Stops and Searches Lead to an Unsafe Feeling on Eastside Streets

Screen grab from a google map shows LAPD patting down a young man.

(This is the second part in a series on how police actions can make people feel unsafe in their own communities.  After all, if one can’t be outside in their own space without fear of harassment, be it from the police or gangs, then how can a street be Livable?  Read part one, here. – DN)

If you spot Sammy Carrera riding his bike in Boyle Heights, you won’t think much of it. At 5’5, bald and wearing a baggy shirt and jeans, and an amiable smile hidden behind his glasses, Carrera can’t go down the street without running into a familiar face. Always one to stop for a moment to say ‘wad up,’ he’s know in the community as a member of Corazon del Pueblo and all around swell guy. Yet at the same time, he can’t go down the same street without fear of being stopped and questioned by LAPD officers from the Hollenbeck Division because of the same baldhead and baggy clothes that help him stand out.

On November 2nd, 2011 Carrera was making his way to the Annual Self Help Graphics Day of the Dead Celebrations. He never could imagine that he’d end up beat up and in jail. On that night, Los Angeles Police officers from Hollenbeck Division stopped to question him after he was mistaken for an unidentified gang-banger, whom officers were looking for that same night.

He cooperated with officers and their orders, but as Carrera asked and pressed as to why he was being stopped and searched, the officers got more and more aggressive. “Shut the fuck up, you don’t know who the fuck we are man, we’re the LAPD, when we tell you what to do, you do that shit our way,” are just some of the comments Carrera claims officers made during the stop.

Sammy after his stop.

Due to his profile, shaved head and baggy clothes, officers mistook him for the unidentified suspect they were looking for that night. What followed resulted with Carrera having a swollen eye and other injuries from the arresting officers. “Everything that they asked me to do, I complied, all while asking them, ‘what the fuck is going on?’ I was really shocked, especially at the way they came at me,” says Carrera.

The line between serving and harassing the community is one that officers have abused in the past, but is still commonplace in working class communities of color such as Boyle Heights. While police cause pause for people walking down the street, the violent history, and it’s current state in the community, still impact community members that are caught in the cross fire.

Protection from Harassment or Harassment from Over Protection   

Gangs in Boyle Heights are as much a part of the community as are the street vendors, freeways and musicians that serenade the community for tips. The violence isn’t as bad as it once was, but the impressions of violence from both bangers and police aren’t fading away with time. Residents know which streets they have to avoid or risk a traffic ticket by officers or getting hit up by bangers. Either presence is cause enough for folks to walk straight, avoid making eye contact and walk that much faster to their destination.

I’ve learned the hard way, that walking and/or riding my bike is not all ways as safe as I’d hope it to be. Both cops and bangers draw an equal amount of suspicion when I catch them from the corner of my eye. With the Hollenbeck Police Station located on the corner of 1st street and Chicago, I currently live a few blocks away on Cesar Chavez and Chicago. Bangers from all of the surrounding streets have hit me up. This includes First Street, St. Louis, Chicago and Breed. That fact that I can’t walk within a two-block radius from the Police station without getting hit up baffles me.

At the same time, I can’t walk or ride on said streets because police officers will slow their cars down to check me out, shine the cruiser’s light on my face or just plain mad dog me as I go about my business. Compared to Carreras profile, mine is one of shoulder length hair, Groucho Marx mustache and goatee combination that are complimented by my loud flannel shirts and cut off shorts. How and why both police and bangers mistake me as a person of interest to both of them is beyond me. However, it goes without saying that as much as the police frustrate me, they have come through for me on more than one occasion.

When asked about changing his fashion style to avoid harassment by police, Carrera says, “I’ve been dressing like this since I was a youngster. I’ve been getting my haircut bald since I was a little kid, for as far back as I can remember. Me dressing like this, over sized clothes and bald has to do with me identifying myself. It’s part of my identity as a young Chicano who grew up in that gang infested time. It’s a part of my identity and asking me to not get messed with by the cops by dressing differently, is like someone telling me don’t be you. But this is me, this is how I identify.”

If you think this conversation is missing the voice from LAPD and/or the Hollenbeck Police Department, you’re right. It is missing. Neither the LAPD Central Offices nor Hollenbeck Division wanted to give a community resident and blogger a statement regarding police harassment or protocol for wrongful arrest cases. Not that I’m shocked or offended, but it speaks to the level of trust they have with the community.

Carrera is currently fighting the charges of resisting arrest and being hostile toward officers from the night of the incident. Already in his fourth court appearance, he is confident that he will win his case not just because he was a victim of profiling by police or because some of the officers have records of harassment, but because he knows things could have turned out worse. He knows that the police could have mistaken his cell phone for a weapon and shot him down right there on the spot.

“It’s scary most of all because there’s no certainty, you can just be walking down the street and bam.”

Erick Huerta is a currently a journalism student at East Los Angeles College. He’s also a reporter/blogger for the community of Boyle Heights, avid cyclist and contributing writer for Mis Neighbors and LA Taco.