch book; he immediately filled it with graffiti. He bought a book that portrayed as art the work of New York vandals who spray-paint graffiti on anything that does not move.

My son took to using words that I knew were used by gang members. He mimicked the "throwing" of gang signs. I treated these as casually as I could. After all, I didn't want to make a big deal of this, recalling the near-disastrous "forbidden fruit theory" common when I was his age. Ignore it and it will pass. Make a big deal about it and they want to do it all the more.

So I figured that his wearing baseball caps backwards or askew was a teen-ager's normal way to drive his father crazy. This, despite my knowledge that inner-city gang members wear their hats in this fashion.

I figured that his listening to rap music had no more significance than previous generations' listening to their own music, which their parents, too, had found objectionable.

My son's subtle questions and probes I dismissed without real thought or concern. My son and his friends are good students; he is an award-winning wrestler at his high school. We always hear what a polite and nice young man he is.

Still, I ignored the obvious.

Deputies Cater and Spencer, who should be used as models for Sheriff's Department recruitment posters, wore their "raid jackets" tucked into their Levi's that night at my door. My son kept glancing at the highly polished Sam Browne gun belts, the guns, badges and handcuffs.

Plenty of Practice

The deputies sat in our living room, speaking in soft voices; it was as if they had rehearsed their talk. As it turned out, they hadn't, but they were very practiced after speaking to several kids and their parents over the last few months.

They calmly explained to my son that his participation in "tagging" had consequences far beyond committing a misdemeanor. By watching my son, I knew the deputies were hitting home. He glanced nervously at them and at me.

At one point, one of the deputies deliberately took my son outside, away from me. I had mixed emotions; it's my job to protect my son. I wasn't sure what the deputy was going to say, but instinctively and professionally I knew that I must not interfere--and didn't.

When they returned, my son was visibly shaken. All I could think of was the hundreds of times I, too, had sat down and tried to get through to a teen-ager who just shined me on. I thought of the times parents had denied the facts and proclaimed, "not my child--my boy is a good boy."

I know from personal experience that someone--if not me, another police officer--ultimately will go back to these parents with the tragic news that their "good boy" was just killed in a drive-by shooting. This was the point that the deputies were trying to make. In my son's case, and others, they succeeded.

Realistic Art

At first glance, kids writing on the walls of a secluded storm drain seems innocent enough, doesn't it? In fact, some of the monikers, drawings and choices of colors were remarkably artistic. True, the kids broke the law by spray-painting the storm drain wall, but there are those who would say, "So what?"

For years, the problem of gang activity was treated as a problem isolated to the inner city or the ghettos of Los Angeles. But the truth is that gang tentacles do reach into our comfortable suburbs. There are gangs who drive through our communities; the potential for confrontation is there. One can only imagine the disastrous result of real gangsters seeing suburban kids standing about "throwing" gang signs, and, in gang fashion or in police jargon, "dressed down."

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