It started as a routine 911 call. Someone in South Gate, a working-class city in Los Angeles County, had seen a group of young black males who appeared to be breaking into a neighbors house. When the South Gate police arrived at the scene, they blocked the street with their patrol cars. Three teenagers ran out of the house, jumped into their own car, and rammed through the barricade. The kids headed for the freeway, first speeding south toward Long Beach on the 710 and then turning west onto the 105. By now, Los Angeles County Sheriffs deputies and California Highway Patrol officers had joined the pursuit.
Moments later, the suspects car caught fire. They pulled over, leaped out of the car, and scrambled down the highway embankment. To the north was the Watts section of South L.A.; to the south, Compton. It was here that the three teenagers made a serious mistake: they ran north into Imperial Courts, a 500-unit public-housing development controlled by one of Wattss oldest street gangs, the PJ Crips. The suspects themselves were members of a rival gang, the Bounty Hunter Bloods.
Sheriffs deputies caught one of the Bloods before he could vanish into the maze of two-story apartment blocks that make up Imperial Courts. Another suspect got away. Deputies spotted the third ducking into one of the apartment buildings. They were preparing to go in when Phil Tingirides, the Los Angeles Police Department captain responsible for Southeast Division, arrived on the scene. Tingirides didnt like what he saw. Entering seemed an unwise tactic; in fact, LAPD guidelines called for the use of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Tingirides was also disturbed by the atmosphere developing among the assembled group of roughly 15 spectators, including the suspects mother, sisters, and brothers. Almost as soon as she had arrived, upset and worried, the mother had gotten into it with one of the deputies, who began upbraiding her for raising a gangbanger. Meanwhile, Tingirides noticed, one of the brothers had started an argument with a group of PJs nearby.
Any cop whod worked the public-housing developments of Watts during the 1980s and 1990s had seen it happen: the gang skirmish that escalates to a shooting; the crowd that turns on the cops. But not this time. Tingirides interrupted the deputys harangue, saying, Hey, I got this. Then he introduced himself to the mother and the sisters as a cop and a parent. Your priority needs to be getting your son out of here safe, he said. He explained what had happened. This was news to the mother, who had simply gotten a call from her son saying that the cops were chasing him for no reason. These things can happen, Tingirides said. Disgusted at the way Tingirides was talking about a hard-core gangbanger, the deputy left. Tingirides and the mother then went over to the brother, who was still arguing with the PJs. Mom and the highway patrol pulled him aside. Once she understood what had happened and had someone talking to her as a person and a fellow parent, it totally changed her demeanor and dynamic, says Tingirides.
The crowd was losing interest. So were the deputies. Tingirides told them that LAPD guidelines prohibited an attempt to make an entry. Fine, they said; in that case, were handing this off to you. The deputies pulled back. And then the suspect emerged. His brother had called him on his cell phone and explained the situation. South Gate police took him into custody. The crowd dispersed. There was never any element of hostility toward our department at all, Tingirides says.
For more than half a century, many African-American Angelenos and more than a few Latinos considered the LAPD an oppressor—an occupation force, in the words of former Urban League president John Mack. That is no longer the case. Over the past decade, the department has transformed itself radically, along with its relations with local minorities. Nor has the police department become popular by sacrificing public safety: violent crime in Los Angeles has been falling for years. How the LAPDs reconciliation with L.A.s minorities came about may be the most important untold story in the world of policing. What makes the reconciliation even more remarkable is that its architect was the same man who had already transformed the New York City Police Department: William Bratton.
The LAPD has a long history of strained relations with Los Angeless minority communities. During the early 1960s, Chief William Parker publicly took issue with the civil rights movement while turning a blind eye to his officers sometimes brutal conduct in black and Latino neighborhoods. Almost every week, African-American newspapers published horror stories of black Angelenos stopped, verbally abused, unlawfully detained, or beaten by the police. Even many law-abiding black Angelenos feared maltreatment. Parker investigated the people who filed complaints against the department more enthusiastically than he investigated the officers being complained about. He declined to criticize Bull Connors tactics in Birmingham and insisted that race riots could never occur in Los Angeles.
He was wrong. In 1965, Watts and much of South L.A. went up in flames after a highway-patrol stop gone bad. Far from damaging Parkers reputation, the Watts riots seemed to give credence to his increasingly apocalyptic warnings about Californias future, and he emerged from the riots the most popular figure in California—the white communitys security blanket, as Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler called him. Parker died in office in 1966, but his legacy—a deeply conservative, fiercely independent police department—lived on. In 1977, his protégé Daryl Gates took over the LAPD. Gates dismantled an early community-policing initiative developed by his immediate predecessor and focused instead on such innovations as SWAT teams. Under his tenure, the LAPD managed to patrol a sprawling, 468-square-mile city with a force less than half the size of the NYPD, relative to the population of each city.
Then, in the mid-1980s, crack cocaine arrived in Los Angeles. With the drugs came money. With the money came cars, guns, and a fierce scramble for markets. Neighborhoods long known for violence suddenly became killing fields. In response, Gates launched Operation Hammer. Hundreds of cops swarmed through black and Latino neighborhoods, usually at the beginning of the weekend. The goal was to make arrests. To do so, every law was strictly enforced. Over the course of a typical weekend, police would pick up 1,000 to 2,000 people, jail them, and impound their cars. Come Monday morning, the courts would dismiss all but a few dozen charges. Residents would go to the impound yards to retrieve their cars; often, theyd been damaged, and not infrequently, rims and stereos went missing.
They were pissed, really angry, recalls Lieutenant Fred Booker, an African-American and the son of South Carolina sharecroppers. He had joined the LAPD in 1972. Who were they angry at? The police department. Relations with the police was nonexistent. Anger and frustration with the department was overwhelming. The anger reached a boiling point in 1992, when the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were unexpectedly acquitted, and South Los Angeles erupted in looting and violence. Instead of suppressing the criminal activity, the LAPD withdrew. It took nearly a week to restore order.
This time, the public didnt rally around its police chief. Gates retired, and voters approved an amendment to the city charter that replaced the chiefs life tenure with a limit of two five-year terms. Other changes increased the powers of the Board of Police Commissioners, whose members, appointed by the mayor, oversaw the chief. And now the chief would be appointed not by the board but by the mayor, subject to the city councils approval.
His authority enhanced, Mayor Tom Bradley chose former Philadelphia police commissioner Willie Williams to head the department. He was the first African-American chief in the departments history and the first chief appointed from outside the LAPDs ranks since 1949. But his tenure was brief and overshadowed by reports, which proved true, that a Las Vegas casino had given him free rooms and other perks. In 1997, Mayor Richard Riordan replaced Williams with an LAPD veteran, Bernard Parks, who was also black. Parks made some noteworthy reforms, improving the way police treated suspects in high-crime neighborhoods and instituting a system that, for the first time, gave commanders a comprehensive account of complaints filed against every officer. But his administration, too, suffered from scandal—allegations that gang officers in the Rampart Division had stolen drugs from evidence lockers and framed suspects. In 2001, after a long investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, city officials negotiated a consent decree that put the LAPD under the supervision of a federal judge.
At the same time, violent crime was starting to increase, reversing a trend that had begun in the mid-1990s. In 2002, Mayor James Hahn announced that he was selecting Bill Bratton as the citys next police chief.
It wasnt self-evident that New York mayor Rudy Giulianis first police commissioner was the best candidate to reduce crime and bridge L.A.s black-blue divide. But Brattons entire life had prepared him for the assignment. His parents were high school sweethearts who had grown up together in the projects of Charlestown, Massachusetts. By the time Bill was born in 1947, they had moved to the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, where they lived down the street from a police station. One of Brattons earliest memories is watching patrolmen march out of the station, two abreast, and load themselves into the open-backed blue wagons that delivered them to their posts. From an early age, he wanted to be a cop.
But the Boston Police Department required applicants to be at least 21 years old. Bratton couldnt afford college, so after high school, he joined the army, became an MP, and was sent to Vietnam, where he spent three years walking the perimeter of various military bases with a German shepherd. He returned to Boston in 1969 and became a policeman the following year.
His first assignment was in Mattapan, which bordered Dorchester to the south. When Bratton was growing up, Mattapan had been predominantly Jewish, but now it was mostly African-American and one of the toughest districts in Boston, a dumping ground for new recruits with no pull in the department—in other words, for people like Bratton. There, he got a firsthand look at the complexities of race and policing. One evening, he and his partner were ordered to park their cruiser in front of the house of an elderly Jewish woman, a holdout from the tidal wave of demographic change that had swept over the neighborhood. Some black kids had been throwing bricks through her windows. As dusk was falling, a black teenager came walking down the street. Nothing about the kid suggested trouble; in fact, he reminded Bratton of his best friend from basic training. Brattons partner thought otherwise. He got out of the car and planted himself in the middle of the sidewalk, arms crossed. The kid tried to walk around him. The officer stepped in front of him. Excuse me, the teen said. I want to get by.
Cross the street, responded Brattons partner. You cant walk here.
What do you mean, I cant walk here? the teen said. Soon the two were going at each other, voices rising. Eventually, the boy complied, and as he walked away, Bratton asked his partner why hed confronted him in the first place. Fuck those niggers, his partner said loudly, so that the kid could hear him.
Tensions got hotter. In 1974, U.S. federal district judge Arthur Garrity ordered the Boston school district—but not the suburban jurisdictions that surrounded the city, such as Wellesley, the judges hometown—to engage in busing to end segregation. The order set off protests throughout the city, but close-knit, Irish-American South Boston emerged as the locus of resistance. Confrontations with the police became increasingly common. On Fathers Day 1977, white fathers marched on South Boston High School, which was defended by a small contingent of police officers, including Bratton. What the police had expected to be a standoff turned into an assault. The mob surged toward the gate to the school, destroying police cars and hurling rocks and bottles at the officers.
Bratton suddenly found himself standing next to Police Commissioner Robert diGrazia. Good afternoon, Sergeant Bratton, diGrazia said cheerfully, acting for all the world as though the two men had just bumped into each other strolling through the Public Garden. (At this point, Bratton was already famous in the department for persuading an armed bank robber with a hostage to surrender.) You know, the commissioner continued as projectiles flew through the air, weve been talking about a new initiative to bring some of you young sergeants into headquarters to work on my staff and get a feel for the place. Would you be interested in coming up?
I would love it! Bratton said. The idea of working in the commissioners office must have seemed particularly appealing at that moment.
Not long after Brattons transfer to headquarters, he was asked to take over an initiative called the Boston-Fenway Program. Prostitution, drug dealing, and drug use were increasing in a part of town that housed such institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts, Symphony Hall, Boston University, and Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Suburban arts patrons had become afraid to visit; Boston University had started hinting that it might eventually have no choice but to move to the suburbs. The Boston-Fenway Program was supposed to combat the growing disorder. At its core were neighborhood panels in which 15 or so local leaders talked with the police—including regular patrol officers, a novel arrangement at the time.
At first, Bratton focused on what he saw as serious crime. He was meticulous about tracking crime—his penchant for crime maps earned him the nickname Lord of the Dots—and the maps clearly identified rape, burglary, assaults, muggings, robberies, and auto theft as the most pressing problems. In the South End, for instance, police were worried about a string of robberies. But at the community meetings, Bratton kept hearing about different concerns: prostitution, after-hours clubs, loud parties, and public drinking. The sore spot in the South End was dirty streets: street sweepers couldnt clean them because of illegally parked cars, and though the scofflaws got tickets, they rarely got towed. So after one complaint-filled meeting, Bratton decided to do what the community wanted. For days, police officers wrote tickets and towed cars.
In the process, something unexpected happened. While out writing tickets, one of the cops started chatting with a resident about the South End burglaries. It turned out that the resident had seen someone suspicious around the time of a recent break-in. The officer handed the tip to detectives, who arrested the offender and ended the burglary spree. Bratton had learned an important lesson: addressing public concerns about disorder could prevent more serious crimes.
Others were intuiting that connection, too. In New York City, Deputy Mayor Herb Sturz had begun to urge police to target disorder in midtown Manhattan. In 1980, sociologist Nathan Glazer argued that graffiti in New York Citys subway system sent a message that the trains carried uncontrollable predators and, by sending that message, encouraged those predators to appear. Two years later, the connection between disorder and danger became still more coherent with the publication in The Atlantic Monthly of Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety, by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The article advanced two arguments: that small problems left unaddressed tended to give rise to bigger problems; and that cops walking the beat, whom modern police administrators viewed as relics of the past, were in fact engaged in the vital task of maintaining order and enforcing quality-of-life issues.
Though the article caused a sensation among policymakers and the public, criminologists werent interested in exploring the Broken Windows theory. In 1983, the National Institute of Justice prepared to fund an experimental assessment of the proposition that reducing disorder could reduce crime. At the last minute, the project was rejected. Not until 1990 would a police department test the theory on a large scale. The test took place under the most adverse circumstances imaginable: in the New York City subway system. And the experimenter was Bill Bratton, who—after successful stints running police departments for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and Massachusettss Metropolitan District Commission—had just been hired as the new chief of the New York City Transit Police.
In his previous positions, Bratton had begun to develop what he thought of as a doctors kit for damaged police departments. For example, he thought that morale was important. So when he arrived in New York, he improved both the transit polices uniforms (adding commando-style sweaters) and weapons (issuing modern Glocks, a distinct improvement on the old revolvers). Bratton also upgraded the departments radio system, so that the transit cops could communicate underground.
But the most celebrated aspect of Brattons tenure as transit chief was his embrace of the Broken Windows theory. Along with Kelling, who was working as a consultant for the transit police, he emphasized catching fare beaters. The transit cops who, following his orders, started arresting turnstile jumpers made a surprising discovery: one in seven was wanted on an outstanding warrant, and one in 21 was carrying a weapon. In short, enforcing the law was also an excellent way to arrest felons and fugitives, which in turn drove down crime rates and public fear. Brattons subway successes vindicated Broken Windows as a policing strategy and put Bratton on track to become Rudy Giulianis commissioner of the NYPD in 1994.
It also created a problem that bedevils the NYPD to this day: a widespread tendency to confuse Broken Windows with zero tolerance policing. The British press has been particularly zealous about describing the NYPDs approach as zero tolerance. It isnt. Broken Windows has always been a negotiated sense of order in a community, in which you negotiate with residents about what is appropriate behavior in an area, says Kelling. If you tell your cops, We are going to go in and practice zero tolerance for all minor crimes, you are inviting a mess of trouble. The idea that authorities alone, without community involvement, should implement a zero-tolerance policy toward anything more than the most limited problems of crime or disorder disturbs Kelling greatly. Both he and Bratton view it as the single most misunderstood legacy of their time in New York.
Their concern isnt academic or theoretical: there was a place where observers could have watched the effect of zero-tolerance policing, had they cared to look for it. That place was South Los Angeles, where Daryl Gatess Operation Hammer was shattering relations between the police and minority communities. One of the officers working Operation Hammer was Charlie Beck, who today is chief of the LAPD, having succeeded Bratton in 2009. Like most officers, Beck supported the departments tough approach. Then came the Rodney King riots. All the strategies that tore down willing cooperation made a lot less sense after those nights, he says.
As the NYPDs commissioner, Bratton famously presided over an unprecedented crime drop while developing such innovations as Compstat, the departments computerized crime-tracking system. By the time he resigned in 1996, he was the most lauded lawman in the world. But when he arrived in Los Angeles in 2002, he had his work cut out for him. Violent crime was rising; the number of homicides was on track to exceed 600 for the first time since 1996. (The city would ultimately register 654 homicides that year.) The police department was still operating under federal oversight after the Rampart scandal. The relationship between the LAPD and Los Angeless minority communities, particularly the African-American community, was poisonous.
And Brattons doctors kit looked nearly empty. For one thing, L.A. had just 9,000 cops on staff—about 27 per 10,000 residents, far fewer than New York Citys 53 and Chicagos 49—making it hard to cover the large city. Bratton wanted to expand the force to 12,000 officers. In the past, he had typically looked for an incident that would mobilize the public to demand more spending on public safety. In New York City, it had been the murder of Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah in town for the U.S. Open; in Boston, it had been the accidental slaying in a gang beef of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore, struck with three bullets while sitting on her front stoop in Dorchester. In Los Angeles, Bratton focused on 14-year-old Clive Jackson, a basketball player and honors student who had steered clear of the gangs in his South L.A. neighborhood and been murdered by a 17-year-old gangbanger anyway. Bratton was determined to use the incident to rally the city for more resources. His press conference made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but in a matter of days, the story died. L.A. was apparently too big and sprawling to elicit the communal responses that had occurred in Boston and New York.
The LAPDs size was a problem in another way. In New York, Bratton had moved quickly to replace the top brass with more aggressive chiefs, forcing four of the departments five senior commanders to resign in his first week on the job. The LAPD simply wasnt big enough for such a sweeping turnover. Also, Brattons expertise was in turning around demoralized police departments. The LAPD, by contrast, was parochial and proud. When Bratton decided to import Compstat from New York, for example, the LAPD brass were hostile to the consultant whom he hired to run the process, former NYPD chief of department Louis Anemone.
So with limited resources, Bratton decided to focus on a handful of high-priority areas: Hollywood, Baldwin Village, the San Fernando Valley, MacArthur Park, and Skid Row downtown. He also brought Broken Windows policing to Los Angeles and called in Kelling to guide the effort. Because the LAPD had a history of enforcing minor ordinances, such as the law against jaywalking, Broken Windows didnt generate the pushback in L.A. that it had in New York (with the notable exception of Skid Row, where the LAPDs actions led to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California; see The Reclamation of Skid Row, Autumn 2007).
At the same time, Bratton continued Bernard Parkss efforts to soften the hard edges of certain LAPD practices: making suspects kneel on the street with their hands behind their heads, for example, and proning out, making them stand spread-eagled against a wall to be searched. We were still every bit as assertive, says Bratton, but we were cutting back on some of the practices, such as the proning, such as the kneeling, while at the same time working on officer behavior. Captains were now required to respond in person to homicides. Dead bodies were treated with greater respect.
Bratton worked hard, too, at building relationships in the black community. In his early years as chief, he made a point of responding in person to many homicides. He also courted the citys African-American leadership, many of whom had made their names suing the LAPD. He started with two of the departments most outspoken critics, the Urban Leagues John Mack and civil rights attorney Connie Rice. Even before he was selected as police chief, Bratton paid a courtesy call on Mack, quizzing him for two hours about his thoughts on the department. And Bratton asked Rice, who had repeatedly sued the LAPD on issues as varied as its use of dogs to its treatment of minority officers, to conduct a new investigation of the allegations surrounding misconduct at the Rampart Division.
Bratton also hired Gerry Chaleff—a noted criminal-defense lawyer and former president of the Board of Police Commissioners who was working for the city on matters related to the consent decree—to serve as commanding officer of the departments consent-decree bureau. Bratton stationed Chaleff next to his own office, an important sign of status in the hierarchy-conscious LAPD. By publicly embracing the consent decree, Bratton sought to demonstrate to both the department and the city his commitment to change. One difference between the current NYPD and the LAPD, suggests Bratton, is that the NYPDs very successes have meant that it hasnt had to explain itself. Because of the consent decree, in contrast, the LAPD had to explain itself every step of the way.
The greatest change that Bratton made was in the composition of the LAPD. When he scanned the 106 officers with the rank of captain or higher for talent, he found a cadre of officers with deep roots in the department who were nonetheless committed to fundamental change. Among their number was Charlie Beck. Bratton quickly spotted Becks aptitude and tapped him for a series of increasingly challenging assignments, such as cleaning up Skid Row and revitalizing the Rampart Division in the wake of the corruption scandal.
Another promoted officer was Pat Gannon, a white-haired Irish-American cop from the Harbor Division whom Bratton made the commander of the 77th Street Division, the epicenter of gang crime in L.A. Within a month of Gannons arrival, a shooting war erupted. Despite requesting and receiving 200 additional officers to flood the area, Gannon couldnt stop the cycle of retaliation. But he knew that he had to do something. Brattons new Compstat didnt merely track crime; it also held precinct commanders accountable for crime surges in their areas. In the old LAPD, headquarters would roll out impressive-sounding programs with beautiful charts and brochures that were sometimes really light on substance, Gannon recollects. Bratton communicated something different: In the 77th, my job was to reduce crime. My job was to figure out different ways to make that happen in a structure where I was accountable for that.
This was highly motivating—so motivating that Gannon did something desperate. He turned to an acquaintance from his days in the Harbor Division who was a gang intervention worker. Since at least the time of the Rodney King riots, gang interventionists had worked the streets of South and East L.A. Most were onetime gang members, so the police viewed them suspiciously, not without reason. But Gannon had watched this intervention worker shut down gang feuds simply by providing gang members with accurate information. The interventionist agreed to introduce himself to the players in South L.A., provided Gannon himself was willing to show up—alone, in civilian clothes, and at the place of their choosing. Gannon agreed. After two meetings in which discussion focused on the misdeeds of the LAPD, Gannon pushed back, telling the group that the shooting war between the Rolling 60s and the Inglewood Family needed to end. The shooting stopped.
Gannons success caught Becks attention. In 2006, when Beck became deputy chief, he introduced himself to Bo Taylor, one of the citys most prominent gang interventionists. When Taylor mentioned that he was hosting a meeting of gang interventionists at his house, Beck decided to stop by. The group was startled to have an LAPD deputy chief just show up—in civilian clothes, no less—and even more startled to have him stay for several hours, listening and talking. Eventually, Beck, Taylor, and Connie Rice agreed that the city should develop a curriculum for gang intervention workers and provide training and credentials for them. They found a willing partner in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who in 2008 established a new office to train and fund intervention workers.
Brattons ability to convert the departments fiercest detractors into partners, his knack for promoting talented officers, and his method of holding them accountable led to fundamental changes in perception. By 2009, surveys showed that 83 percent of Angelenos believed that the LAPD was doing a good or an excellent job, up from 71 percent two years earlier. The percentage of residents saying that the police in their communities treated members of all racial and ethnic groups fairly almost all the time or most of the time rose from 44 percent in 2005 to 51 percent in 2009. When asked to assess personal experiences, a majority of every racial and ethnic group in Los Angeles reported that most LAPD officers treated them, their friends, and their family with respect. Bratton accomplished this while driving crime down dramatically—especially violent crime. Its rate during his final year in L.A. was 54 percent lower than it had been during his predecessors final year. In July 2009, a federal judge lifted the consent decree that had saddled the LAPD since the Rampart scandal. Two months later, Bratton announced that, after seven years in Los Angeles, he was resigning and would return to New York to serve as chairman of Kroll, a security consulting firm.
The safety spree has continued since Brattons departure, thanks to an LAPD leadership that has changed fundamentally—to the bone, as Rice says. Under Beck, violent crime has fallen an additional 26 percent. By the end of 2012, in all likelihood, Los Angeles will have seen two consecutive years of double-digit reductions in gang-related crime. Beck is proud of those statistics, but theres another that hes equally proud of: though the LAPD today has nearly 2,200 more officers than it did in 1992, it arrests just two-thirds the number of people it did then. Some senior commanders now work on not arresting certain types of people, such as juveniles, for whom a conviction is effectively the beginning of a criminal career.
Its hard to document the precise effects of the LAPDs reconciliation with the black and Latino communities, but the departments brass unanimously support it. Based on my experience, unequivocally I will tell you it works, says Bob Green, who runs operations in South L.A. Shootings are down, violent crime is down, and I dont have the aggravated relations that I have had in the past. The numbers bear him out: crime in Los Angeles has fallen to the levels that New York City enjoys, or even lower, by some measures.
In August 2010, federal law-enforcement authorities led a massive raid on the Pueblo del Rio housing development, a stronghold of the Pueblo Bishop Bloods. Doors were kicked down, guns were brandished, and dozens of residents were arrested. Roughly 1,000 officers, federal and local, were involved (a sign of how big L.A.s gang problems remain). Some Pueblo del Rio residents were upset by the size of the raid. The following day, Guillermo Cespedes, Los Angeless deputy mayor for gang reduction and youth development, attended a community meeting. So here I am, cornered in this meeting, thinking Im going to get chewed out for being part of the assault. And it was just the opposite, he says. What the community was demanding is, We need to talk to LAPD. We dont trust what the feds are telling us. And not only did residents want to talk to the cops; they wanted to have meetings with specific captains that they had relationships with.
Perhaps the most dramatic transformation has occurred in Watts. Stretched along the northern edge of the Imperial Highway is the largest cluster of public-housing developments west of the Mississippi River. The three largest—Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens, and Jordan Downs—were built in the early 1950s, during the vogue for public housing that followed World War II. Though intended to serve as transitional housing, the developments instead became multigenerational communities. In the 1970s, violent gangs took control of each development: Imperial Courts and Jordan Downs fell under the control of the PJ Crips and the Grape Street Crips, respectively, while Nickerson Gardens gave birth to the Bounty Hunter Bloods.
Beck worked gangs in the Watts projects in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was a surreally brutal time, he says. When crack arrived, things got even worse. Police attempts to open a substation in Imperial Courts were repeatedly thwarted by vandalism. After the departments ninth attempt, the substation was firebombed.
The LAPD presence in Watts is very different today. Every Monday morning, one of the two police captains responsible for the area sits down for two hours with members of the Watts gang task force, a group that consists of community members, gang intervention workers, and others—many of them the mothers and grandmothers of serious gang players. The police never get tips about unsolved crimes, to the great frustration of many detectives. But the meetings do serve as an opportunity to circulate information and to build relationships that shut down situations that might otherwise spiral out of control, such as the peaceful arrest of the burglar that occurred last spring with Captain Tingirides help.
A week after that arrest, Tingirides attended the Monday meeting and reported on other things the police had done—and things they hadnt. There had been a foot chase through Imperial Courts, he said; the person running had even fired shots at the police, but instead of shooting back, the officers had managed to subdue the runner without using lethal force. The audience applauded. Tingirides also mentioned that some officers had participated in a cleanup at Nickerson Gardens—a place where, not long ago, gang members had routinely fired on LAPD cruisers with assault rifles. Tingirides and his wife, an African-American sergeant who grew up across the street from Nickerson Gardens, had participated. At one point, Tingirides told the room, a neighborhood kid asked his wife what she was digging with. It was a shovel—a tool that the kid didnt recognize. The room fell silent.
The LAPDs improved relations in Watts permit more aggressive policing where the circumstances warrant it, as recently happened in Gonzaque Village, one of the smaller projects there. Gonzaque Village, like Watts as a whole, is divided between Latinos (who now constitute a majority) and African-Americans. But unlike most developments, where a single gang has established control, Gonzaque Village is contested by two rival gangs, the Hacienda Village Bloods and the Hacienda Boys. The Hacienda Village Bloods are mostly black; the Hacienda Boys are mostly Latino.
Last April, a Blood put a bullet into the head of a Hacienda Boy. Police officers were promptly deployed in Gonzaque Village. The next day, the Hacienda Boys reciprocated, shooting a Blood in the neck. The LAPD transferred even more officers into the development (a course of action that it explained at the next Monday meeting of the Watts gang task force). The following afternoon, I went out with Captain Jeff Bert to check on his officers. After stopping to talk with a sergeant who was supervising the deployment, we got back into the captains car. No sooner had we driven 100 yards than we saw a black teenager exit one of the units and cut diagonally across a yard, heading toward the back of the patrol car that we had just left.
It was early afternoon on a warm day, but the hood on the kids sweatshirt was up. His gait was funny, too, as if he had something shoved into the waistband of his pants—something like a gun. The teen made a beeline toward the officers. Ive got to stop this guy, Bert said. Furtive movements, officer self-defense. It was exactly the kind of stop that a ban on the stop-and-frisk tactic, such as the one advocated by the New York Times editorial board, would prohibit.
Bert walked over to the kid. He identified himself, explained that there had been some recent shootings in the neighborhood—indeed, a car with a bullet hole above the back left tire was jacked up for repairs just across the street—and asked the youth to lift his shirt. Bert frisked him. Nothing. The kid continued on his way.
A bad stop? Considering the active gang war under way in Gonzaque Village, surely not. Deploying officers in consultation with local community leaders isnt racial profiling. Its the epitome of community policing. I call them part police officer, part social worker, says Mack. Theyre cops with hearts. I think this is some groundbreaking stuff.
Groundbreaking stuff may be just what police departments across the nation need. Since 1994, the United States has experienced a 40 percent crime decline. By all accounts, todays cops are more professional, more effective, and less corrupt than ever. Yet public opinion surveys show that public confidence in the police hasnt risen, especially among blacks. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that just 14 percent of African-Americans said that they had a great deal of confidence in the proposition that local police officers treated blacks and whites equally, compared with 38 percent of whites.
A National Academy of Sciences panel has called the discrepancy between cops performance and reputation the paradox of American policing. If police forces around the country want to solve that paradox, they should take lessons from the LAPD—and from the man who fixed it.