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Op-Ed

Charlie Beck: The real Ferguson effect in L.A.

Crime statistics for 2015 showed a sharp increase in violent crimes in Los Angeles — and the rest of the country — over previous years.

One much-discussed rationale for the crime spike is the so-called Ferguson effect. This is the theory that law enforcement has withdrawn from protecting communities as a result of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and the nationwide public outrage that followed. Some argue that officers have become reluctant to engage in proactive policing and are arresting fewer suspects because they fear intense media scrutiny and public condemnation.

That is not what's going on in Los Angeles. In 2015, LAPD officers made 8% more arrests for violent crime than the year before and arrested 28% more people on auto theft charges. In addition, weapons-related arrests went up by 5%.

If our patrol officers and detectives were not aggressively investigating crimes and stopping suspects, arrest rates would be flat or lower. Instead, we see only lower arrest rates for certain crimes modified by Proposition 47 and other legislation. In short, LAPD officers are in no way avoiding their duty to protect the public.

Nevertheless, there is a Ferguson effect being felt in Los Angeles. It's just not the effect that is being discussed.

The events in Ferguson highlighted how many communities in America do not believe that the police are using their authority fairly and legitimately. This perception — and in some unfortunate cases, reality — has created a barrier to cooperation between cops and residents to combating crime. That is the real Ferguson effect.

There are any number of theories on what causes crime rates to swell, but nearly everyone agrees that public trust is essential to successful law enforcement. Police alone cannot reduce crime. Community partnerships, joint problem solving and open communication with the public are critical. When those links are weak, police are less effective, particularly at preventing crime.

The legitimacy of the whole criminal justice system, in fact, starts with the public's perception of policing. Every day, officers have to take actions that are often misunderstood or unpopular, most especially the use of physical, even deadly, force. Every community — including people of color and residents of poor neighborhoods — needs to have faith that officers will apply force in the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons. It isn't sufficient to simply say that police officers used force appropriately, to protect their own lives or the lives of others, after the fact. Without legitimacy, law enforcement will always struggle.

The Los Angeles Police Department has confronted and overcome many such challenges in recent decades. But we know there is still much work to do, especially in communities that have been underserved and suffered the most from violent crimes.

This is why the LAPD is taking a dual approach to responding to the city's increase in crime. We have doubled the size of the Metropolitan Division, a squad of highly trained officers who concentrate on the most dangerous criminals and violent crime. This unit has the geographic flexibility to focus on areas where crime is rising, bringing extra help to make neighborhoods safer.

At the same time, we are investing in efforts to build strong bonds and promote mutual understanding between the police and the public. In August, for instance, we formed the new Community Relationship Division to better consolidate, coordinate and improve our public outreach efforts, which are so essential for building strong partnerships with the public.

We also have developed a nationally recognized Community Safety Partnership Program. In less-privileged communities, police officers organize activities, provide mentoring and play in sports leagues with local young people. This program has proved its value in six public housing projects that historically suffered from high crime rates. In 2015, these communities saw violent crime drop 17% and property crime drop 27% compared with the year prior.

Investigating crimes and making arrests, the core functions of any police agency, are dramatically hampered if we don't have the trust and confidence of the communities we serve. Addressing that part of the Ferguson effect is crucial if we are to reduce crime and make our communities safer together.

Charlie Beck is the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

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