There is no more dangerous place in America to be a police officer — or a young man — than southeast Los Angeles.
"It's not Mayberry, by any stretch of the imagination," says Scotty Stevens, an ex-Marine from Oklahoma.
"Southeast is the epicenter of gangs throughout the country. It's a community that is caught in the middle of a battle between good and evil."
Stevens is also a member of the Los Angeles Police Department's gang unit in the Southeast division. And for a yearlong project on law enforcement in the City of Angels, he and his partner, Tim Pearce, became ABCNEWS' informal guides to the front lines of this conflict.
Gang officers are charged with knowing everything about the gangs they're assigned to: names, nicknames, monikers, tattoos, descriptions, cars, girlfriends, families, where they live, where they hang out, who they hang out with.
"It's a constant attempt to gain that information," said Pearce.
Southeast Los Angeles is only about 10 square miles, but there are different gangs from block to block. "Some are just 30, 40 members on one or two blocks," said Pearce. Others are as huge as 2,000 members.
Stevens and Pearce can read the all-too-common graffiti like road signs. Each gang marks its territory. But sometimes they also stray into each others' territory and leave well-worn insults.
The famous Crips are ridiculed as "Crabs." The gang known as East Coast is "Cheese Toast." The enormous Bounty Hunter Bloods gang is mocked as "Bunny Huggers."
"Bunny Huggers," said Stevens with a laugh. "That can get you in a fight right there."
Pride — or real estate — isn't at the center of all these gangs though. Their focus is drugs and the money that comes from it. But in the course of their efforts, Stevens said, "the gangs control everything. They control it through fear."
In September, with ABCNEWS cameras in the back seat, Stevens was called about young men pointing a gun at passing cars. Before police even got off the block, someone retaliated against the neighbors suspected of calling them. A man and a woman were both stabbed.
Every day, Stevens and Pearce see the gangs exercise total control over their territory.
Little kids on their scooters are used as lookouts. As soon as anyone sees an officer approaching, they use the walkie-talkie feature on their cell phones to send out a broadcast.
"They just step back in their house until the coast is clear, come back out and start selling again," said Pearce.
But ABCNEWS also watched as Los Angeles police officers repeatedly approached residents over infractions that wouldn't have warranted their attention anywhere else.
"Pick your reason to stop them, a legitimate reason to stop them, and stop them and talk to them and build it from there," said Stevens.
The offense is not lost on the locals. "They give you the third degree. They make you feel like you're not human, like you're cargo," said Raymond Hubbard, known as Slim, a resident of a housing project called Jordan Downs.
"They see an individual walking down the street and automatically will start casing that person … trying to find anything negative," said Roger Scott, another member of the community.