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Community Policing in Watts, L.A.

Summary

How does a neighborhood famous for rioting become a leader in community policing?

The neighborhood of Watts in South Los Angeles is perhaps best known for the riots that occurred there in 1965. For much of its history, the low-income neighborhood has been plagued by gang violence and police repression. In the words of reporter Joe Domanick, author of a history of the LAPD, “Ever since the fugitive slave laws of the 1840s a key mission of American policing has been to put the fear of God into African Americans. From 1950 through 2000, the LAPD did that by being a racist, repressive army of occupation in LA’s ghettos.”

In recent years, however, Watts is developing a reputation as a much safer place to live, and community policing in the neighborhood has become a model for the entire LAPD. Violent crime has been reduced by 50 percent or more in the neighborhood’s housing projects, and homicides have become rare.

The police’s Community Safety Partnership brings cops into the neighborhood to coach football teams, tutor students, run Girl Scout troops, and organize camping trips. The program is led by Sergeant Emada Tingirides, who grew up in South Los Angeles. Additionally, the captain of the LAPD Southeast Division, Phil Tingirides (Emada’s husband), has made community policing a top priority.

How does a neighborhood famous for rioting become a leader in community policing? Chief of Police Charlie Beck recalls, “The idea started in 2010 when HACLA [the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles] came to me and wanted to give the Department money for overtime to police the housing developments. Rather than overtime funding, I decided to use the money for personnel upgrades and we developed the Community Safety Partnership program.” On the other hand, journalist Leighton Woodhouse says the program was “conceived by Connie Rice and developed jointly by the LAPD and the Watts community.”

Much of the credit must undoubtedly go to the officers and community organizers who work for peace in Watts on a daily basis. As the newly-appointed captain of the Southeast Division in 2006, Phil Tingirides surprised the community by attending a meeting to broker a truce between rival gangs. In Woodhouse’s words, “Watts residents lit into the new captain. They voiced their long pent-up list of grievances with Southeast officers and their tactics. They pressed Tingirides relentlessly on what he was going to do about it. ‘I was getting my ass handed to me,’ Tingirides said.”

Community leader and ex-gang member Donny Joubert added, “We had some real hard sit-downs in that room. He had to hear us out. And then, we had to hear him out.”

Since that first meeting, Tingirides began recruiting other cops to tutor kids at local schools. That way, officers could “see the kids in a different context than what they see on radio calls. The kids could see the officers as people other than the ones putting dad in handcuffs.”

Tingirides’s efforts were supported by local organizers like Connie Rice and Nina Revoyr, and also by higher-ups in the LAPD like Chief Beck. Their combined work has created an atmosphere of trust and cooperation in Watts. As Woodhouse reports,

At a time when police shootings are a daily occurrence in the United States, and police relations with poor communities of color across the country are as bitter as they have been in decades, in the three Watts housing projects that were at the center of two massive uprisings against LAPD repression, officers are greeted with nods and waves from people who know them by their first names, and by kids running up to say hi.

Cops pulling up onto schoolyards near the three projects today are more likely there to tutor teenagers than to frisk them. Officers help organize backpack giveaways, neighborhood cleanups, and health fairs. Some have even adopted children from the projects to keep them out of the foster system after losing both of their parents to violence or incarceration. “You got hard core gang members shaking the police’s hand, in the corner, talking to them, having conversations, and talking sports — chilling with them,” said Joubert, describing a common scene at Nickerson Gardens. “These cops don’t go in like they’re afraid of people,” explained Revoyr. “They don’t go in like they think that all folks are out to get them. They see and respond to people like people.” Just a few years ago, parents wouldn’t let their children even talk to the officers; they didn’t want them mixed up with the police in any way. “If you go through there now,” Joubert said, “you see the officers toting them on their shoulders, carrying them on their back.”

Despite these optimistic signs, even organizers like Connie Rice are “somewhat skeptical as to whether the success of the program can be brought to the rest of the department; the old school mindset is so baked into its culture.” Joe Domanick says change will be slow in coming: “It takes a long time to build up community trust through community policing.”

However, Phil Tingirides insists that community policing is “the direction the department is going in.” The reduction in crime has been so pronounced in Watts that the rest of the department has to take notice. Even if other cops are skeptical of their methods, Chief Beck can insist on the incontrovertible effectiveness of community policing in Watts.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Had you previously heard of the 1965 Watts riots? Does it surprise you that the neighborhood is now a model for community policing?
  2. How hard do you think it would be to implement this kind of community policing in a police force (you may know) with a bad relationship with the community? What do you expect the obstacles would be?
  3. Are you optimistic that police forces can improve their relationships to black communities, across the country? Do you think the efforts in Watts are a sign of things to come, or a rare outlier?

Implications

  1. The neighborhood of Watts was once a symbol of everything wrong with the relationship between police and Black communities. Now, however, it’s become a model for a more effective, conciliatory approach.
  2. Police in Watts meet regularly with community members and organize activities with local students. This kind of relationship building discourages unnecessary conflicts and helps police understand the community’s needs.
  3. Organizers hope the program in Watts can be expanded to other parts of Los Angeles and other cities, but they recognize that cultural change happens slowly.

Peter Bass
© 2017 CYS

Sources

Patrick Healy (August 11, 2015). “LAPD, Watts Community See Closer Relationship Easing Tensions, Improving Safety.” NBC Los Angeles.

LAPD News Release (January 22, 2015). “LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership Program.” LAPD Online.

Nina Revoyr (June 6, 2015). “How Watts and the LAPD make peace.” Los Angeles Times.

Kirk Siegler (July 25, 2013). “After Years Of Violence, L.A.’s Watts Sees Crime Subside.” NPR Codeswitch.

Leighton Woodhouse (August 11, 2015). “50 Years After the Riots, Watts Projects and LAPD Learn to Co-Exist.” Gawker.

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