Angry and distrustful, these teens wanted to know why some sheriff’s deputies in East L.A. had disrespected them by treating them harshly, hassling them on the street and making them feel like criminals. A lieutenant and a deputy heard them out and explained that the sheriff’s department strives to enforce laws and prevent assaults and murders.
Questions were asked by students from Central High School at the Nueva Maravilla Housing Development in East Los Angeles. They met with Lt. Ralph Ornelas, who works in Lakewood, and Deputy Ray Bercini, who works in Lennox, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Gang Intervention Unit.
Yanet Almarez, 18: My brother used to always get stopped in the streets. … The cops used to come and they used to arrest him and tell him stuff, they wanted to fight with him, or stuff like that. It was an everyday thing.
Lt. Ornelas: You say they arrested him, what did he do?
Yanet: Speeding tickets. He was messed up by [the sheriffs], and he went to jail, doing his time. When he came out, they got him, and they told him, "Oh you know, we could put some weed on you, just knock you up. Say that you had all this with you," and stuff like that.
Lt. Ornelas: You heard the deputy?
Yanet: Yeah, I was right there.
Lt. Ornelas: Did you file a complaint?
Yanet: Yeah. … But after that, they just didn’t do nothing.
Tiffany Alvarez, 17: Over there where we live, the cops don’t care. I mean, we could tell them we’re going to make a complaint and we’ll make the complaint, and nothing will ever happen.
Lt. Ornelas: As a lieutenant, I investigate a lot of complaints from citizens, and that’s my job. Tiffany, it’s kind of unfair to say that nothing happens. Because it’s private information when discipline is imposed on a deputy. … So you may not know that things have taken place, but we send letters out to family members or whoever filed the complaint, to tell them that we investigated.
Managing Editor Libby Hartigan: Yanet, you told me before that the sheriffs that were the problem were changed. And the new ones, they seem to be better. Do you think it’s possible that the other sheriffs were disciplined for some of those things that happened?
Yanet: Maybe. I hope.
DISRESPECT FOR TEENS
Ruben "Jace" Gavidia, 17: Well, I noticed that a lot of cops, the way they talk to an older person, and the way they talk to a younger person, like to a teenager, is a lot different. Like for example, when they stole my mom’s purse. We called the cops and they talked to her all night. They looked for them and I remember they had [the suspects] lined up there by 7-Eleven. They had helicopters and everything. They were all nice to her. But two or three years after, I had gotten in a fight right there where I live in a park. I got in a fight, and one of the guys had told us, "Hey, you know, the pigs, the cops!" So I ran—I ran pretty far and they caught up to me, me and some other guy. They pulled their guns on us and everything. They threw me on the hood of the car. And this was in the summer, it was hot that day. That hood was burning. I’m telling them, "Hey, this hood is pretty hot." They said, "Hey shut up, and I don’t want to hear you." And I don’t know what, they just spread my legs and started searching me. And started talking a bunch of crap. … They said, "Do you want me to take you in? I’m going to say that you did this; I’m going to say that you did that."
Lt. Ornelas: Well, let me ask you a question. Let’s say I’m running from you. The call came out as whatever—gang members fighting or two guys fighting. You’re the deputy. So what are you going to do to stop me?
Jace: I’m gonna chase you of course.
Lt. Ornelas: OK, now you don’t know if I got a weapon or not, right?
Lt. Ornelas: So what do you think you’re going to do to try to get control of me?
Jace: The thing was, I would’ve talked to you. Like, hey, you know, why you running? And just put you against the wall and search you of course. I’m not saying that I’m going to grab you and pick you up like that and then start searching you.
Deputy Bercini: Your initial question was, why do they treat adults one way and kids the other way? … But you described two totally different situations. One was a victim of a crime, a lady who got her purse stolen. The other one was somebody who was in an altercation and who’s now running from the police. …To tell you the truth, I’m kind of old, my knees are bad and I got a bad back. I’m not going to catch a young guy like you. So I’m never going to have the chance to talk to you.
Lt. Ornelas: If you guys seem reasonable, and you know, tell me what happened, "We had a difference of opinion" and stuff, I’ll let you shake hands right now and get the hell out of here. When you start running, we don’t know what you did. Did you rob a store? Did you stab a guy? You got a knife, a gun? We don’t know. It’s a lot of unknowns. And the key to us is to take control and then evaluate.
Juan Martinez, 18: Even though you try to cooperate with them, they won’t do that. They won’t tell you, "Oh, well, shake hands." I stayed, and tried to cooperate. And they still get you, they put you on the floor like that, they put their knee on your back. That’s not necessary. … Handcuffs, they put it so tight, throw you in the car. There’s no need for that.
Deputy Bercini: But was there a need for your fight? … If a cop is putting a knee in your back, how did that cop get to the scene? … If you’re creating fights and you’re doing delinquent stuff, truancies and all that kind of stuff, that’s part of the purpose of law enforcement being on the streets, is to react to that. … If we never had to roll to another fight, to another murder scene, I don’t think any one of us would be saying, "Damn, I wish I had a murder to roll up to."
Juan: A while back, I was stopped by cops. I was coming from the store, bought a soda. And I was crossing the street, the light was green. … He started saying all this stuff, … "I know you sling rocks, I know you push it around here" and all this. And I’m telling him, "I come from the store, man." … And he’s telling me all this stuff, saying "Shut up, before I handcuff you, throw you in and take you somewhere else. Before you get a beat down." So he searches me and that’s not the only time—just a couple of days ago, they stopped me, searched me, put me in the car. Investigating me.
Lt. Ornelas: Why did they put you in the car?
Juan: I don’t know. They got my name down. Saying I was from anywhere, I’m no gang member.
Lt. Ornelas: Who hangs around the park though?
Juan: Usually gang members. I grew up at the park all my life. I grew up with gangsters. So I know what’s up, I know what’s going on.
Lt. Ornelas: You associate with some of the guys?
Juan: Nah, I just know them. … Same cop over and over keeps stopping me. They need my information. And you know I’m telling them. … "Damn, what’s wrong? Am I doing something wrong or something?" But they don’t really care, they just want to stop you. They find anything just to stop you.
Lt. Ornelas: How many times a week do you get stopped?
Juan: Three or four. … I tell them the truth; I don’t know nothing. They say, "Shut up, I know you know something" and all this. "I think you’re bulls***ting me." And I just stay quiet. And they get my information down.
Lt. Ornelas: You think it’s unreasonable? So did you ever file a complaint?
Juan: No, I don’t think it’s necessary, you know.
Lt. Ornelas: Why not?
Juan: They’re just doing their job; they’re not going to find nothing on me.
Lt. Ornelas: The point is that you think you’re being harassed or unreasonably stopped.
Deputy Bercini: You said that they’re constantly doing it. But two seconds later you said that they’re just doing their job.
Juan: I guess they think I’m a gangster or something. Usually they try to kick me out of the park, say "I don’t want to see your face." You can’t kick nobody out of a park, you know?
Lt. Ornelas: Any bad things happen in the park?
Lt. Ornelas: We have an obligation as law enforcement officers, to go to the area where there’s a problem with violence. And we are going to contact people, and we are going to contact sometimes witnesses.
Deputy Bercini: If a rival gang rolled up into the park and saw you, would they go, "Oh, he’s not with them," or would they fire?
Juan: Well, they would fire. Just because they don’t care.
Lt. Ornelas: Juan, that is part of our mission as law enforcement. Gang teams … I want them to be seen at those parks. Why? Not to harass people. But to save some lives. Because you know why? I’m 48 years old, I’m tired of getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning and my phone goes off and my wife goes, "Oh my God," and you know what it is? It’s a 16-year-old, 17-year-old kid who was shot in the community and is dead. I’m tired of it. And the selfish reason, Juan, how old are you? I got a son too. I don’t want my son to be killed. I look at you young people, your eyes, and who do I see, I see my daughter and I see my son. And the last thing I want to do is see any one of you face down with a bullet in you. I’ve seen enough of it.
Jace: I was going to ask you, especially in the summer, is there a way where you guys could extend the curfew?
Lt. Ornelas: No. That’s how the ordinance is.
Leanna Ventura, 17: It doesn’t matter what time you’re out, we’re getting killed in the daytime, too.
Deputy Bercini: My daughter didn’t get it either. She was constantly battling on the curfew issue as well, until one of her friends was sexually assaulted, and she was like, "OK, I get what you’re saying." Why do we have to wait for that? Why do we have to get to that point? That’s the kind of stuff that bothers me. I don’t want my daughter to have to learn that way.
Deputy Bercini: I’d just like to say in the effort of trying to go out there and find out what law enforcement’s all about, you guys should be commended for coming in and putting it out there. … I give you guys respect just on that point, because you’re trying to find out, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re here for the same thing, we want to hear what the kids are talking about and what their perception is of us, and we want to see that change.
Tiffany: What we just did right here, I think that’s really good. That would help the community and teenagers a lot to actually let them know that you’re not there to hurt them—you’re there to protect them.