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Many say L.A. is safer 20 years after 1992 riots, poll finds

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Nearly 20 years after Los Angeles was shaken by one of the worst outbreaks of civil unrest in U.S. history, residents say the city is safer and relations between its racial and ethnic groups are significantly better than they were in 1992.

Most also say L.A. is unlikely to see riots in the coming years like those that swept the city after the 1992 acquittals of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney G. King, a new report shows.

The survey by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University suggests, however, that many Angelenos are relatively pessimistic about the city's overall direction. More than four in 10 said L.A. was headed in the wrong direction. That is worse than at any time since 1997, when researchers from the center first surveyed residents in light of the riots.

But the loss of optimism about the city's direction is driven largely by the still-struggling economy and housing market and not by concerns about race, crime or gangs, researchers said.

On race relations, Los Angeles residents were strongly positive, with nearly seven in 10 respondents saying the city's racial and ethnic groups were getting along well, said Fernando Guerra, the center's director.

"We almost see a post-racial L.A. in terms of people's perspectives," said Guerra, who is also a professor of political science. "Multiculturalism has begun to sustain optimism in Los Angeles, where in the past, the concern with race relations — even about affirmative action and how to mitigate the racial discrimination of the past — used to drive a wedge between Angelenos.

"That's no longer the case."

The survey, conducted every five years since the riots, found that large majorities of the four major racial and ethnic groups — Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and whites — said all communities were getting along "very well" or "somewhat well."

The telephone survey of 1,605 residents included about 400 from each of the four groups. Answers were weighted to represent the city's population. The poll was conducted from Feb. 1 to March 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.45 percentage points.

One reason for the easing of racial tensions may be the city's — and region's — changing demographics, Guerra said. For now, no racial or ethnic group has a majority in Los Angeles, although Latinos, at 48% of the city's total population in 2010, are likely to claim that title before long.

Downtown Los Angeles is now almost evenly balanced among the four groups, according to an analysis of 2010 census data by Guerra and a colleague. Inside the core area bounded by three freeways and the L.A. River, each of the four major groups make up about a quarter of the population, making downtown an indisputably "multicultural space," he said.

Guerra said another factor in L.A.'s improved race relations may be the greater inclusion of previously excluded groups in the city's politics, economics and other aspects of civic life. And a third may just be the passage of time since the violence, which left 54 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and caused nearly $1 billion in property damage.

Almost four in 10 Angelenos say the city is safer now than in 1992, the survey found. Three in 10 said it was not as safe, and about three in 10 said it was about the same.

Respondents said many aspects of L.A. were worse than in 1992, including the local economy and jobs outlook, housing, public education, traffic and healthcare. The response was most strongly negative about the economy.

But a few areas — race relations, the environment, crime and gangs — are seen as better than in 1992.

The poll included questions about the LAPD, the city agency most changed after the riots. Responses underscored general goodwill for the department but also highlighted shifting opinions.

Overall, support for police remained strong, with 70% of people saying the LAPD is doing an "excellent" or "good" job. That marked a slight decline, however, from the 78% approval rating in 1997 and again in 2002. The downward trend also ran counter to the results of a 2009 Times poll that found the LAPD's approval rating had surged.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he was pleased with approval ratings and speculated that the decline could be related to the economy, combined with widespread public dissatisfaction with government.

Nearly half of those surveyed gave Beck a grade of A or B for his performance. A quarter gave him a C.

More surprising was the apparent erosion of support for a centerpiece of the LAPD's effort to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of African Americans and Latinos. Long viewed in minority neighborhoods as an occupying force that could not be trusted, the department has worked to shed that reputation.

Still, just 24% of those surveyed said they believed the department's community policing efforts had been "very effective." That is half the support those efforts received in the 2007 survey.

The survey's most striking finding, Guerra said, was that "race was not the driver" of concerns about the direction the city is heading.

Paule Cruz Takash, a UCLA researcher who is president of the city of Los Angeles' Human Relations Commission, called the poll's results on race relations encouraging but said significant work remains to be done.

The commission plans a public hearing soon about the riots, their aftermath and public policy about human relations in the city, she said. The hearing, is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. April 24 in the public works boardroom at L.A. City Hall.

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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