Los Angeles police are riding a crest of goodwill that has pushed the department’s popularity to levels not sustained since the late 1980s as cops continue to post gains on fighting crime and building closer ties with the people they serve.
The strong endorsement of the LAPD cuts across racial and ethnic lines, according to a new Los Angeles Times Poll -- with the percentages of black and Latino voters who say they approve of how the police do their jobs almost as high as the level among white voters. That result is particularly notable given the long history of tensions between the police and the city’s black and Latino communities.
The positive opinions of the LAPD stand out as a bright spot at a time when Angelenos are feeling battered by the recession, highly critical of public schools and generally pessimistic about life in Los Angeles.
Four in 10 of the voters surveyed said they had seriously considered leaving the city in the last two years, most commonly because of the high cost of housing.
More than a third said they or a member of their immediate family had lost a job; 12% said their homes had been foreclosed. And only about 1 in 4 rated the quality of education at local public schools as excellent or good.
The poll of 1,500 registered voters in Los Angeles was conducted for The Times by two firms based in Washington, D.C.: Greenberg Quinlan Ros- ner Research, a Democratic firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, which polls for Republicans. The poll was conducted from June 10 through 16 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
The findings on the LAPD indicate that Police Chief William J. Bratton has made considerable progress on a centerpiece of his tenure -- reinventing the image of the department in the eyes of the public and, in doing so, moving the department and city beyond a past marred by incidents of police brutality and corruption.
Almost 8 in 10 registered voters said they either “strongly approve” or “somewhat approve” of the police performance today. The response was 18 percentage points higher than in The Times’ last survey of the city, in 2005.
The percentages of blacks and Latinos who approve of the LAPD both rose by double digits since the 2005 survey, almost closing a long-running discrepancy between white and minority attitudes. Among Latinos, 76% approved of the department’s job performance while 19% disapproved. Among blacks, the split was 68% to 25% and among whites, 81% to 11%.
The shrinking of the approval gap is a far cry from the 1990s, when anger over the Rodney King beating and later the Rampart corruption scandal did serious damage to the LAPD’s reputation, especially among minorities. In 1991, shortly after the King beating, for example, only 40% of Angelenos polled said they approved of police performance.
Bratton has remained in the good graces of Angelenos, with two-thirds of those polled saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of how the chief is handling his post. Although that overall figure was nearly unchanged from four years ago, the makeup of Bratton’s base of support shifted. The robust backing he once enjoyed from whites eroded 17%, while his support from black Angelenos surged an equal amount.
“I like that Bratton takes a no-tolerance approach on gangs and other crime issues,” said Tommie Gray, an African American truck driver who participated in the poll and agreed to a follow-up interview.
Gray, who is 45 and has lived in and around L.A. for two decades, said his feelings about Bratton and the LAPD had improved with time. “There are always going to be knuckleheads in the bunch, but overall, I think the police have become much more responsive and more professional,” he said.
Ronald Hardcastle, who is white, said that although he still supports Bratton, some of the enthusiasm he felt for the chief when he took over in late 2002 had waned.
“When he came I thought he was the greatest thing since mashed potatoes,” the 66-year-old county employee said. “It’s not anything specific that he’s done, but I feel less strongly about him now.”
The figures seem to reflect Bratton’s focus on forging ties between the Police Department and minority communities. Bratton, his senior staff and commanders in the field meet regularly with community leaders. Recruiting efforts have changed the face of the department as well to one in which Latinos are the majority and blacks are actively sought. And training today at the department’s academy includes an increased focus on issues of race and bias.
Meantime, in some Westside and Valley neighborhoods, homeowners groups have begun voicing complaints that Bratton has shifted too many officers to high-crime areas in South L.A. and the Eastside.
The poll also spoke to persistent complexities in people’s attitudes toward the police. Despite his support for police, for example, Gray said he believes Los Angeles cops do not treat all races equally and remain tougher on blacks.
In the poll, a third of all respondents agreed with that position, 16% said police are tougher on Latinos, and 34% said all races are treated equally. Compared with 2005, fewer respondents said the police were tougher on blacks, but the number saying police were rougher on Latinos has gone up.
The general approval of the LAPD plays out in city politics as well, the poll showed. “Fighting crime” was the topic cited most frequently in the poll as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s most important accomplishment. And, despite the city’s estimated $529-million budget deficit, those polled strongly rejected the idea that the city should save money by halting the current push to add 1,000 officers to the force.
“I’m not some kind of law-and-order maniac, but I want more cops. I want more of them literally walking the beat, more of them that you can say ‘Hi’ to and get to know,” said Ty Geltmaker, a 57-year-old living in the Echo Park area.
Attitudes on the city’s quality-of-life issues and public schools were far less encouraging.
Among the 40% who said they had seriously considered leaving the city, the high cost of housing was by far the most commonly cited reason. Among whites, traffic congestion was the second reason. Blacks and Latinos cited crime second.
The poll made clear that large numbers of people in the city have been hurt by the economic recession.
In addition to job losses and foreclosures, a quarter said they or someone in their family had delayed retirement because of the financial meltdown. Roughly the same number reported having lost health insurance. Nearly half of those polled were from families in which wages or hours at work had been cut.
In interviews, several people said they had dramatically changed their lifestyles, putting off large purchases, delaying dental work and eating at restaurants far less frequently.
Latinos reported the greatest effects of the recession but were also the most optimistic about the economy’s future. Half of Latinos said that they expect the economy to be better in six months, but only about a third of blacks or whites said they feel such confidence.
Latinos were also slightly more upbeat about the state of the Los Angeles Unified School District than others, although support for the public school system was tepid at best.
About a third of those polled said they felt the district had stagnated in the last four years, failing to make any progress on teaching basic skills, stemming the dropout rate and preparing students for college or work. Ratings of the schools, however, were noticeably higher among those who have children enrolled.