by Hal Collier
The following story is true. There won’t be any false names. This story is my view of my tour of Southeast Division. The following comments and observations are mine alone and do not have the approval of the Los Angeles Police Department—like I need their approval anymore. To my non-police friends, Southeast Police Station is synonymous with Watts or south central L.A.
OK, a little background in case no one has read my biography (available in paperback through LittleReadBooks.com). Upon completion of the L.A. Police Academy my first assignment was Hollywood Division. I was twenty-one years old, very naive as to the real world of crime and human depravity. Twenty-three years later, I was a seasoned veteran and had seen more than my share of death and human nature. I figured if I wanted a larger pension I needed to promote to the rank of sergeant. I studied and passed the exam.
I was not unhappy in my current position as a Senior Lead Officer. I had all the holidays and weekends off I wanted. I could set my own hours or change my days off to accommodate a fishing trip. I was moonlighting at the Hollywood Bowl during the summer and worked more movie premiers than Siskel & Ebert. I had a great partner, Dale, and minimal supervision. If I promoted, I would also take a $300 a month pay cut. You lose your seniority when you promote to sergeant. OK, why would I want to give all that up and start again at the bottom of the L.A.P.D. food chain? What was I thinking??
Terri and I were on vacation visiting my sister and her family in Alaska. My son called to inform me that my name was on the transfer list as a sergeant. I was going to Southeast Division—that’s right, Watts. I had been to Watts twice in my life. Once as a child to see the Watts Towers and again to play a high school football game at Jordon High School. The game was only weeks after the 1965 Watts riots. I remember lining up on the line of scrimmage and the opponent whispering “burn baby burn”. I probably would have had an accident except I was too scared.
Now working Hollywood was no piece of cake. We had shootings, murder, street robberies, domestic violence and more than our share of vice crimes. As I said, I was no rookie, but Southeast (S/E) had their own language and a different brand of police work. Let’s start with the language. S/E had three projects, Jordon Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts. These were all occupied by low or no income families. The Police Department wanted us to refer to them as housing developments. I thought projects was a kind name for these rat-infested, crime-ridden, sewer dwellings. The first lesson was never go into the projects alone. Radio calls in the projects always required two cars. The cops would meet at an outside location and caravan to the call. It was common for the lower IQ residents to ambush the police.
In Hollywood, a dog running loose was a dog. In S/E they’re called ghetto elk and they run in packs. When I say packs, I mean twelve to fifteen dogs running the streets, day and night. During long boring nights I would count how many in a pack. I think seventeen was the record. Now, that many dogs running around loose, well, some get hit by cars. Now, some of you think cops are cold-hearted, but one day two animal loving officers scooped up a dead dog from the middle of a busy street and took the Sheppard mix to the station. The dog was propped up in a beach chair outside the back door. An hour later he had sunglasses, then someone added a scarf and a cigarette. I don’t think I’m in Hollywood anymore! Now before you call the SPCA we had one officer who rescued injured dogs and paid for their vet bills by selling baked goods. I think the dog in the beach chair would have enjoyed them more than I did. S/E cops go through a canister of pepper spray a month, mostly used on ghetto elk to keep from being bit.
I mentioned a different brand of police work. In Hollywood, a crime victim described a suspect by his/her physical description. In Watts the suspect was described by his/her name and where they lived. It seem that most of the people never left the area and everybody knew each other. I remember an incident where a man was beaten and his foot chopped off with an axe. Responding police asked the witness for a description of the perpetrator. The witness responded, “It was his brother.”
The gangs in Watts were designated by the streets where they originated. Denver Lane, Hoover Street, Main Street, Grape Street, etc. Most of the gangs didn’t get along. Boy that’s an understatement. An example, Main Street Cripps and Back Street Cripps were separated by an alley. They hated each other. I was shocked to learn that Watts was 52% Hispanic. The L.A.P.D. didn’t want any mention of racial discord, so if a black suspect did a drive by on a Hispanic and a Hispanic retaliated it wasn’t racial. I was right, I’m not in Hollywood anymore.
In Hollywood, after completing a radio call you might sit in your car and catch up on your paperwork. In Watts, you never sat in your car on a public street for fear of ambush. In Hollywood, if you heard gun shots, you got on the radio and reported how many shots and from what direction. You immediately drove to the sound of the gun shots. In Watts, you counted the shots and guessed what kind of gun was used. Shots in Watts were so common that officers ignored them unless they were directed at them. I remember being on a major street in Watts and counting five different gunshot shell casings in the street. All were old.
Hollywood had more than its share of homicides, and Hollywood cops were good at setting up crime scenes. S/E cops had witnesses located, the suspects name and address, crime scene secured and coffee on the trunk of a police car, all before I arrived at the scene. S/E belonged to a Bureau of south central police stations. They had so many homicides that they formed a South Bureau Homicide Unit. I was at one homicide and requested the homicide unit. I was advised that I was number five in line. One team investigating five homicides in one night, equates to some photos, a sketch of the scene, collect any evidence and move on to the next body. It’s easy to see why the “Grim Sleeper” suspect eluded arrest for two decades.
Following the oil trail. A lot of stolen cars end up in Watts, stripped. I don’t mean stereos, or doors. They take engines, transmissions, fenders, seats and whatever else they can sell to a pick-a-parts business. After removing the engine and transmission they would push the car a few blocks away. S/E cops would follow the oil trail back to the suspect’s house, arrest the bad guy and recover the stolen car in hundreds of pieces.
I responded to a supervisor request one night. The officers followed the oil trail to a house. After knocking on the door, they discovered thirty-five illegal immigrants on their way to central California to work in the fields. The Immigrants were smuggled across the border in a truck, held overnight at this house, then shipped like cattle, to points north.
We called immigration. They asked us to hold them for three days without charges and they would try to come and pick them up. I think you can see the problem with our immigration system
The problem was solved when two S/E officers pursued a stolen car into the Jordan Downs Projects. The suspects bailed out of the car and ran. One of the officers exited her car and was immediately shot with an AK-47 by one of those lower IQ individuals I spoke of. We abandoned the illegal immigrants and responded to assist the officer. The officer recovered from the gunshot wound but she later had to be pensioned off.
Southeast was not all gun fights and crime. There are a lot of good, hardworking residents who like the police. The media just doesn’t see a news worthy story in someone liking the police. Day watch in Watts will drive your sense of smell crazy. 85% of the businesses do BBQ as an additional source of income. Everyone has a fifty gallon drum, cut in half and made into a BBQ grill. Southeast is the only place I know of where you can get your tires rotated and BBQ hot links all done by the same guy. A lot of businesses have signs stating “Fish, you buy, we fry”. The alleys are used by everyone to dump trash.
Some nights when the fog rolled in, you couldn’t see across the street. Crime takes a holiday when the fog is thick. I remember anticipating my first summer in Watts. Summer nights in Hollywood were crazy. Radio calls all night long, some handled three hours late, due to the volume. Little time for anything other than “Chasing the Radio” as we used to call it. Now some call Watts the murder capital of California and summer nights should be prime. I discovered that these bad guys go to bed about midnight. This led to what I call 90 mile nights. A 90 mile night, is a night where it’s so slow that you drive around for 8 hours, remember you don’t park alone in Watts.
New Year’s Eve in Watts is similar to the battle for Fallujah. Bullets are flying everywhere. They double up the sergeants and at thirty minutes to midnight they bring in all the police cars. Why give them a target? Everyone is shooting, mostly in the air, but what goes up must come down. Two cops’ personal vehicles had bullet holes in their roofs. I’m definitely not in Hollywood anymore.
I enjoyed my fifteen months in Watts and the police officers were some of the best I’ve seen, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Hollywood. My first day back in Hollywood was a Sunday. It was a clear day and quiet as I left the station parking lot. I drove up into the Hollywood hills. Families were walking with their kids
or dogs. As I passed them they waived, with all their fingers. I was home.