It wasn’t long ago when children attending the 99th Street Elementary School in Watts feared police so much they’d run at the sheer sight of a uniformed officer, sometimes screaming, “They are going to arrest us.”
When LAPD Capt. Phil Tingirides, commanding officer of Southeast Division, and his wife, Sgt. Emada Tingirides, picked up the challenge of improving relations, they knew it would take a monumental effort to change generations of conditioning and attitudes toward police.
For years, police had been trying to reduce neighborhood crime in Watts by arresting their way out it. But Tingirides says that technique “just wasn’t working.”
In a mission to work closely with community leaders and its residents, police tried a different approach: fewer arrests, more relationship building.
Now their efforts are about to be recognized on a national level.
The couple has been invited to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., where they will be honored for their work with the Community Safety Partnership program.
The couple said they were overjoyed by the invite from First Lady Michelle Obama, calling it a “high honor.”
But mostly, they said, the recognition is a boost for the community, which diligently worked alongside officers to better police relations.
“This is not just about LAPD,” Capt. Tingirides said. “This is about partnerships with the community.”
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters Tuesday that he was “very, very proud” of the Tinigirides’ invite, calling the captain and sergeant “a great representative of the city of Los Angeles and what’s going on here.”
“This is a national stage right now. Police legitimacy, public trust, police-community relations are all at the forefront of everybody’s thoughts right now,” he said.
“Even though we have much to do in L.A., we have done a lot,” Beck said. “And to recognize that, the president’s recognition of that, is very gratifying.”
The city’s housing authority gave the LAPD $5 million in 2011 to create the program. Focusing on some of South L.A.’s toughest housing developments, officers worked alongside residents and community members to repair frayed relationships.
Capt. Tingirides first attended a Watts neighborhood meeting more than eight years ago, and learned how deep frustrations and feelings of hopelessness ran.
“I was getting my butt handed to me,” he said.
So, he said he decided just to listen as residents expressed their frustration. Gradually, he said, he realized the anger wasn’t necessarily directed at him, but directed toward the uniform he wore.
“There is a lot of good people in Watts and South L.A.,” the captain said, “and good cops that want to make a difference.”
Violence has dropped, Beck said. One of the developments, Jordan Downs, didn’t see a homicide for three years.
The officers help settle neighborhood disputes and lead a Girl Scout troop of about 150. Tutoring was established and a track team was created. A college scholarship program was formed.
Then, the Watts Bears – a football team of children ages 9 to 11— did the unthinkable: banded residents who otherwise would have been foes.
On the football field, gang lines were ignored. It was about the game, he said.
“Watts has turned itself around,” the captain said.
That approach would eventually work to help repair relationships between police and residents.
“It used to be no one wanted to be from Watts,” he said. “Now, everybody wants to be from Watts.”
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