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father john bakas

Dean of St. Sophia Cathedral, located in the Byzantine Latino Quarter of Rampart, Bakas is a founding member of the Coalition to Improve the Quality of Life in Rampart. FRONTLINE interviewed Bakas on February 28, 2001.
Father Bakas, what is your sense of this area, what the police would call the Rampart Division? Who is here?

The Rampart Division in Los Angeles is known as the most densely populated section or district of Los Angeles. The ethnic background is a mixture, but the predominant ethnic groups would be Latino. . . .

Is it what you would call a dynamic area? Is it changing all the time? Is it stable? Is it transient?

. . . Our area, or most of it, is a pretty stable area, not a transient area; but of course, a lot of movement is still happening. A lot of movement is still happening as immigrants continue to kind of go through. So the area is in flux. But there is a stability of some of the older families that have been here for several generations.

We've been told that there were always associations of kids, either by ethnicity, or by neighborhood. But there appeared a time, in the late 1970s, early-to-mid-1980s, when suddenly it became gang activity of a different sort. What were you able to see of that, and how did it affect the community?

I run across a number of former older gang members who are getting close to my age. They are known as "veteranos," that is, veterans. And their experience is nowhere near what the experiences of the so-called gang members of the late 1970s and 1980s. The more recent gang activity is gang activity that deals with greater violence. There is an element, of course, that is into drugs and related activity. So it's a different kind of personality to these folks.

Oftentimes, we come up with some simplistic answers; if we could just have more gymnasiums or more after-school activities, and these kinds of things, these problem could be solved. There would be an impact on the problem, especially with new recruits. But gang activity that deals with drugs and the result of drugs is a hard-core, primitive form of capitalism, and that's a fact. There is money to be made. And where there is money to be made, and you have entire families involved in it, people are not going to say "I'm going to give up a substantial income--which is risky--because now there is a new gym where I can shoot baskets." So I think this is the difference. Whereas before a gymnasium, a park, or after-school activities might have had greater impact, today you've got very different shades of gang activity. . . .

Those who were basically law-abiding people never had any problems... The people who had problems with CRASH were the pervasive lawbreakers.... To paint the police department as a bunch of jackbooted thugs is really, really a caricature, and a vast distorIt is a primitive form of raw capitalism, in a way, and there is a lot of dough out there. When you add to that a whole new army of weaponry, and the narcotics business just exploding as it did in the 1980s, it becomes more violent. How does that show itself in the streets of this district?

Violence is usually between rival gang members. The people who oftentimes get hurt are those that you read about, or hear about in the news, who just happened to be there driving by, but they were not necessarily the intended targets. Because there is violence, there is a new form of high-tech weaponry, and there is a low sense of ethics and morality of life, and there is absolutely very little regard for authority. So the traditional sense of the authority of police, and, I must add, the element of fear is gone. Even youngsters are not afraid of going to jail. They're not afraid of any punishment. You have a different sort of personality, a different sort of chemistry. So the violence is between themselves.

Keep in mind, too, who these gangs are now, as opposed to perhaps the gangs of 30 years ago; their roots go into other areas. They have contacts in prisons, in jails. They have contacts across the borders. So it's not just some isolated bunch of homeboys alone. That's a nice, romantic idea. Some of these folks are connected to a vast, greater network. The difference is that it's controlled, not only locally, but also from other sources.

So it becomes a big business, and it becomes more violent. If you're a hard-working person living in this district, you're trying to raise up your children safely in this district, and hope that they can get home to and from school safely, and you can get to and from your job safely. You can have a birthday party for your children safely. How does the sudden rise of the viciousness of this gang activity affect these people?

Again, I want to emphasize, the viciousness is between themselves, as opposed to walking to a war zone. You may drive through this neighborhood and not notice much of anything. The pernicious effect of it is like a disease or a cancer. It shows itself in the slow decay that impacts slowly.

You can come in here and go through, and not really notice much of anything unless you live here, because there isn't an obvious going into East Berlin type of mentality. But what you see there is graffiti. You see the decay, because businesses will not come in here, because the stereotype is that this is violent, so why would a businessman start here?

A decay with the graffiti "terrorizes," and I use that in quotation marks. It terrorizes people who want to do business, and the real estate values go down. People move out of the neighborhood. The schools begin to degenerate. So it's a really ricocheted effect. It's not a dramatic one. It is just like an illness. It sort of creeps up on you, and you see the end results by the decreased economic activity, the decay in the quality of education, property values and what have you. So it's a pernicious sort of thing that happens quite subtly, as well as visually. . . .

The community calls upon the police, of course, to protect and to serve. And they respond, in the instance, as these dramatic and frightening statistics of death, drug trafficking and so on are dramatically increased. They respond with something called CRASH, the specialized units created, conceived, and deployed to deal with gangs. Who were those officers, and what was the impact on the community?

Well, remember the reason. Maybe the word "CRASH" sounds bad. Maybe if it were called "DOVES" and did the same thing, it wouldn't have quite as bad of an implication. There was a problem here. This is what people forget. There was a problem and people were saying to the police, "Help us. We're afraid to walk the streets. Our children are being bothered. We are losing. Our economics are going down and everything."

So the police came in and essentially took on this situation, as you would in any neighborhood. The CRASH unit was established--I'm not quite sure what year--and believe it or not, in the time I've been here, before the scandal broke, crime had significantly decreased. The neighborhoods were and are getting cleaned up. I don't want to leave the impression that somehow we're in a war zone here. They did do very good work. The intent of the unit was very good. People forget that the Bill of Rights guarantees us some reasonable access to the pursuit of happiness. Gangs are a form of terrorism.

Your viewers might ask, "What is this fellow talking about?" But they usually don't live in this type of an area, so it's easy to read about it. These people are terrorists who are wearing civilian clothing. I want to underline that. And the terror is sometimes subtle, but nevertheless, it is terror. And most people would not tolerate it if it were in Beverly Hills, or West Hollywood, or Brentwood.

So CRASH was established to put a kibosh on that. And those who were basically law-abiding people never had any problems. You never saw them. The people who had problems with CRASH were the pervasive lawbreakers.

Anyone--and I challenge anyone to look at this--who was arrested--the community does not tolerate illegal police activity, whether it's here or anyplace else. But by and large, these people who were arrested had long, long, long records. There was no Cinderella walking the neighborhood that was arrested and thrown into some kind of a gulag and then said, "Look what they did to me." These people were involved in criminal activities.

And yes, indeed, CRASH did bring some fear into some of the so-called gangsters. And you know something, my dear friend? Fear is a legitimate emotion. It's a legitimate emotion. And we need a little bit more of that. So CRASH, by and large, did a superb job, minus the things reported about some of the corruption. But to think that CRASH just was a bunch of hoodlums, a bunch of uniformed thugs, is a vastly distorted image by individuals who, I believe, have an agenda, who don't want a strong police department, either in Los Angeles, or anyplace else....

Then how did this distortion come? Why would anybody be interested in advancing the idea that all of the CRASH unit--indeed, maybe all of the L.A.P.D.--are really just another gang with badges?

I'm not going to get into that, because everyone has a personal opinion. We live in a world of very clear-cut agendas, and my opinion would be strictly anecdotal. But I believe the Los Angeles Police Department, by and large, the overwhelming majority are very law-abiding individuals who have high ideals, who have entered the police department with the idea of being career law enforcement. We must enforce the laws. To paint the police department as a bunch of jackbooted thugs is really, really a caricature, and a vast distortion.

This is true also of CRASH. Anecdotally, as a personal opinion just from what I see, I think so many idealistic police officers come to an area like this try to make a difference. They make arrests, and see their cases thrown out on technicalities by other law enforcement agencies. And after a while you get the evidence, but it's not enough. The case is thrown out. The guy is on the streets again in a day or two. There is a frustrating element to that.

It doesn't take a professional psychologist to understand that if you're a 25-, 26- year-old working your heart out to protect the neighborhood, and you see these guys being let out on technicalities, sometimes you lose your cool, and I think some people did. This is not to justify stealing drugs . . . I think sometimes a guy says, "Well, maybe if I add a little pocket knife or throw down a weapon, maybe I can clinch this case, because this guy is really a bad apple anyway." I think some of that probably went on.

But I think not because people are bad. People are forced to be bad. They're tainted by a law enforcement system that gives the benefit to the criminal more than to the victim. And I think sometimes people tend to fudge and stretch it when they see that their work gets thrown out because some fancy lawyer, or some group lets these people back out on the street.

Would you say then that most of the people with whom you come in daily contact, the people who live here and try to raise families here, and try to lead honorable, decent lives in this area--did most people live in fear of the police? Did they hold the police in high regard? What would you say?

People who live here, who have businesses here, who go to church here, who go to school here, want a strong, ethical police department. And I think we have one. As a matter of fact, we're part of a group on the quality of life in Ramparts that constantly says, "Get another unit like CRASH. Get it back on the streets." Police officers have been intimidated. So what we have now is caricatures, where people say the police drive by and wave, because their police are afraid now. They're saying if I stop somebody, immediately someone is going to complain. It's going to bog down the system.

So you've got 12-year-old gangbangers who make up stories that they were abused, and it forces the system to investigate. Why should a legitimate police officer put his reputation on the line for nothing? They have not been given the incentive to be proactive. So the community says, "No, no, no, no, no. The criminal activity is coming back. Get active. Do it clearly, but get active--we need you here." Because when the police did their work properly, businesses had gone up, businesses had started. The area improved, and you've seen improvements around here. It's a clean area, and we don't want that to stop. . . .

We have heard over and over and over from uniformed police officers in the Rampart Division that their morale is very low right now. As you know, CRASH has been taken away. They're trying to re-form gang units, but it's a much more circumspect operation. They're afraid. They're intimidated. They think nobody is behind them. They feel besieged and beleaguered. Can the community tell that the police have--

Yes. The community can tell that the police are spooked. There are fewer people walking the streets. There are fewer contacts. A few years ago, I used to know the policeman on the beat here, the senior lead officers. He knew people by name. He knew things were happening. People trusted them. They would hear something that might happen through gossip, and there was a certain sense.

I don't know who my lead officer is, and I'm very close to the police department. I can't tell you the name of the police officer. I could, three or four years ago, in this area. But since this particular scandal happened, it has really impacted the whole police family. This what's really so tragic; that because of a few, a very few, how can I say, crooked individuals, the whole system is bogged down. . . .

Let me ask you just two brief questions. One, just to reiterate: the people who live here, work here, build lives here, and have families here--is there a way to characterize their view of what had been the CRASH unit, that close, intense, proactive police force? They liked CRASH?

By and large, most of the people liked CRASH, yes. They felt the CRASH unit was effective. Nobody in the neighborhood tolerates any illegal activity, any bad cops, no. No one will say "Gee, that's okay. We will accept illegal activity automatically." No. But they believe, by and large, that the unit had its place and was very effective, with the exception of the instances that happened here a couple of years ago. And ever since then, those things have sort of broken the back of the entire initiative of law enforcement in this particular area.

And that initiative, those law enforcement officers--are they missed?

Very much so. The CRASH unit is missed; and not because it was visible, because a lot of them worked undercover. The effectiveness, the results of the CRASH unit is missed. That's the thing, you see. The results of the CRASH unit are missed. We see an increase in graffiti. We see an increase in crime, and the statistics point it out. We see an increase in a variety of different things like that, so the evidence is here. I don't care how you play with the figures. The fact is that, since the CRASH unit has been disbanded, positive things have not followed.


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