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Community-Based Policing Slowly Takes Root at LAPD

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 7 a.m., and 34 of Los Angeles’ finest are gathered beneath fluorescent lights and battered acoustical tiles to be told why community-based policing is the LAPD’s past and its future. Many, frankly, are not buying it.

For two hours, Cmdr. Garrett Zimmon, who heads the department’s Community Policing Group, passionately describes the philosophy and explains its roots. Not one officer takes one note; when Zimmon is done, they do not have a single question. A few put down their heads and nap. The rest dash outside for bad coffee from a vending machine.

“This can be a slow process,” Zimmon says after the meeting. “It takes time to bring people around.”

Just about everyone who is familiar with the LAPD’s community policing efforts agrees that progress has been hard-won. And yet, the idea is slowly, sometimes painfully, taking hold within the Police Department and the rest of city government. As it does, it is testing the management of the LAPD and raising leadership questions that cut to a core debate about the Police Department’s place in the civic life of Los Angeles.

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Among those questions: Should the LAPD be involved in organizing communities? Should officers attempt to tackle social problems that extend far beyond crime--issues as diverse as urban decay and parenting? And can city politicians trust the police with the power that comes from an energized and supportive citizenry?

In the policing laboratory that is Los Angeles, those questions are not only guiding the course of law enforcement here. Their answers also have important national ramifications as major cities throughout the country wrestle with how best to control urban crime while avoiding police corruption and brutality.

It has been five years since the Christopher Commission recommended that the LAPD adopt some form of community-based policing, a philosophy of law enforcement that de-emphasizes arrests in favor of problem solving and community involvement. It was four years ago this month that Police Chief Willie L. Williams arrived to carry out that mandate.

With his term entering its final year, Williams is proud of the progress the department has made, but he acknowledges that the LAPD has much more to do.

“We’ve had some successes, and we still have some ways to go,” Williams said in a recent interview. “We’re probably 30% to 40% of the way, which isn’t bad.”

Indeed, while the progress has been far slower than some had hoped, there are signs of change in every pocket of the city:

* In the West San Fernando Valley, officers have gotten out of their cars and are walking beats along the Reseda corridor, a notoriously high-crime area. Graffiti have dropped off. So have vandalism and robbery.

* In the Newton Division, an area long known as “Shootin’ Newton,” detectives who once would canvas a crime scene and then leave now spend hours sitting with neighbors, chatting, seeking out their suggestions for repressing crime. Through that program, they are closing more cases and solving more crimes.

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* Two officers in the Pacific Division formed a soccer league, distributed gifts to needy children and helped push down crime 40% in a dangerous neighborhood.

* The 77th Street Division called upon citizens to help identify crack houses and then shut them down.

* Hollywood Division moved prostitutes off a notorious stretch of Sunset Boulevard and stepped up traffic enforcement on notoriously busy weekend nights.

Those are successes, and most if not all of the city’s 18 police divisions can cite programs or officers who have made a mark. Moreover, some of the initial resistance to community policing has broken down, according to officers and leaders at all levels of the department, in part because recognition has spread that the idea has its roots in the LAPD, a fact that helps ease its acceptance by a proud department wary of outside pressure.

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Diverse Acceptance

The strongest sign that community policing has set roots at the LAPD may be in the fact that it is embraced by a growing group of department leaders. No longer confined to a small coterie within the LAPD, community policing has adherents at all levels of the department.

For evidence of that, witness two of the city’s police captains and the divisions they head: Bruce E. Hagerty of Hollenbeck and John Mutz of Wilshire.

Hagerty is old school. He grew up in a military family. His strong frame fills out his uniform, which he wears with pride. He is gruff and plain-spoken, and he has the look of LAPD: mustache, no beard, thick hands and solid gestures.

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Mutz is new wave. He wears monogrammed shirts and cuff links, loafers and tailored suits. He is cleanshaven, lean and thoughtful, and he admits that he is not always the Police Department’s biggest booster. “I’m not estranged from the LAPD,” he says without trepidation, “but I’m not a big fan of it.”

And yet, these two captains--different in temperament, background and approach--have each pressed community-based policing in their areas, winning accolades from residents and cementing relations between police and civilians. Their efforts, as different as they are, reflect the LAPD’s decentralized campaign to change the way police do their work.

Wilshire, long considered a vanguard division in community policing, has built an elaborate web of citizen and corporate support over a period of years. Companies like Northrop Grumman Corp.--a major benefactor of the Police Department’s community policing efforts--contribute time, money and expertise. The station is guided by a sometimes contentious advisory board, whose members include residents once wary of the police.

“I’m from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, so cops were not high on my list,” said Peggy Jo Fulton, a Wilshire resident who works for Northrop. And yet, Fulton and Northrop have put hundreds of police officers through the company’s Total Quality program, schooling them in concepts such as customer service and revolutionizing their approach to law enforcement.

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Mutz and his officers now talk about customer satisfaction and delivering a quality product. They gauge their success not on how many people they arrest but on how well they satisfy their “customers.” In the extraordinarily diverse community that Wilshire Division serves, residents and others say they appreciate it.

“They are such an intricate part of this community and this school,” said Anna Reed-McLinn, principal at Marvin Avenue Elementary School, where police officers have taken troubled students under their wings and transformed a neighborhood of crack trafficking, guns and drive-bys into a relative haven. “We’re all a family.”

In Hollenbeck, community policing is less established but officers have already begun enforcing a popular curfew law, advising parents on how to raise their children, consulting with builders on how to avoid graffiti and urging businesses to locate in the area. The campaign to build ties to the community has already withstood a tough test.

Last July, a confrontation in Lincoln Heights ended with police shooting Jose Antonio Gutierrez, a young man suspected of belonging to a local gang. The shooting was controversial enough, but when residents learned that the officer who pulled the trigger was one of the LAPD’s notorious “44"--officers identified by the Christopher Commission because of personnel complaints involving them--many were outraged.

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Hagerty and the station’s newly formed Community Police Advisory Board swung into action. The captain called an emergency meeting of the board at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church. More than 100 residents showed up, some fuming with anger.

“We talked about what happened, about how we had to handle the situation,” Hagerty said. “And I asked them: ‘Where do we go from here? Let’s develop a strategy for how to reduce the fear in this neighborhood.’ ”

Tammy Membreno, who runs a youth and family center in the Hollenbeck area, recalled that the meeting gave residents a chance to vent their frustrations. After an hour or so, some of the anger had dissipated, she said. Talk turned to what to do next.

The first task was as grim as it was unifying: Burying the body of the dead boy.

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Hagerty called upon the local Chamber of Commerce president, who contacted a local mortuary. Residents contributed some money.

On Aug. 9, 1995, the same Police Department that shot Gutierrez helped lay him to rest.

Nagging Doubts

Community policing is as controversial in practice as it is admired in principle.

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Almost without exception, public officials and activists support the notion. But there are deep undercurrents of discontent about the particulars of the idea and about their implications for the department’s place in the life of Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that I feel community-based policing is community-based in the city of Los Angeles,” said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the idea’s most stalwart supporters at City Hall. “It is largely driven by the Police Department. That is not what I had in mind when we talked about a partnership.”

For Ridley-Thomas and other critics of the LAPD approach, one key point of contention is the selection of community representatives to serve on the community police advisory boards that exist in each of the city’s 18 police divisions. Under the current system, the division captains in each area are responsible for selecting the advisory board members, but critics say that ensures unrepresentative community membership.

“It’s a pretty narrow grouping of people,” said Anthony Thigpenn, a longtime activist who heads a community group called AGENDA. “Because of that, the penetration of community policing hasn’t been that deep.”

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AGENDA and other organizations such as the ACLU and the Multicultural Collaborative have joined in a new police reform organization that is trying to push for new ways of selecting advisory board members, stronger authority for those boards and creation of community academies to strengthen ties between police and residents. But the LAPD continues to resist elements of that model, partly out of fear that wide-open community participation in the advisory boards will politicize the department’s crime-fighting efforts.

Sharing Authority

One fear expressed quietly at Parker Center is that if advisory board elections are run in neighborhoods around the city, the boards will become launching pads for political careers and board members will use their positions to build their reputations. The department wants none of that.

But Thigpenn and other critics say that if the department is not prepared to share more authority with the community, then it is not willing to engage in the very partnership that would make community policing real. Anything other than real partnership, they contend, is an illusion intended to boost the department’s image without giving anything in return.

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The danger there, some activists warn, is that illusory community policing would do little to empower residents while in fact allowing the LAPD to mobilize boosters and accumulate vast political power.

That fear is not groundless, as students of Los Angeles history can attest. When Chief Edward M. Davis launched the precursor of community policing in the 1970s, his program was firmly under the control of the Police Department, and it built a large community coalition, one that he would occasionally galvanize to bring pressure on city officials.

The budget would be before the City Council, and busloads of Neighborhood Watch members would show up, council members recall. To strike back, the council and mayor cut out LAPD funding for community relations officers, the linchpins of Davis’ community policing efforts.

Years have gone by, but the fear of a resurgently powerful LAPD remains.

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“We’re not talking conspiracy here,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It’s pretty straightforward and very real.”

Overcoming Resistance

For evidence that community policing will take time, look no further than Room 106 of a converted school on Lake Street, in the heart of the LAPD’s Rampart Division.

Officers come here, 30 or 40 at a time, to learn about community-based policing and, ideally, to leave so infused with the idea that they carry it back to their stations and to the streets. Some do; others are plainly skeptical.

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When one class gathered recently, Zimmon began the session by going around the room and asking officers to introduce themselves and tell their classmates whether they had experience in “problem solving,” one of the buzz concepts that underscores community policing.

A few recounted experiences. A few openly mocked the process. One patrol officer, Tom Burris, wore a shirt with a grinning caricature of a gun-toting LAPD officer and the slogan: “LAPD, Southern California’s Bad Boyz.”

Asked about his problem-solving experience, Burris responded: “I cause problems.”

Undaunted, Zimmon launched into his lesson. A smart, thoughtful student of community policing, Zimmon attacked the subject with obvious enthusiasm. He lectured, flashed charts, explained the importance of galvanizing the entire city government behind community policing and tried to deliver a central message to the officers: that community-based policing is not about going soft on crime but about attacking it differently.

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Some officers buy that and some do not. During a break in that morning’s session, a few SWAT officers pooh-poohed the notions of community policing, saying it did not apply to them. One patrol officer dismissed it as just another LAPD public relations effort. And one officer chimed in that all police needed to do was wait because Chief Williams would soon be gone and community policing would undoubtedly leave with him. As he said that, several nodded.

Department officials know the obstacles but are determined to press forward. They are convinced that the philosophical change they are trying to engineer is bigger than any person and that it will outlive them all--if only city leaders commit the resources of other agencies and keep their patience.

Indeed, most observers believe that Los Angeles has invested so much in community-based policing that it will not turn back. That, critics and supporters say, should not be lost on any police officers who think they can outlast the current enthusiasm for the idea.

“It’s being pushed by the community,” Zimmon said. “And the community is not going to back off.”

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