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From community policing to ‘relationship policing’: LAPD expands foot patrols

Taking a stab at "relationship policing," the LAPD on Monday announced a small expansion of foot patrols in the Hollenbeck Division on the East side of the city.

“I want the officers to be known by their name,” said Captain Martin Baeza. “And I think the timing is right.”

Already three pairs of beat cops walked areas of shops and other businesses. Now it'll be eight pairs along North Broadway Blvd., Whittier Blvd., Soto Street and five other commercial corridors. Officials said property crimes are have increased there, so the added foot patrols should help prevent and solve those crimes.

“Our mission is to build relationships,” said Officer Eric Perez, who has been walking the streets since November.

Relationship-based policing requires staying in a neighborhood. It is an increasingly popular term among criminal justice experts and civil rights activists who say police have become too disconnected from the communities they police. The Los Angeles-based Advancement Project is one proponent.

The LAPD, which has fewer officers per capita than many big city police departments, has used foot patrols on a limited basis on Skid Row, in Venice and elsewhere. The sprawl of Los Angeles makes it hard to patrol effectively and efficiently by foot.

The increase comes less than a month after the LAPD announced it’s quadrupling the size of its elite Metropolitan Division to 200. In contrast to the foot patrols, Metro cops are assigned to swoop into high crime areas with an eye toward making a lot of stops and arrests. Some worry that effort could hurt community policing efforts.

“This is probably going to be a far more effective tool than having those high speed guys respond to put out the fires," Perez said.

He said foot patrols have the benefit of being stealth and unexpected. He recalled walking up on some rival gang members who looked like they were about to start shooting.

“They were like, ‘honestly, we didn’t see you coming,’ ” he said, chuckling. No gun was found.

Many local residents said they like seeing men and women in uniform walking the streets, instead of hidden away in their cars where they are “more intimidating.”

“When they’re standing, you’re more likely to go ask a question to just say hello and shake their hand,” said lifelong Boyle Heights resident Margarita Amador. She recalls seeing foot patrols growing up in the neighborhood four decades ago.

“We would run to the officers and we’d get a baseball card,” she said. “We felt safe talking to the police.”

Foot patrol officers typically make fewer arrests.

“I like to think of it as more preventing crimes,” said Officer Joe Romo, who may be the most veteran foot officer in the city at 16 years. “It’s a more positive way to police.”

He said he arrests about ten people a year. Officers in patrol cars responding to radio calls arrest five to ten people a month, he said.

“I’m not expecting these guys to be hauling people in left and right,” said Baeza, the area captain. “I am expecting them to build relationships and partnerships with the community.”

Foot patrols do create other kinds of risks, Romo said.

"You are a little bit more vulnerable since you are out of your car,” he said. “In today’s environment, you don’t know if someone is going to come up behind you and try to attack you.”

Standing on her porch with her parents around the corner from Mariachi Plaza where police announced the foot patrols, Kimberly Duenas, 20, expressed skepticism of cops.

“We see a lot of cases where the cops kill innocent people and we’re afraid of that,” she said. Then she thought more about seeing officers walking on the streets.

“It could be good cause we’re not going to generalize everybody as much - there are corrupted cops and good cops,” she said.

At a police department that has a history of priding itself on aggressive policing, Perez said maybe foot cops like him who focus on relationships will be seen in a new light.

“Maybe we’ll be considered the heroes,” he said.