I caught up with Senior Lead Officer Carmen Gutierrez at the LAPD’s Southeast Station on 108th Street. It was a cloudy Friday morning, and she was 3 1/2 hours into her 10-hour shift. After giving me a tour of the brown-brick station, we went out back to get into her “shop,” police lingo for their patrol vehicles. Hers today was a black-and-white Ford Explorer SUV.
But Gutierrez isn’t your typical patrol officer, going from one situation to another. As a senior lead officer, the 42-year-old woman patrols her assigned area, especially checking out places where drugs may be sold, stores robbed or other crimes committed.
But as a senior lead officer, a big part of her job is trying to help people with their “quality of life” problems. That can be getting the sanitation department to clean up a sidewalk or helping a homeless person find a shelter.
“What are you looking for when you are on patrol?” I asked after we hit the street.
“Problem locations,” she said, pointing at a mini mall. “Like this sandwich shop. Sometimes there are problems — robberies. They’ll go in there and rob it. It’s quick. Get the money and then get on the freeway right here. Within a minute they’re gone. Car’s waiting for them and they take off. Daytime, nighttime, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a robbery there. But I want to make sure we continue to provide good service. And what I mean by that is being around. You know, being visible. Just our presence is huge. Huge!”
Going under the freeway, Gutierrez pointed out another growing problem. It’s a long encampment with threadbare easy chairs and a couch, shopping carts, plastic bags overflowing with garbage and other discarded items. She stared out her side window, but couldn’t spot anyone.
Specifically, she was looking for Annette, a 62-year-old woman she’d been trying to help for months. She managed to get Annette into a shelter but then she ran away and came back to the underpass.
“She doesn’t have drug problems, just mental issues,” said Gutierrez. “If she saw a doctor to get medicated, I think she’d be fine. And I get it. That’s her spot. That’s where she feels comfortable and safe.”
The black-and-white SUV made a quick right down an alley. The officer looked both sides, checking out doorways and stoops for folks smoking weed like she’d encountered before. But it was vacant.
Now we were turning onto another side street. She waved at a women walking on the sideway, who returned the gesture.
“I’ve been in this division exactly 10 years this month,” she told me. “And I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve been assigned to different assignments — patrol, gang units, detectives. I’ve pretty much done every assignment but vice. Only because I’ve never had a desire to work in that unit. And it’s just because of the type of officer I am. I just can’t see myself trying to get picked up by a john. It’s just not me.”
After a moment, she said, “I love my work. And there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than being a police officer.”
Gutierrez graduated from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s academy but realized it wasn’t what she was looking for. The range of assignments wasn’t enough. For four years she was a sworn police officer at El Camino College before making a “lateral” move to the Los Angeles Police Department 13 years ago.
Then 2 1/2 years ago she was promoted to senior lead officer in charge of a basic driving area within the Southeast Division. Senior lead officers provide a link from the LAPD to the communities it serves. This can be staying informed about local gang activity and drug dealers. But it also involves working with other city and county agencies to fix broken streetlights and take away trash. And then there’s dealing with a growing homeless population.
Part of her job is simply patrol, looking out for speeders and other moving violators. But there’s a big difference between being assigned fulltime to patrol and being a senior lead officer.
“When you’re a regular patrol officer, it’s hard because you’re going from call to call, you know,” she pointed out. “You just finish handling one call and then you’re off to another. It might be a child abuse investigation and then a disturbing the peace incident and then … you’re going from call to call.
“But we have the luxury of not having to handle every single radio call,” she said. “We only get them if patrol is really shorthanded and something’s going on like forming a perimeter that we get deployed. But, of course, they’ll send two of us because most senior lead officers work by ourselves.”
Gutierrez said she spent 50 percent of her time working with members of the community to help resolve grassroots issues. So she needs to coordinate with the Los Angeles City Council office, sanitation department, health department, Caltrans and other municipal agencies.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in the middle, seriously, like with [unlicensed] vendors,” she said. “Because I understand that people need to work to make a dollar and survive. But then I get it from businesses in the community. They want me to cite the vendors, because they don’t want to see them in their neighborhoods. And I totally understand that, too. So it’s like I have to find a solution for it. And I’m in the middle.”
Moreover, police officers like herself today are going up against a steadfast image problem. Most citizens’ only encounter with a police officer is when they get pulled over and ticketed for a traffic violation. With other more serious issues like domestic violence, officers are taught to seize control of the situation when they arrive on the scene, which can easily frighten and anger bystanders.
And then there’s the whole national and local racial matter of police officers shooting, and sometimes killing, black young men in street confrontations.
“I’m not trying to put a bad image on patrol,” stressed Gutierrez. “But people have a really bad image of patrol. Because that’s the interaction the community is having with the police today. But in a lot of situations, like I used to have when I only worked patrol, you have to take control right away.
“And that image of dealing with domestic violence or with mentally ill homeless is not pretty,” she pointed out. “We have to take control because we don’t want people to get hurt. We don’t want to get hurt, either. So we have to come out with our Tasers and bean bags. We have to be aggressive and yell and scream.”
Then after a pause, she noted, “Like I keep saying, we’re trying to take control of that situation at that moment. And every police officer will say this: ‘All we want to do is go home at the end of the shifts to our families.’”
Pulling into the parking lot at Rosecrans Park, Gutierrez said this was one of her “locations” she needed to keep tabs on. While it was a popular place for families to come to a few years ago, now it was also a hangout for gangs. She wanted to make sure they saw the black-and-white so they wouldn’t take over the whole area and be a harder problem to control. But this morning the park seemed almost empty.
“If there were some gang members, what would you do?” I asked.
“I might go over to them because senior lead officers work alone, depending on how many, you know, depending if I know them, too,” she said. “Because sometimes we do build a relationship with them. And we know if they’re aggressive and going to cause me problems. But the smartest thing would be to have backup.”
Right then a toothless woman walked up. With a weathered, wrinkle face, it was hard to tell how old she really was.
“This is Christine,” Gutierrez told me, shutting off the engine. “She’s one of my homeless ladies.” The woman, wearing a soiled suede coat and baseball cap, had a black cat cradled in her arms. She kept petting it, over and over, from head to tail. And when she spoke, explaining how her own cat was missing, words came flying out of her mouth so fast they mixed together.
“Cute,” said the senior lead officer.
“Her name’s ‘D.C.’”
“So how’s your mom and dad?”
Christine, still stroking the cat’s back, didn’t look up. “They’re doing OK. They live over there,” she said, pointing to the far end of the park. “They had to pawn stuff in October. And my mom’s wedding ring, too. So they’re trying to get the money so they can save it.”
Gutierrez looked puzzled. “Where’s your teeth? What happened to your teeth?”
Christine said, “Oh, they are over there,” pointing again, this time to a chain-link fence and bushes. “‘Cause my gums are really sore right now.”
The police officer and the homeless woman talked for another good 10 minutes. Gutierrez asked if a social worker named Robert spoke with her parents. Christine said he did, but wasn’t sure what the end result was.
Then a man on a bike road up.
“I’m sorry,” said the officer. “I’ve seen you around. What’s your name?”
Gutierrez half-smiled. “What about you? Are you gonna try to get some shelter?”
“Are you gonna be here next Thursday morning? Can you meet me here between 8 o’clock and noon? I’ll stop by here, and I’ll bring the social worker to try to get you some shelter.”
Owen was grinning now. “If I could get an apartment that would be beautiful. ‘Cause I went to the county and I couldn’t get back to them because somebody stole my phone.”
“OK, Owen,” said Gutierrez a little stronger. “We’ll be here next Thursday, OK?
Christine went on talking about one thing after another. “And it’s especially hard when it rains living out here,” she ended with. “People don’t understand. They just don’t understand.” And she began to cry.
The officer’s expression changed. Her voice softened. “Don’t be sad,” she said. “Everything will work out. OK?”
The final stop of the morning was at St. Lawrence of Brindisi School in Watts, a little outside of Gutierrez’s assigned area. But she was here to meet Brittney Zelaya as she does most Fridays when the parochial school got out for the weekend.
Like many LAPD officers from the Southeast Division, she mentors the fifth-grader as part of Operation Progress’ 10 pillars of success program. They support students both academically and motivationally to reach their full potential. The mentors also serve as role models, building positive relationships between law enforcement and the Watts community.
Out of the black-and-white, she spotted her mentee. They came together, hugged and started talking: about how Brittney’s week went, including bringing up her poor grade in religion. They also chatted about her weekend plans and other “girl” stuff.
On the ride back to the station, the senior lead officer wanted to explain a couple of things: “I think of all my assignments, whatever I’ve done in my career, mentoring Brittney is the one that has brought me more satisfaction, more happiness. Just to be part of her life. I love it.
“And, yes, I know she’s a great girl. I know, of course, it’s her family that has the most important impact on her life. I know St. Lawrence is an amazing school. But for her to be blessed by Operation Progress, that is such a plus and a benefit. To open the eyes of these kids and expose them to so much — field trips and college in their future — in this community, it’s amazing. It’s just amazing.”
Finally, the parishioner of St. Pancratius in Lakewood spoke of her faith.
“It plays a huge role,” she told me, sitting in the black-and-white back at the Southeast Station. “It plays a humungous role on how I do my job every day and how I treat people.”
Gutierrez said it goes along with her maturity as a person as well as being a police officer.
“Because when I look back when I started my career, I am not the same officer that I am right now. I’m not,” she said. “I’m a better officer than I was in the past. Extremely more compassionate, especially now as a senior lead officer. Because I’ve got time to talk to people. I’ve got time to really try to find a solution for all these problems. Really try!”