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The Danger of Being Ordinary

An LAPD team finds it is much riskier to work in plain clothes

August 30, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

One image lingers for Sgt. Richard Baeza from his first weeks supervising an LAPD undercover unit in South Los Angeles: the barrel of a handgun, aimed through darkness toward the back of his head.

Baeza had glimpsed the weapon in his rearview mirror just before he slammed his foot on the accelerator. He had time to absorb only a few details: the gun trained on the car from a few yards away, two hands gripping it at the ends of two extended arms in a black jacket. Then Baeza saw muzzle flashes. The gun was firing.

He ducked and heard a bullet hit the trunk with a ping.

Just another night in plain clothes in the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street Division.

Although the June shooting at Manchester Avenue and San Pedro Street was one of the more serious incidents to befall Baeza's unit, the episode merely reinforced a lesson he and his officers had already learned: In South Los Angeles, there is nothing more dangerous than being ordinary.

Cops, especially those working the 77th Street Division, are used to thinking of their jobs as risky. Each radio call in the area is an invitation to the front lines of some of the most violent crimes in America. And hostility to the cops among some residents runs high.

But what came as a surprise to Baeza and his crew was how much riskier it can be to take the uniform off.

Team members quickly discovered that, in the 77th Street Division, there is no disguise more dangerous than a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

The first time the officers came under gunfire, for example, the attackers were apparently provoked for little reason. Simply being unknown men in cars seemed to be enough to present a threat to those gang members, police said.

"It's amazing," Baeza said. "This is what it's like for the average citizens down here."

The experience of the seven-member undercover squad hints at a troubling reality in the 77th Street Division, just 12 square miles of the city running south of Florence Avenue and bisected by the Harbor Freeway.

The sheer concentration of crime in the area drastically increases the probability that the residents will be in some way affected -- particularly younger men, the group most likely to be involved in violence.

Last week, for example, there were 95 violent crimes committed in the 77th, the most in any LAPD division. That translates to more than one violent crime per square mile every day -- about four times the daily average per square mile in the rest of the city.

For Baeza and his six plainclothes officers, some of whom are still in their 20s, working undercover on these streets has offered a sobering new perspective on what it is really like for local residents to live amid crime levels that high.

They pose as a bunch of rough-hewn, youngish, unshaven men in grubby clothes, and tool around the area as young men do -- traveling in pairs in big American cars with tinted windows, and cruising through neighborhoods frequented by gangs.

They have been challenged, intimidated, assaulted, mad-dogged. They have stumbled across serious crimes in progress with regularity. They have found themselves fleeing gang members. And on two occasions in less than a month, they have been shot at -- not, as far as the police can tell, because the assailants thought they were officers, but because they thought they were not.

It's been a revelation to some of the men, who are used to associating their uniforms with peril.

Anti-police sentiments throughout South Los Angeles can mean an uneasy existence for those who are in law enforcement.

People there will curse at officers, throw bottles, occasionally slash tires or break windows.

Officers in the 77th Street Division "sometimes feel like an open target," said Officer Aquiles Morales, 29, a member of the team.

But since joining the undercover squad, Morales has found it's worse to be "just another Joe Schmo."

For example, on the second occasion that the officers faced gunfire -- at Vermont Avenue and 51st Street in July -- the suspects later told investigators that they had assumed Baeza and his team were "the enemy" -- gang rivals, that is.

Baeza is 42, Mexican American, bulky, with thinning dark hair, a sparse mustache and three-day stubble.

In his New Balance running shoes, faded cap and Dodger T-shirt, he comes across as the perfect everyman -- just another of the Salvadoran or Mexican laborers who crowd bus stops on boulevards in the 77th Street Division.

He said he thought he was too old to be mistaken for a gang member. But to his surprise, he found that age is no protection. Gang members still perceive him as a threat.

After the two shootings, fellow cops took to teasing Baeza, calling him "a professional victim," he said.

His team was first formed mainly to combat graffiti. Commanders wanted to take advantage of some newly transferred officers from the recently absorbed transit police, who were experienced in fighting graffiti on buses.

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