Mak­ing peace with po­lice

Watts res­i­dents and the LAPD are forg­ing re­la­tion­ships that are cut­ting crime and pro­vid­ing a model for other com­mu­ni­ties.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Nina Revoyr olice killings Nina Revoyr is the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Chil­dren’s In­sti­tute Inc. and the au­thor of sev­eral nov­els, in­clud­ing “South­land.”

Pand re­sult­ing protests have sparked a na­tional de­bate about the en­mity among com­mu­ni­ties of color and the of­fi­cers charged to serve and pro­tect them. But in the South L.A. neigh­bor­hood of Watts, against all odds, po­lice and res­i­dents have forged pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships that are low­er­ing crime rates and cre­at­ing a model that holds valu­able lessons for other com­mu­ni­ties.

Many An­ge­lenos think of Watts as the poverty-bound area that ex­ploded 50 years ago in ri­ots, or as the home of the quixotic Watts Tow­ers. But the neigh­bor­hood has also given rise to the Watts Gang Task Force, a vol­un­teer group of res­i­dents, po­lice of­fi­cers, com­mu­nity lead­ers, elected of­fi­cials and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from lo­cal schools and non­prof­its. Ev­ery Monday they meet in a win­dow­less con­fer­ence room to con­front prob­lems and avert vi­o­lence in a way that would have been unimag­in­able a decade ago.

The task force was cre­ated in 2006 af­ter a spate of vi­o­lence that claimed seven lives. Its founders were Watts res­i­dents who had lost fam­ily mem­bers to vi­o­lence, whose chil­dren were in gangs, or who had once been gang mem­bers them­selves. They were tired of see­ing young peo­ple die, and of po­lice who didn’t seem to care. With then-City Coun­cil­woman Jan­ice Hahn pro­vid­ing the space, the res­i­dents met di­rectly with law en­force­ment.

“There was a lot of anger com­ing out,” says Phil Tin­giri­des, who be­came cap­tain of the LAPD’s South­east Sta­tion in 2007, “a lot of dis­trust and fear.”

But from those first tense meet­ings an ef­fort evolved that is now largely cred­ited with re­duc­ing shoot­ings among youths in Watts by two-thirds, and with the near­erad­i­ca­tion of homi­cides in its four pub­lic hous­ing projects. It has changed the dis­trust-and-fear dy­namic be­tween the peo­ple and the po­lice.

Each week, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from law en­force­ment report on crime and give up­dates on in­ves­ti­ga­tions in progress. Com­mu­nity prob­lems are raised and re­solved. The meet­ings have also be­come a clear­ing­house of sorts, with the task force board — made up mostly of found­ing mem­bers — con­nect­ing res­i­dents, who of­ten come look­ing for help, with re­sources right there in the room: em­ploy­ment train­ing for men who are look­ing for work; a mo­bile med­i­cal pro­gram for par­ents to im­mu­nize their kids; grief coun­sel­ing for a mother who’s just lost her child.

My or­ga­ni­za­tion has been part of the task force since 2007. I’ve seen first­hand what Watts and the LAPD have ac­com­plished, and I am cer­tain it can be repli­cated.

There are sev­eral key el­e­ments to the task force’s suc­cess. First, it’s com­mu­nity-driven. It was cre­ated by peo­ple who have a deep stake and sense of own­er­ship in its work. “There’s a way you can build a re­la­tion­ship with your po­lice de­part­ment,” says Donny Jou­bert, vice pres­i­dent of the group and a long­time res­i­dent of Watts. “But the com­mu­nity has to de­mand it.”

Sec­ond, the po­lice show re­spect for the res­i­dents, which be­gan with the sim­ple act of lis­ten­ing. “Phil started to feel the things that we were say­ing,” Jou­bert says. “He started to feel the pain.” The re­la­tion­ship grew to the point that Tin­giri­des and his wife, LAPD Sgt. Emada Tin­giri­des, would show up at the hos­pi­tal, off duty, in the mid­dle of the night, when neigh­bor­hood peo­ple had been shot. “Not be­cause we were cops,” he says, “but be­cause we were friends.”

This em­pa­thy led to a change in day-to-day polic­ing prac­tices in Watts, em­bod­ied by the Com­mu­nity Safety Part­ner­ship, or CSP, pro­gram — a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the LAPD and L.A.’s Hous­ing Au­thor­ity that places of­fi­cers at the Watts pub­lic hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. CSP of­fi­cers don’t just pa­trol the projects; they coach foot­ball, lead Girl Scout troops, at­tend health fairs and prayer ser­vices.

A few years ago, “the kids were just flat-out afraid of us,” says Emada Tin­giri­des, who di­rects the pro­gram. Now, they swarm CSP cops, ea­ger for a hug or high-five. Some of these of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing Tin­giri­des, grew up in Watts. Oth­ers meet with lo­cal res­i­dents dur­ing their train­ing. These of­fi­cers aren’t just polic­ing the com­mu­nity; they’ve be­come a part of it.

And that af­fects how they re­spond in tense sit­u­a­tions. Sev­eral months ago, a young boy wield­ing what looked like a 9-mil­lime­ter gun ran to­ward a group of cops in the Nick­er­son Gar­dens de­vel­op­ment. A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in Cleve­land in Novem­ber led to po­lice killing 12year-old Tamir Rice. But at Nick­er­son Gar­dens, Jou­bert says, the po­lice “didn’t reach for their guns, didn’t flinch, not even one time.” They rec­og­nized the gun was a toy; be­cause they knew and men­tored so many boys in the neigh­bor­hood, they didn’t as­sume this one had vi­o­lence in mind. “If it had been reg­u­lar po­lice,” Jou­bert ob­served, “it would have been a whole dif­fer­ent story.”

The in­ci­dent didn’t stop there. Jou­bert went to nearby mer­chants, in­clud­ing ice cream truck driv­ers, and per­suaded them to stop sell­ing toy guns.

This speaks to another el­e­ment of the suc­cess story in Watts. There is mu­tual ac­count­abil­ity be­tween the po­lice and res­i­dent lead­ers — ex­pec­ta­tions they have of one another, and of them­selves that are main­tained and re­in­forced by the weekly task force meet­ings.

“We set a tone for how po­lice work’s go­ing to be done in this di­vi­sion,” says Phil Tin­giri­des, who was re­cently pro­moted to com­man­der of South Bu­reau, which in­cludes Watts. Jou­bert adds that the com­mu­nity must “be will­ing to step up” be­fore its own. He and other lead­ers send pot-smok­ing men and pimps away from school­yards; in­sist that par­ents keep track of their kids’ ac­tiv­i­ties in the dan­ger­ous af­ter-school hours; set clear ex­pec­ta­tions of teens in youth em­ploy­ment pro­grams. Res­i­dents share in­for­ma­tion with po­lice — about drug hot spots, weapons caches, ru­mored gang re­tal­i­a­tions — which re­quires a level of courage out­siders can’t fathom. “That takes a lot of power away from gangs,” says Tin­giri­des, “when they can’t count on si­lence from fear.”

Like any gen­uine re­la­tion­ship, the one be­tween law en­force­ment and Watts res­i­dents re­quires work, time and com­mit­ment. Ten­sions flared in March af­ter a fa­tal, un­solved shoot­ing in Jor­dan Downs, the first in nearly four years, but both sides have stayed at the ta­ble. Po­lice of­fi­cials na­tion­wide — and in the rest of Los An­ge­les — would be wise to take no­tice. In the place where the na­tion’s most fa­mous civil un­rest was sparked by a po­lice stop gone bad, the LAPD and the com­mu­nity have joined forces, calmed a neigh­bor­hood and saved lives. If this kind of trans­for­ma­tion can hap­pen in Watts, it can hap­pen any­where.

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