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In a Troubled Area, Violence Competes Daily With Progress

Times Staff Writers

Earl Paysinger doesn’t mince words when talking about the 57 square miles of urban landscape he oversees as a Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief.

“It’s a violent piece of real estate,” the 30-year LAPD veteran said. “This part of the city has always been a great challenge for us.”

The real estate he’s referring to is South Los Angeles, an area singled out last week by a blue-ribbon panel as a deeply troubled hot spot where tensions between residents and police run so high that civil unrest could erupt at any time.

“It’s hanging by a thread,” said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who spearheaded the panel’s examination of the LAPD’s Rampart Division scandal. “I would not be surprised if something were to blow there this summer.”

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Police officials and some community leaders acknowledge that there are serious problems to contend with -- but they do not believe the situation is as dire.

Paysinger, in fact, believes that relationships between the LAPD and the community are getting better.

South Los Angeles is policed by four LAPD divisions collectively known as “South Bureau.” The district stretches from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Los Angeles harbor.

And, indeed, it is a troubled place: If it were its own city, Paysinger says, it would be the nation’s most violent. The homicide rate in 2004 was four times the national average. One South Bureau division -- Southeast, with a population of 150,000 spread over 10 square miles -- had more homicides that year than North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Vermont combined. In recent years, as in most of Los Angeles, the bureau’s homicide rate has gone down -- but it still runs three times higher than the citywide average.

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Grandmothers, Paysinger says, have been known to put children to sleep in bathtubs to protect them from errant gunfire. Researchers believe some children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of all the violence they witness.

Protecting the nearly 700,000 South Bureau residents from the mayhem are 1,460 LAPD officers.

“Those are not good odds,” Paysinger said.

According to the report by Rice and the panel, a dangerous combination of factors makes that section of the city volatile: It includes poor, disenfranchised neighborhoods that feel victimized by gangs, drugs and the police who are supposed to protect them, and a “thin blue line” of officers who face life-threatening dangers as they try to keep peace with limited resources.

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“These are not just underclass poverty descriptors,” warned the Rampart report, “these are the trigger conditions for the city’s next riot.”

Friction between police and residents in South Los Angeles is nothing new. It touched off the Watts riots in 1965 and the civil unrest in 1992 after the acquittals of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney G. King.

In recent years, high-profile confrontations between South Bureau officers and suspects have riled residents and led to accusations of heavy-handed police tactics:

* A Southeast Division officer in 2004 was captured on videotape repeatedly striking suspected car thief Stanley Miller with a metal flashlight after a pursuit.

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* An officer fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown in 2005 in the 77th Street Division after a car chase in which the youngster allegedly backed up toward the officer.

* SWAT officers in 2005 mistakenly shot 19-month-old Susie Pena, whose father held her as a shield during a gun battle with police.

After each of those incidents, community leaders and residents accused the LAPD of using excessive force and demanded that officers be held accountable. In response, Chief William J. Bratton and Paysinger met with residents, listened to their complaints and assured them that full investigations would be conducted.

Andre Birotte Jr., the Police Commission’s inspector general and a participant in some of those sessions, said he felt the city averted major unrest because Paysinger had invested time in forging key relationships in the community.

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“My humble opinion is Earl has saved the city from burning down several times,” Birotte said.

Residents are not the only ones frustrated by conditions in South Los Angeles. The perils of policing there were all too apparent last month when a 52-year-old robbery suspect shot and paralyzed Southwest Officer Kristina Ripatti.

The weaponry that officers seize also speaks to the dangers. Last year, police in South Bureau recovered more than 2,000 firearms; so far this year more than 1,000 have been confiscated -- more than in any other area of the city.

“These are the kinds of situations and episodes that make this a very challenging place,” Paysinger said.

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To overcome the community’s mistrust of the LAPD, Paysinger and other police officials proactively try to educate residents on police tactics and keep them informed on both day-to-day activities and major events.

Even some LAPD critics acknowledged the efforts.

Najee Ali, an African American community activist who has helped organize protests against the LAPD, said Bratton and Paysinger “have made tremendous strides in trying to have a dialogue with South Los Angeles leaders, more than any other police administration. And that includes the black chiefs,” he said.

The conflicting feelings about the LAPD were apparent last week as Sgt. Al Labrada drove through several housing projects in the Southeast Division. Many residents glared as he went past; a few, however, smiled and offered a quick wave or nod.

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“People need more help here than anywhere else,” said Labrada, who has worked in South Los Angeles for 10 years. “The majority are good people who want to be able to go to work and live here safely.”

Paysinger was recently promoted by Bratton and will soon assume new duties away from South Bureau. His replacement will be Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who was credited by Rice’s panel with dramatically improving the department’s relationship with residents in the Rampart Division.

In its report titled “Rampart Reconsidered: The Search for Real Reform Seven Years Later,” the panel said Rampart experienced a “turnaround” after the 1999 corruption scandal because police officials embraced a “high road” policing model that emphasized community relationships and problem-solving over the aggressive paramilitary style that has long characterized the LAPD.

The panel recommended that the entire department adopt the same approach. They also called for the hiring of 3,000 more officers departmentwide.

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In an interview last week, Rice said her concern about the South Bureau was based on dozens of conversations with residents, officers and others.

“I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t like the vibe,” Rice said. “The anger down there is so palpable. The anger actually blinds people to the good stuff.”

John Mack, president of the Police Commission, said he agrees that the relationship between officers and residents in the city’s south end is volatile, but not to the degree described by Rice.

“I don’t want to be predicting an explosion,” said Mack, a longtime civil rights activist who served as president of the Los Angeles Urban League before being appointed to the commission last year.

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Mack said “a long history of friction and mutual distrust” has created an environment in which otherwise minor incidents take on added significance.

“It’s a tense relationship,” he said. “All you need is one incident to have things escalate.”

Despite the tension, Mack said he believes police have gained ground in the way they are perceived by most of the community.

“I feel that we are making progress,” he said. “Yes, it’s too slow. Yet I feel that we are.”

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