I used to feel that police officers were just out to get people. I felt they were just enforcing laws that didn’t make sense. For example, why sit at a red turn arrow when there’s no traffic going the opposite direction and it’s a green light for everyone else? It just doesn’t make any sense!
Usually when I see the police, I start to freak out. I’m trying so hard not to look like I’m doing something wrong that it makes me look even more suspicious. The last time I tangled with the police it was about 1:30 a.m. and I was hanging out with my friends when a patrol car came near us. Trying to avoid them at any cost, I rode off on my bike and rode up an alley precisely where they were headed. I panicked and ducked under a car and of course the police followed me, pulled their guns on me and inevitably gave me a ticket for curfew violation (with a fine of more than $300—ouch!).
Getting the chance to interview some LAPD officers for L.A. Youth was a completely different experience. This time instead of giving a fake name or wondering what my mom was going to say, I could have a normal conversation with them. The officers revealed the human face of the LAPD. I have more respect for them. They do things that no one else would have the guts to do, like confronting people who might be armed. I think youth should stop hating cops and give them a chance.
—Rachel Erickson, 17, The Linden Center
Los Angeles Police Department: Officer Al Delgado, Officer Andy Hanna, Supervisor Ed Hayes, Officer Leo Ortega. The interview took place Feb. 15, 2005.
The following questions were asked by Eamon Cannon, 17, New Roads School; Andrea Domanick, 17, Harvard-Westlake School; and Rachel Erickson. Answers are excerpts from the complete discussion. When information has been inserted for clarity, it is within [brackets]. Deleted words are indicated by an ellipsis: …
Rachel Erickson: If your parents give you permission, can you stay out after curfew?
Officer Andy Hanna: … Generally, it would be no. But if you’re coming directly from the movie theater back to the house without stopping in the middle somewhere and loitering, then that could also be an exception. There are many exceptions to the rule, when it comes to curfew.
Eamon Cannon: When you’re pulled over or you’re being stopped, what should you do?
Detective Ed Hayes: When you’re driving, you’re minding your own business, and you see the police car, and it looks like they’re focusing on you, you’re going to get nervous. But if you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t escalate the situation. Like, "OK, they’re behind me, I’m going to speed up on my bicycle" because you want to avoid contact with them because of the consequences of a parent being aware of it. … It’s not like we’re going to go away. Just like when you see the chases on the TV, we’re not just going to stop and go away and say "OK, we’re tired."
Officer Hanna: Stop and just face whatever consequences. That’s the best thing to do. Running away is not going to solve it. … [If it’s a curfew violation,] the worst you can have is a citation, and even if it’s a misdemeanor, it’s only a citation.
Andrea Domanick: Do you find that teens that you have to stop for any reason comply, or do you usually have to implement something like handcuffs?
Officer Hanna: A good percentage of those—90 percent—they always comply.
Rachel: What if I gave false information?
Officer Al Delgado: A lot of kids we run into—a big majority of them—they lie and they don’t carry ID for that purpose, so we don’t know who they are. But the thing is that when we confront you and we start asking questions, and you start giving us a story, making things up and stuff, we’re going to verify everything that you say. We’re not going to let you go until we’re absolutely sure who you are, that you’re supposed to be there, and you’re not a criminal, you’re not a runaway or anything like that. So it’s just best to be forthright, and give us the right information, especially if it’s no big deal, you know, it’s just a truancy or a curfew or something like that, it’s not that big of a deal.
Managing Editor Libby Hartigan: One of the students in L.A. Youth, she said if she were ever stopped by the police, she would probably cry. And she worried that if she started crying, the police officers might wonder, "Well, why is this girl crying? She must have something to hide."
Officer Hanna: … I had one last Sunday. I stopped a 17-year-old [for curfew violation] and he broke down. He’d never been stopped by the police ever. And when I asked him several questions, like, "How much do you weigh?" "Seventy pounds." "What’s your birthday?" "I don’t know." And I know he didn’t mean to lie, he just kind of was freaked out. …
But then, you know, at the end, it took about five to six minutes, then he finally calmed down and I could start asking him questions. And he started answering them. … I was able to clarify that later on with his mom when I called her.
Rachel: What should you do if police are hostile to you?
Detective Hayes: Any time our conduct is in question, you could make a complaint. That complaint will be investigated and internal action will be done. … Since the Rodney King incident, I think it’s pretty well open that we have to take all complaints. … And I encourage you, if you are stopped and you feel like you are treated unfairly, inappropriately, or something wasn’t explained to you, then you can proceed to the nearest police station and request a supervisor to explain what conduct the officer did or did not do that you think was inappropriate.
Officer Hanna: But you also have to keep in mind, just because you received a ticket, and you make a complaint—which is fine—they’re two separate things. Your complaint has no bearing on whether you’re going to have to go to court and actually answer the [charge] about the ticket or not. Whatever misconduct will be investigated, you will not know what the outcome is, and you will still have to deal with the citation or the arrest.
Eamon: Do police use racial profiling?
Officer Hanna: … When I stop someone who’s driving a car, I’m usually behind the person, I don’t know who’s driving the car. … So how can I profile if I don’t know who I’m pulling over?
Officer Leo Ortega: L.A. High School is probably 80 percent Hispanic. So the majority of the kids that we’re going to stop around the school, that are leaving or truant, are going to be Hispanic. … But I can see an instance where some Hispanic kids would say, if they’re talking, "Hey, I got stopped the other day," "So did I, they are just picking on Hispanics." It might be perceived that way. I think through these kinds of forums [such as talking to L.A. Youth] we can help each other understand what exactly is going on out there.
Detective Hayes: You might live in a safe area that we have profiled as being a high-crime area or high gang activity area. … You might be fully innocent and five of y’all are standing out front. Well, all of a sudden two officers pull up and you’re not doing anything and you’re like "Well, they just pick on us because we’re Hispanic." Based on the area you live in, based on the type of crime we’ve been having in the area, we may have probable cause based on our prior knowledge and experience.
Rachel: Well, wouldn’t that be kind of subconsciously profiling though? Because this is what usually happens so you think, "Oh, I think they’re probably doing something?"
Officer Hanna: A lot of it is done because of witness statements. … You’re acting upon whatever information you had at the time.
Eamon: And if you’re arrested for a crime and you confess, will you get a lesser punishment for that crime?
Officer Ortega: We’re not involved in that, that’s the district attorney and the judge’s discretion.
Andrea: What do police consider to be a threat?
Officer Ortega: Hands in the pockets.
Officer Hanna: Bulge in the pants.
Officer Ortega: It depends—different situations. … We’re doing a traffic stop, and it’s late at night, like in an area where there’s a lot of drug activity. I’m approaching the car, and I see only one person in there, and I see some furtive movements, reaching under the seat. I don’t know if he has a weapon. That’s the time I might ask, "Will you step out of the car?" Or I might ask, "Can I see your hands on the steering wheel, please?" That’s why it’s good to comply with the officer’s demands. Maybe you’re just reaching for your glasses, you know, the officer doesn’t know that.
Rachel: If someone robs a store and you were walking by and you get arrested for it, but you weren’t that guy or that woman, what do you do?
Officer Ortega: That’s why we have a court system. That’s why you get to have a lawyer, and all these things will be brought out in court. But you know generally, an officer’s got to have enough probable cause to stop you and believe that you committed a crime in order to arrest you.
Eamon: If a police officer is abusive, physically, can you defend yourself if they’re hurting you?
Officer Hanna: Well, you have a right to protect yourself. I don’t recommend that you would actually physically try to fight the officers. But you always have the right to ask for a supervisor right away. "I need to see a supervisor; I don’t think what you did is appropriate, I would like to talk to your boss or supervisor." You have the right to do that. The officer has to honor that request.
Detective Hayes: But if you don’t comply, we will use whatever necessary force to get you to comply.
Eamon: So force escalates with the suspect’s actions?
Detective Hayes: The suspect controls the amount of force that we use.
Libby Hartigan: I have another question. This is a student who got into trouble for selling a marijuana pipe and being in possession of a firecracker, which the school police considered to be a weapon. And he was handcuffed and led off the school in front of all of his classmates.
Officer Ortega: … My partner and I, we try to avoid that type of situation and embarrassment with the kids, we usually walk them off to the police car, and maybe do the handcuffing then as needed. Again, I can’t justify the actions of another officer because I don’t know his side of the story.
Detective Hayes: I want to stress to you, being arrested is not meant to be enjoyable. It’s meant to deter you from doing that action again. We put handcuffs on you, I don’t care how much you twist and turn, they’re not comfortable. They’re not made to be comfortable. They are made to restrain you. … So, when you get arrested, yeah, it’s going to be embarrassing. … But if a person has what we call narcotic paraphernalia and he got arrested for it, then there should be some penalty. We shouldn’t hold their hands and say, "OK, you know, don’t do it again." There has to be some penalty for committing crimes. That’s how the society is set up. It may be humiliating you, but if it corrects the problem, well, then, thank God.
What else would you like teens to know?
Officer Ortega: One of the laws that you see a lot of kids getting arrested for is criminal threats. … They might threaten, say, another student very specifically and not mean it. But they might end up getting arrested for that. In high school, you probably will get arrested for making a criminal threat against another person, because you’re at the age where you’re considered knowledgeable enough to know what you’re doing.
Officer Hanna: I had a situation one time where a kid was being suspended from high school and actually made verbal threats that he’s going to harm the dean of students, saying "I’m going to wait for you outside, I’m going to kill you." And [the dean] called it in, and [the kid] was arrested for it. You don’t take things like that lightly.
Detective Hayes: We’re human beings like everybody else. We don’t do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you know a police officer outside of their work environment, then you can understand … Once kids come to my house, and they come with my kids, they say "Hey, he just plays basketball and he does things just like every other father does." … We work and we joke, we play, we have pain, we have sorrow. … We have kids who get in trouble, just like any other parent does. I know when you see us working, you feel like we are not human, that we are robots, but you should kind of see that there’s a human side to us also.