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5 views of LAPD community policing strategies

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, a reformer hand-picked by former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, is seen as an innovator and also someone who's respected by the old guard.

The LAPD’s relationship with the communities it policies has improved dramatically since the videotaped beating of Rodney King by officers in 1991. The acquittal of those officers in state court sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A federal jury later convicted two officers.

Today, amid a renewed debate about policing in America, the LAPD touts itself as a leader in community engagement. But not everyone is convinced. Here are five views of the LAPD’s community policing efforts.

The brothers

Mac Shorty and Anthony Lawrence are brothers who were born and raised in Watts.

Shorty, 46, says LAPD officers would pull him over “for no reason” when he was a young man. But when the same thing happened recently, Shorty, a mortician who serves as the vice president of the Watts Neighborhood Council, challenged the officer.

Later, at the urging of the officer’s supervisor, they met to discuss what both perceived as rude behavior by the other, says Shorty.

“My behavior played a part of it,” he concedes. “So at the end of the day we both agreed that our behavior may have been wrong. We apologized to each other and moved on.”

It’s an example of how the department is building trust in Watts, Shorty says.

Shorty spoke outside a police meeting at the Green Meadows Recreation Center. His brother was there too.  He has a different take on the LAPD.

Lawrence, 47, believes officers still racially profile people. He is also suspicious of the proposal to place body cameras on every officer.

"The body cameras sound like a great idea, but who is really reviewing those videos," he asks. Shorty believes officers would cover up any video that showed wrongdoing. 

"Instead of getting body cameras, I think they need to build a better relationship with the community," he says.

The cop

The LAPD’s top commander in Watts is Captain Phillip Tingirides, a 35-year veteran of the department. For the past seven years, he’s worked to improve relationships, he says.

“For the first three years, it was a constant attack,” Tingirides says of how people treated him and the department. “There was a lot of listening that had to be done. There had to be a lot of owning up to the things that we as a police department had done.”

Tingirides says he also took action. He reconstituted his gang unit, bringing in officers who treat people with more respect. Officers assigned to the housing projects work there five years, and focus on solving problems not arrests. It’s considered a model of community policing.

“We have built a far more functional relationship,” Tingirides says. The veteran captain adds that the people who protest outside police headquarters are a “minute minority.”

“There are far more people who are sitting at home watching TV very supportive of us,” he says. 

Tingirides is being honored Tuesday night at Barack Obama's State of the Union speech in Washington; he will sit next to First Lady Michelle Obama for the speech.

The mediator

Sitting in his office on the 21st floor of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, Francisco Ortega reflects on the LAPD.

“A lot of good work has been done in Watts,” he says. But Pacoima, Van Nuys and other parts of South LA have not received the same attention, he argues.

“I think the department needs to do a better job of reaching out – and not just to people who are friends.”

Ortega works with the city’s Human Relations Commission. He’s spent the last decade mediating disputes between the police and communities. The LAPD leadership has embraced community policing, he says.

“The true challenge continues to be how the rank and file are responding on the street level,” Ortega says. “After all this talk of community policing, I still hear folks that are afraid” of LAPD officers.

The reverse is also often true, he says.

“There’s real fear and trepidation on the part of police officers” in some neighborhoods.

The professor

U.C. Irvine Professor Paul Jesilow studies community policing.  He traces many of today’s problems to the 1950’s, when a “bureaucratic style” of policing took hold in America.

 “Police departments began to see themselves as the crime expert and the citizens were merely to call the police and to request assistance,” Jesilow say. “As a result, police officers’ have a tendency to ignore what the community has to say about policing.”

The LAPD has made efforts to engage with communities, but officers still have this tendency, says Jesilow.

As their legitimacy is challenged, police need to include communities more in decision making, Jesilow argues.  “The public wants order, but not necessarily achieved through law enforcement. In fact, police can cause more disorder sometimes.” 

He’s also sympathetic with police. “They have extremely difficult job. On one day we want them to be law enforcement. On another day, we want them to be able to help the lost child.”

“For the officer, its ‘Who do you want me to be today?’”

The activist

On a recent weekday afternoon, Marta Segura stood outside the LAPD’S Newton Division in South LA. She was waiting for a community meeting with police leaders.

The department has been slower to build relationships with Latinos than African Americans, Segura argues. But that’s slowly changing. She’s encouraged that Chief Charlie Beck has replaced the captain at Newton, following the controversial shootings of two unarmed men, Ezell Ford and Omar Obrego.

“The placement of Captain Jorge Rodriquez here is going to be pivotal,” she says.

Choosing her words carefully, she says Rodriquez is a better choice than the previous captain, who was white.

“It's something that sometimes is inherent to the individual because of their life experiences and because of how they see themselves reflected in the community,” she says. 

Segura counts herself a strong supporter of the LAPD, but when asked to rate its community relations she is cautious.

“I think I would rate them around a six or seven,” she says. “They still have a long way to go.”