L.A. asked for $3 million for community policing. The DOJ said no. Some fear it's a sign of what's ahead.

In 2015, a community policing initiative — one credited with helping curb violence in some of L.A.’s toughest housing projects — scored the Los Angeles Police Department high-level praise.

A captain and a sergeant who led the program were invited to Washington, D.C., earning coveted seats near the first lady during President Obama’s State of the Union address.

This year, L.A. officials applied for more than $3 million in federal funding to help bring the same program to Harvard Park, a South L.A. neighborhood scarred by violence.

The request was denied.

The U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t offered the LAPD an explanation of why the department didn’t receive any of the $98 million in grants recently awarded to scores of law enforcement agencies across the nation. A spokesman for the federal agency declined to comment when asked by The Times last week.

But after the Trump administration’s repeated threats to withhold federal money from cities that don’t cooperate with its immigration crackdown, some LAPD officials said they believe the move was retaliatory — and a troubling sign of what could come.

Steve Soboroff, president of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD, said that he believes the Justice Department denied the funding request because of the LAPD’s well-publicized, hands-off approach to immigration enforcement. Soboroff said he worries future funding may also be at risk.

“Community policing is what policing’s all about. Militaristic policing, immigrant harassment is not,” he said. “By ignoring that, or prioritizing it beneath their issue of sanctuary cities and cooperation with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] — the priorities are wrong.”

“If this is the tip of the iceberg, we’re going to set back law enforcement and policing and public safety by decades,” he added.

The LAPD had planned to use the money to hire 25 officers for the community policing program in Harvard Park, one of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods. The roughly half-mile area saw eight homicides in 2016, nearly triple the number from the year before. So far this year, six people have been killed.

Officers assigned to the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership program focus on getting to know residents instead of making arrests. They coach sports teams and lead mentoring programs. The goal is to foster a real relationship between the police and the community — one in which officers and residents know each other by name and work together to make the neighborhood safer.

The strategy, police say, has paid off. Violent crime dropped by more than 50% and arrests were cut in half during the program’s first three years in three Watts housing developments, officials have said. Police also credit the program for a three-year stretch without a homicide in Jordan Downs, one of the developments.

Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill said she was “curious — to say the least — about what program could have been more deserving.”

In announcing the grant awards last month, the Justice Department noted that 80% of the agencies that received funds earned extra points “based on their certifications of willingness to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.”

L.A. did not sign that certification, LAPD officials said.

The decision to tie federal funding to immigration enforcement has already prompted a flurry of coast-to-coast legal challenges, including those filed by L.A.’s city attorney and California’s attorney general.

The lawsuits have largely focused on two grants awarded by the Justice Department: one administered through Community Oriented Policing Services office, which the LAPD was just denied; and a second, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which has brought L.A. more than $1 million during each of the last few fiscal years.

Opponents allege the executive branch is overstepping its constitutional authority by attaching new rules to the grants without congressional approval. They also contend that cities are safer when immigrants are willing to talk to local police without fear of deportation.

City Atty. Mike Feuer, who filed a lawsuit this fall, said putting civil immigration enforcement requirements on grants designed to improve community policing was “ironic — and at worst, very dangerous.”

​​​“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure our city is as safe as possible and not let this undermine public safety,” he said.

There are already signs that federal officials may question more L.A. funding. Last month, the Justice Department sent a letter to the city saying it was “concerned” that some of the LAPD’s immigration practices violated new terms of the Byrne grant.

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said that because the city had not received details about the Justice Department’s reasoning, he could not speculate as to why the $3.1-million request for Harvard Park was denied.

“Keeping Angelenos safe is Mayor Garcetti’s top priority, and these grants provide essential support to programs that help us reduce violence in communities across our city,” spokesman Alex Comisar wrote in an email. “The Mayor is disappointed that the City was denied federal funding for such an important community partnership.”

The LAPD has long distanced itself from federal immigration policies. The department prohibits officers from initiating contact solely to determine if someone is in the country legally. In recent years, the LAPD stopped turning over people arrested for low-level crimes to federal agents for deportation and moved away from honoring federal requests to detain inmates who might be deportable past their jail terms.

Arif Alikhan, the director of the LAPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy, stressed that the department has always followed the law with its immigration procedures. The LAPD, he added, was also disappointed in the Justice Department’s decision to withhold the grant money.

“If that was a factor in it — that we were not proactively working to enforce civil immigration law — that would be unfortunate,” he said.

According to LAPD data, it was the eighth time since 1998 that the agency applied for a hiring grant from the Community Oriented Policing Services office. Last year, the LAPD received $3.1 million. In 2012, it got $6.4 million.

The LAPD has been rejected only once before, in 2011.

Despite the Justice Department’s decision this time — and questions about why it was made — McClain-Hill noted the LAPD’s stance on immigration enforcement had strong support from the Police Commission and City Hall.

“We can’t be concerned about the impact of that position,” she said. “I think the question is how we move forward without the federal government.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

Twitter: @katemather


UPDATES:

5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership program and was edited for clarity.

This story was originally published at 5 a.m.

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