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How a Young Latino Learned to Fear Police

May 23, 1991|ARTURO VARGAS

In elementary school, I was taught that police officers are our friends because they uphold our laws and protect law-abiding citizens like me. Television gave me a portrait of the good Mr. Police Officer. It was either the image of the chubby street patrol officer with an Irish accent, or the fast life and exciting world of Starsky and Hutch. Both, I was taught, are our friends.

Yet growing up Latino in the barrios of Los Angeles, I also learned something very different about Mr. Police Officer. I was taught to fear him. It was not school or Hollywood that taught me to fear; I learned it in the classroom of my real world.

I learned to fear from repeated lessons; the first came when I was in first grade. My parents had gone shopping and left my baby brother, sister and me in the care of our teen-age brother.

Police officers burst through the front door of our one-bedroom apartment looking for someone in the neighborhood with a BB gun. They hauled my older brother out of our home and verbally abused him. They burst into the bedroom where my sister was changing my baby brother's diaper. I dived underneath the dining room table because I was terrified. These were not the good Mr. Police Officers about whom I had been told.

I could not understand why were they doing this to me, to my family. We were law-abiding citizens! The lessons continued through the years and I have come to understand why.

Today, when I'm in my car and a police patrol drives behind me, I panic. I slow down; it doesn't matter if I'm going the speed limit, I slow down. And I signal. I signal lane changes, I signal turns--sometimes using both arm signals and the car's. I think to myself: "Don't overdo it, you'll make them suspicious."

I panic because I have nothing to hide, because I have not broken the law. I panic because I am Chicano.

If I am stopped, I know what to do. I keep both hands high on the steering wheel where they can be seen at all times. I make no sudden movements. I do not get out of the car unless ordered to do so, and even then only very slowly and deliberately. I do exactly as I am told. I do not argue and I do not question. And I am afraid.

I do not blame Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates for this. He was not the police chief when I was growing up. I have never even met Mr. Gates.

I do, however, hold Daryl Gates accountable for not changing this institution into one that is trusted by law-abiding citizens of color. Instead, I hear him saying that Latino officers are not promoted because they are "lazy." I hear him denying evidence of discrimination against Latino officers in his department. I hear him saying the Rodney King beating was an aberration.

We law-abiding citizens of color know better.

I know that the majority of police officers in Los Angeles are good Mr. and Ms. Police Officers. And I know that they do uphold our laws and do protect law-abiding citizens like me. I know they have died doing so.

But I also am Latino in Los Angeles and have learned my lessons well about Mr. Police Officer.

As long as a city that is 40% Latino, 14% African-American and 10% Asian fears its Police Department, the good Mr. and Ms. Police Officers cannot do their jobs of upholding our laws and protecting law-abiding citizens.

The institution of the Los Angeles Police Department must be reformed from the bottom to the top, and the top brass should lead the change. The first step should be taken by Daryl Gates. He should step aside.

A new chief of police must make it an overriding priority to ensure the Los Angeles Police Department becomes an institution that is free of bias and develops trust among all people of this city. Trust must replace fear.

Vargas is director of outreach and policy of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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