Along the south end of Rainier Avenue, just about every kid puffing on a cigarette, sipping Thai iced-coffee under the blare of Vietnamese karaoke, or throwing dice in the stale air of a pool hall, reacts the same way when the name "Buddha" comes up. That one word sparks outrage, then stories of beatings and harassment--some tinted by the bravado of adolescence, others told in shaky, cautious tones.

Twenty-year-old Tran Pham stands with a small group of friends in a parking lot outside a pool hall. She recounts the times Buddha has brutalized various boyfriends. There was the one who was pulled from his car and pushed around, accused of gang involvement. There was one who was beaten: "He threw him up against a wall and smacked his head against it," she says flatly. "His head was bleeding."

Buddha is Roger A. Rusness, a detective with the "Asian emphasis unit" of the Seattle Police Department's gang specialty team. The gang unit was started in 1983 in response to a massacre at the Wah Mee Social Club in the International District, where 13 people were killed. The incident showered national attention on Seattle, and police and politicians found themselves scrambling to address gang problems in the Asian community.

Like similar units around the country, the team makes a point of hanging around suspected gang members, getting to know them, and gathering information--names, hangouts, organizational structures. Officers on the team consider themselves a "proactive" force, and aim to prevent violence and deter borderline kids from joining gangs. The gang unit itself is hyper-secretive about its tactics: "We can't say what our techniques are; it would tip the balance in their favor," claims Captain Dan Oliver, who runs the SPD's Youth Crimes Division, which oversees the gang unit.

Much of how they operate, however, can be surmised simply by spending some time on Rainier, where critics say the balance of power is tipped too far toward the cops, leaving room for serious abuses. Around the country, gang units have been accused of racial profiling and brutality. In early May, the Fort Lauderdale unit chased an unarmed black kid with cocaine into a canal, where he drowned. Earlier this year, New York's Street Crimes Unit--which targets gangs--shot an unarmed African immigrant 41 times.

Seattle's gang unit also has been accused of bias and brutish behavior. Asian kids, especially, say they're routinely stopped, searched, photographed, roughed up, or just plain harassed by police. Leo Hamaji, an attorney with the Seattle Public Defender's office, says staff attorneys are planning to investigate possible race targeting by Seattle's gang team, using a $140,000 grant the office recently received. Assuming the anecdotal evidence collected over the last few years is borne out with hard data, Public Defender Lisa Daugaard concludes that the SPD is engaged in a "non-traffic version of the racial profiling" that's gotten the State Patrol in New Jersey in so much trouble.

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Seattle's gang unit comprises 22 members. They dress in black, drive unmarked cars, and frequently go by gang-like monikers such as "Buddha," "Casper," and "Big Red." Though it seems unlikely, the cops on the unit claim the names are terms of respect, chosen by the kids they patrol. The unit works out of an unmarked building in downtown Seattle where they interview informants and occasionally find their windows shot out.

Police say gang violence dropped by nearly 50 percent in the Seattle area between 1993 and 1997, and drive-by shootings dipped by 84 percent during the same period. They also say that violent gangs have become less popular, replaced by organizations focused on money-making. Interestingly, the leaders of the gang unit don't rush to take credit for the decrease, chalking it up instead to a temporary demographic blip. There are simply fewer kids now, they say, a fact that will likely change. Police estimate that there are still as many as 3,000 gang members in Seattle.

When the unit was first formed in response to gang-related problems in the Asian community, it was a small operation with fewer than a dozen members. It was formalized and expanded in 1987 to deal with African American gangs. The Bloods and Crips had migrated from L.A. and spurred a Seattle chapter of the Young Black Disciples. Drive-by shootings started popping up in the newspapers, and the gang unit began targeting the Central Area.

In 1991, the SPD established an "Asian emphasis unit" partly at the behest of the Asian community, including City Councilmember Martha Choe, who claimed that the police were ignoring a blossoming Asian gang problem. There were reports of "home-invasion" burglaries, in which gang members bound and gagged people and robbed them at gun point. And there was a series of high-profile shootings in 1992--two kids were killed (one at a Ballard high school), as a result of what was called gang violence.

In response to complaints and a heated political climate, the city passed a series of laws that essentially established a two-tiered criminal justice system, which continues to dictate tougher sentences for residents of poor and minority neighborhoods.

In 1992, the City Council re-authorized a controversial anti-loitering law they'd passed two years earlier. The law prohibits "drug-traffic loitering," which is defined in vague terms, including circling an area in a car, repeatedly attempting to stop pedestrians, or simply being a known drug trafficker. The law was challenged unsuccessfully by the ACLU on the grounds that it gives police the leeway to arrest people for simply standing on corners in certain neighborhoods. In fact, the ACLU found that between the fall of 1990 and April 1992, 76.6 percent of the 244 people arrested under the law were black, and more than half were never charged.

In 1993, Seattle hooked up with the FBI in targeting gang activity, taking advantage of federal anti-racketeering laws that allowed for amped-up sentences for gang members. In what the police called "Operation Hardfall," the SPD's gang unit and the FBI busted 89 African American people--mainly on drug charges--who were said to belong to gangs in the Central District. Because the bust was in part conducted by federal agents using federal laws, those charged were subject to far tougher sentences than, say, a drug dealer in the University District. Eighteen-month sentences suddenly became five-to-seven-year sentences.

This tactic continues to be used: "A 22-year-old kid involved in an Asian gang home-invasion burglary got 22 years," brags gang-unit detective Ed Harris. "That's longer than a typical sentence for homicide."

While civil libertarians call this legal redlining, the SPD defends the longer sentences because they send a message to gangbangers, and dilute gang leadership. "After that sentence was handed down, [the 22-year-old's gang] had a real noticeable lack of presence. When prevention doesn't work, there's nothing like a good legal spanking," Harris says.

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Mostly though, the gang unit prefers to flex its muscle in smaller ways; what unit members call prevention. Harris says working closely with gangs allows him and other cops to "develop respect and trust" with gang members. "The key to the success of the unit is going on the street and knowing who's playing pool, and who's hanging around McDonald's. We benefit from the constant interaction because we are accepted and respected, and if someone tells us, 'I know [who] did that last invasion robbery,' we probably know who [that person] is, where he lives, and what he drives."

Though members of the gang unit won't get specific regarding the neighborhoods they're currently targeting, it's clear they have a presence in Rainier Valley, in downtown Seattle, and in Lake City. Harris says, "We go to where the kids are. We have units at middle schools and high schools, and we know gang members like to play traditional Southeast Asian pool and karaoke, so we have people make the rounds there."

Teens all over the Rainier Valley area--which has a large Asian population--say they've been asked by the gang unit to pose for pictures. Lawyers at the public defender's office speculate that these photographs are used in photo lineups to help victims and witnesses identify suspects. Harris says the SPD doesn't make a habit of taking snapshots of kids on the streets, but claims that the kids "will group up sometimes and they'll initiate it."

Other kids say they're asked to show I.D. when no charges are pending. According to Daugaard of the public defender's office, "many of our clients report interactions with gang unit officers that seem to focus on race and location. Clients say they and others are frequently asked to answer questions and provide information about themselves, when there's no allegation that they're doing anything wrong or [any] reasonable suspicion."

Jonathan Moore, one of the attorneys arguing the case against the Street Crimes Unit in New York City, says this behavior reflects a double standard. "Stockbrokers are more likely to participate in insider trading" than the rest of the population, he says. "Yet, they don't get stopped on the street and searched for hanging around Wall Street."

The problem with this sort of blanket approach to law enforcement is that, while gangs can be found in schools and at pool halls, so can lots of kids who aren't in gangs. And the criteria police use to determine membership are, by their nature, imprecise (when asked to describe how it pegs gang members, the SPD was vague, listing only self-identification), which can result in overzealousness. In one particularly egregious example from the early '90s, the Compton Police Department in California actually had more kids listed in its database as gang members than lived in the area.

Moore says the practices that characterize gang units nationwide are unconstitutional. "You can't stop someone based on where they live and how they look," he says. "According to the Fourth Amendment, there must be reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to be committed or has been committed, or that someone is in possession of weapons or contraband. That's exactly why we have a constitutional standard for stop and search."

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Down in Rainier Valley, if teens don't get in or out of their cars fast enough or move down the sidewalk when directed to, they could find themselves on the wrong side of gang-unit officers like Rusness. Sometimes, they say, Rusness--who is Asian--drives them to the gang-unit station downtown as punishment, so they have to walk all the way back to Rainier. They claim that he sometimes even follows them in his car, making taunting remarks through a bullhorn. On particularly bad days, he drops them off in neighborhoods run by their enemies or rival gangs. Rusness didn't return repeated calls from The Stranger.

Huy Dang, 14, says he was harassed by Rusness because of the way he looked. "When I first came to this country, I had long hair and I guess so did the [Young Seattle Boys gang]. I was never in a gang. Buddha followed me everywhere, taunting me, making fun of my hair." Finally Dang got a haircut. "And now he leaves me alone."

Seventeen-year-old Eric Ofrancia had his own run-in with Rusness; he claims that last year he and his friend were driving home from a party when the officer pulled them over. He says Rusness threw him onto the pavement and searched his car. "He said he was looking for a rifle," Ofrancia recalls. Rusness didn't find one, he says, but proceeded to drive the two young men to separate high schools and leave them there.

It's difficult to verify exactly how run-ins like these go down, since police reports are rarely filed. One incident did wind up in the official record, however. On March 19, Rusness came across 19-year-old Xuan Nguyen at a Rainier pool hall, while he was arresting and restraining another youth. Nguyen flunked what officers often call the "attitude test" and was arrested for obstructing justice because, according to the report, he was "demanding to know why [his friend] was being arrested" and "pointing his finger at me."

The incident has become infamous in the Rainier area, because according to Nguyen and nearly 20 witnesses, Rusness, a rather formidable man at around 6'5'' and 250 pounds, beat up Nguyen, who is only 5'6'' and 125 pounds, before taking him into custody. The obstruction of justice charges were dropped in court due to insufficient evidence, but Nguyen--who says he used to be a member of the Young Seattle Boys--is still paying the price.

The Stranger was at the Billiard Thao pool hall, where Rusness arrested Nguyen in March, when the gang unit stopped by for an afternoon visit. As Rusness pulled up in his car, the couple dozen boys drowning in tidy Abercrombie and Fitch outfits froze at their pool tables. Rusness slammed open the door, pointed at a 16-year-old boy and yelled "Get the fuck out here!" As he searched the boy's car without showing a warrant, he spied Nguyen and called out "X-man, you better get back in there or I'm taking you to jail."

"What'd I do?" Nguyen asked.

Rusness responded, "You don't have to do anything. You remember what happened last time?"

After yelling at two teenagers that "you have two seconds to get in that car or you're going to jail," Rusness continued his search of the boy's auto. He turned up some tire rims, which he claimed were stolen, and confiscated them. If the kid could bring in the person he bought them from, he'd get them back.

Local social-service agencies say they've helped kids file dozens of complaints against Rusness, but to no avail. Joyce Erickson, a recently retired King County probation officer who worked with many of the kids in Rainier Valley, says she assisted at least a dozen kids in filing formal complaints about Rusness with the SPD.

An employee of a city-run gang-intervention agency, who wished to remain anonymous, said he did the same, making "sure the kids took their complaints to the right folks. It's not clear whether they had any impact," he says, "and it's also not clear whether Buddha is a loose cannon or whether police feel it's necessary to have someone play the real heavy. Tactically, from a police angle, it may make sense." Despite formal requests, the SPD had not provided details of complaints filed against Rusness by press time. But Youth Crimes Division head Dan Oliver denies that the officer uses brutality. "Officer Rusness has been here a long time," he says. "He's very tough, but that doesn't mean he's excessive. That's a matter of perspective." Oliver claims that the entire gang unit averages only one citizen complaint per year.

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Though some businesses along MLK Way complain about the gang unit and its tactics--forcing certain cafés or pool halls to close down for the night or to exclude specific customers--others appreciate the strong presence. The proprietor of the Olympic restaurant on MLK Way says kids used to harass him for free food until the gang unit came along. And the proprietor of Billiard Hoang, a pool hall on Hudson Street, likes the added surveillance because it keeps the place quiet. "Kids here have too much freedom," she says, declining to be named. "Some of them came over without parents. It's not like Vietnam. That's why they join gangs--too much freedom."

Larry Evans of the Central Area Youth Association, a social-services agency, says, "Minority communities have always wanted better police protection. That's different from declaring open season on the neighborhood kids." He questions whether the gang unit's strategy is effective. "Kids join gangs because they want power and to belong, even if it's negative. The idea of the gang unit is that they are an even more powerful gang, but I've never seen a young person who says, 'I was a hardcore Blood until the gang unit scared the hell out of me, and now I'm going to try something else.'"

After Rusness leaves Billiard Thao, the boy whose tires have been confiscated tucks his arms into his T-shirt, so the scrap of paper that Rusness has scrawled a phone number on dangles out. He says, "Don't quote me. Don't use my name. Don't say I think anything. I don't need any more trouble from him."

When the kid's friend Quoc Le, 24, came to this country from Vietnam when he was 18, he didn't speak much English, and he still doesn't. He stole two cars and served his time. But whenever he goes out, he says Rusness makes a point of searching him or driving him to the gang unit so he has to walk home.

"That's illegal, right?" his girlfriend asks over and over, as he describes his run-ins with Rusness. He leans on her arm, watching his friends talk indignantly in Vietnamese about how they will get their tire rims back.

Staring absentmindedly at the chipped, green-painted wall next to her, she says to no one in particular, "They're not going to get the tires back. They never get anything back if they don't have the receipt in the car when he searches. They don't know their rights. They don't know enough English."

Looking away from her, Le says, "You come to this country for freedom, but every place you go, he picks you out. He doesn't let you go anywhere and there's nothing you can do. He can control your life."

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