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CAMPAIGN 2000

In Rampart, a Love-Hate-Tolerate Relationship With Police

Scandal: Some residents praise officers, whom they credit with eradicating gang problem. Though others denounce cops for alleged brutality and corruption, few join protesters marching on station.

August 17, 2000|ANTONIO OLIVO and JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ileana Martinez stood on her stoop Wednesday and watched with some trepidation as a march against police brutality made its way, in a roar of chants, whistles and shouts, past her apartment building on Rampart Boulevard.

"We don't have any problems with the police," she said. "But if they do, well, everyone's entitled to their opinion." Then, shading the sun from her eyes with her hand, she added, "But it looks ugly and it's making me nervous, and I'm going inside."

Hers is not an uncommon view among residents of the neighborhoods served--or, some say, abused--by the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. But, as she said, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and few were shy about expressing those views as about 300 demonstrators thundered through their neighborhood on the way to the Rampart station.

Many residents praised police who, they believe, have tried to clean up a serious gang problem in the densely packed streets west of downtown where many of the region's newest immigrants live. Others denounced Rampart officers for the alleged brutality and corruption that have led to the city's biggest police scandal in modern times.

Only a few, however, felt strongly enough to join the march, which was almost exclusively composed of outsiders, some from as far away as San Francisco.

The last demonstration at the Rampart station was a pro-police rally last fall. About 80 residents of the surrounding neighborhoods attended that demonstration, voicing support for the majority of officers who, they felt, were being unfairly blamed for the wrongdoing of a few rogue cops who allegedly committed perjury, planted evidence, stole drugs and brutalized suspected gang members.

The predominant view expressed in the neighborhood Wednesday seemed to echo that support. Still, there was no dearth of people who agreed with the demonstrators' complaints.

"The police are very frightening around here," said Jorge Bautista, 30, a night janitor at UCLA. Dozens of times in the seven years he has lived on Rampart Boulevard, Bautista said, he has been hassled by officers as he returned home from work after midnight. Just two months ago, he said, police knocked him to the ground and kept him handcuffed for a half hour before letting him go. He was not the suspect they were looking for, they explained without apology.

Bautista spoke after two marchers, one carrying copies of the Revolutionary Worker newspaper, came to his door to urge him and his 2-year-old son, Jorge Jr., to join the protest. Bautista, a Mexican immigrant who speaks only Spanish, nodded and looked at his feet as the women exhorted him in English. When he didn't respond, they moved on.

Told afterward what they had been saying, Bautista smiled. "Is that all they wanted?" he asked. "If I had understood, we would have gone with them.

"I just try to survive in this area and not give the police anything to get me for." He pointed to Jorge Jr., whom he dresses in UCLA shirts every day. "I work at UCLA. My son will attend school there."

Closer to the station, Jesus Jimenez stood leaning against the wall of a Pizza Hut restaurant, between two groups of police officers in full riot gear. He had been on his way to pay some utility bills downtown but stopped to watch the demonstration when he found the streets blocked to traffic.

He lives a few houses away from the station and was worried about "hotheads" among the marchers causing trouble--a fear that was never borne out. He praised police in general, although he acknowledged that the department is not perfect. "Of course, there are good police officers and bad police officers," he said.

As much as Jimenez, a native of Mexico, disagreed with the marchers, he was ready to defend their right to protest. "That's one thing about this country, we have the right to express ourselves."

Gina Smith, a 29-year-old neighborhood resident, greeted the protesters with a hand-lettered sign that said, "I support my LAPD."

Smith said that since the Rampart Division's anti-gang squad was demobilized several months ago in the wake of the scandal, "there have been shootings here every night. I don't feel safe." Eyeing the demonstrators, she added, "I'd like to know how many of these people actually live here."

Some of the protesters taunted her, yelling, "Shame!"

There was, in the opinions expressed by many in the neighborhood, a sense that the people demonstrating were not only outsiders but were unfamiliar with the complexities of life in the area.

That could explain why even some who are angry at police did not feel compelled to join the march, which did include a few members of the local Homies Unidos gang intervention group.

Caught between a persistent gang problem and some gung-ho police officers, the residents said they have contradictory emotions about the abuse allegations coming out of the Rampart scandal.

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