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In Jordan Downs housing project, police are forging a new relationship

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Officers Keith Linton and Otis Swift stopped their patrol car, rolled down a window and motioned to a hoodie-wearing teenager. In this part of South L.A., such encounters can be tense — or worse.

"Hey, Linton. Hey, Swift," the teen said. "How y'all doing?"

"Doing good, my man," Linton replied, launching into a conversation about basketball.

Similar scenes played out all afternoon as the cops worked their beat in Jordan Downs, a housing project in Watts with a violent reputation and a history of ill will between residents and police.

Part of an experimental LAPD squad trying to bring a softer style of policing to the area, Linton and Swift didn't make arrests or issue tickets. Instead they greeted every resident they could — even giving respectful nods to the gang members hanging out in an area known as the "parolee lot."

"We haven't had anyone cussing us out and no one has flipped us the middle finger," Swift said. "Around here, that's progress. Not long ago we'd pop in, make an arrest.... We were the invading army.

"We've found out that way doesn't work."

Jordan Downs, once predominantly African American, is now mostly Latino. More than half its adult residents are unemployed, only two in 100 have college degrees and the average family earns about $1,250 a month. It is home turf for the Grape Street Crips, whose reputation largely defines the development's identity and whose blood-soaked feuds with rival gangs created the feel of a war zone.

But Los Angeles officials are pinning their hopes on a transformation. They have launched a nearly $1-billion plan to tear down all 700 units and replace them with up to 1,800 mixed-income apartments and a shopping center. The hurdles are significant. The plan leans partly on federal funds that may not materialize. And a parcel of land slated for construction needs cleanup after the discovery of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Anticipating that a makeover eventually will occur, the city's housing authority is attempting to change the culture of Jordan Downs. The idea is to fill the new buildings with residents who have a fresh outlook and brighter prospects. The authority has poured at least $6 million into programs like job training classes, gang intervention and support groups for parents.

It also wants to do what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: heal the community's relationship with police.

In 2011, the housing authority gave the LAPD $5 million to help form the Community Safety Partnership, creating a squad of 11 officers focused entirely on Jordan Downs, emphasizing the steady buildup of relationships instead of the gruff patrol work historically done there.

There have been plenty of kinks.

Some officers in the partnership — which has similar-sized squads in three other L.A. projects — are struggling to balance the old style and the new. In the words of one who asked not to be identified because of tension among his colleagues, there's a concern about becoming "glorified social workers with guns."

Still, instead of operating at arms-length, officers have become familiar faces inside Jordan Downs. They coach youth football, help with a Girl Scout troop and shepherd victims of violence to grief recovery meetings. They drive USC students to the project for tutoring sessions, take kids camping, and talk to gang members about getting jobs and leaving the streets.

"For a long time, the attitude from many officers was: 'Hey, you live in the projects, who the heck are you?' " said Sgt. Emada Tingirides, who runs the partnership with her husband, Southeast Division Capt. Phil Tingirides.

Linton, 38, and Swift, 40, are part of the push to change that attitude — perhaps the most-trusted duo to patrol Jordan Downs in years, said many who've spent their lives within its warren of low-slung, cinder-block apartments.

"The way they are dealing with people here, treating us like human beings, it makes us see the police don't have to be an enemy," said Eugene Pogues, 19, who is known as "Squeak."

Last year, the officers were watching some basketball at the Jordan Downs gym when Squeak passed out. Swift called paramedics, and Linton cared for the teen until help arrived. The officers found out later that Squeak had suffered a heart attack.

"For the first time, police are actually part of the community. Part of that means being close when something happens," said Swift, who, like his partner, is African American. "Every good thing we do here ends up paying off, ends up building trust."

But trust is tenuous in Jordan Downs.

From 2000 through mid-2011, 25 people were killed inside the development, along with scores more in nearby housing projects. Change came when a network of police-monitored video cameras was installed and the partnership began.

For two years, there were few shootings — and no killings — in Jordan Downs. Then a group of Grape Street gang members were targeted outside a party. Weeks later, a man barely survived after being hit by a bullet in an afternoon drive-by. Although neither incident resulted in a death, a cycle of retaliatory violence tore through Watts.

Two men were killed in shootings on streets long claimed by Grape Street rivals. "Execution-style murders," Phil Tingirides said. A trio of teenage girls managed to walk away uninjured after their car was shot up by a man wielding an assault rifle.

The partnership faced its first crisis: how to respond to what could be the start of an all-out gang war.

Swift and Linton were sitting in a community meeting when Tingirides announced that the softer style needed to be temporarily abandoned. He vowed to boost the number of officers patrolling Jordan Downs and the other Watts developments until the shooting stopped, telling his force to make life uncomfortable for anyone causing even a hint of trouble.

"We're going to turn up the burner," he said, aiming most of his ire at the Grape Street gang, which he felt hadn't done enough to stop the killings.

Word spread quickly through Jordan Downs, feeding fear that the old LAPD was coming back.

In the two years before the crackdown, Linton and Swift had made only three arrests; some LAPD officers in high-crime areas can make that many, or more, per day. "Even hardheads respect those guys," said Kathy Wooten, a gang violence interventionist in Jordan Downs whose two sons were killed in 2008.

But it looked like the officers' carefully crafted reputation could crumble. Linton and Swift were under orders to scour the project for parole violators, impound cars with expired tabs and arrest gang members who violated a court injunction barring them from hanging out.

"It's a fine line, but we have to do what we are told," Linton, who grew up in a New York housing project, said at the time. "The mission now is to curb retaliations. I'm still not rolling around absolutely looking to make arrests. If I see some little thing ... I'm going to warn you and come back in five minutes. And if you are still there, that's trouble.

"Overall, I'm going to be as easy to deal with as usual. But if I see a gun, if I get credible information that you are a shooter, I am going to change very quickly."

As quickly as violence can settle in on a place like Jordan Downs, it can go away.

By January, fears of a gang war had subsided and a wary calm returned. The crackdown was lifted. Arrests were made in the summertime shootings and slayings, police crediting tips from a community that once steered clear of law enforcement.

Linton and Swift emerged with their reputations intact.

Recently they decided to host a bingo night. For three days they walked through the project, handing out invitations, marveling at how they were in Jordan Downs with no backup — a leap of faith that never would have been taken before the partnership began.

On the night of the big event, most of the 100 chairs arranged across the project's gym were empty. The officers kept smiling, kept telling themselves this was just a start. Over six hours, only about 30 residents showed up.

One of them was Squeak. "They doing good," he said, looking around the room, grimacing. "But Linton and Swift got a long way to go. There are still a lot of people here who want to stay away from the police."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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