From the Front Lines of the Gang War

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.

Don't Call Me a ‘Bunny Hugger’

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.

Harsh Measures

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.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice says "there's no such thing as probable cause in South L.A., because the entire neighborhood is seen as gang territory."

Trying to Save Little Loco

"The police, to a lot of us in the community, is just another gang, but it's a gang that can legally oppress and kill and then say we have done nothing wrong," says Bishop William T. Washington, a local pastor who has been working in the neighborhood for 25 years.

But ABCNEWS also saw officers Pearce and Stevens try to do some good.

Take the case of a 15-year-old alleged gang member named "Little Loco." They picked him up after getting information he was dealing drugs out of his front yard, and that he might have been involved or have information about several murders.

"The most dangerous ones are the younger ones between the ages of about 15 to 19 because that's when they're at their soldier stage," said Stevens. "That's when they're the gun carriers, the dope couriers, the robbery crews."

Little Loco, in Pearce and Stevens's opinion, had not yet become a serious gangster: His hair had just been shaved, and he hadn't had a tattoo yet.

While the boy sat in the back of his cruiser, Pearce told him to look at all the children who were outside as Little Loco allegedly dealt drugs in his front yard. It was only a matter of time that a rival gang would take a shot at him, Pearce said.

Little Loco would be on the lookout, and would probably be able to get away. But Pearce told him, "The little girls are still going to be standing there smiling and they're the ones that are going to get popped, right? … Can't you see that? … But that's going to be on you."

It didn't work. "So far we couldn't find one that we could save, as hard as we tried," Stevens said.

But that doesn't mean they'll stop trying. "Nobody should have to die from gang violence," said Pearce. "We shouldn't have it, you know?

"I would like to turn our neighborhood back into a place where everybody can walk their dogs and play in the street and skateboard and ride bikes and, you know, like where I grew up," he said. "That's kind of my goal."