This article appeared in Gawker on August 11, 2015.
At a recent staff meeting at the Southeast Division station of the Los Angeles Police Department, Ryan Whiteman, a tall, barrel-chested sergeant, ran down the mid-year crime stats for Jordan Downs, a public housing development in the Watts neighborhood of South L.A.. Jordan Downs is home to some of the most destitute families in Los Angeles County. “Five generations of abject poverty,” is how civil rights attorney Connie Rice described the 700-unit complex, which looks like a cross between a tenement and a dilapidated army barracks. “It’s Third World America.”
At the height of the crack trade in the 1980s and 1990s, Jordan Downs was controlled by the Grape Street Crips, one of the most notorious street gangs in the country. In that era, gang-related homicides at Jordan Downs and at two nearby projects, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts, were so common that parents sometimes had their children sleep in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets flying in the night. Those who weren’t murdered by the Bloods or the Crips were often victims of the LAPD, which, in South L.A., relied almost exclusively on a set of ruthless, and constitutionally questionable, repression tactics. “Ever since the fugitive slave laws of the 1840s a key mission of American policing has been to put the fear of God into African Americans,” Joe Domanick, a journalist and historian at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of a new book on the LAPD, told me. “From 1950 through 2000, the LAPD did that by being a racist, repressive army of occupation in LA’s ghettos.”
In the late 1980s, then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates declared war on the gangs. In practice, that meant war on the mostly black and Latino teenagers of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods. His vehicle for carrying it out was C.R.A.S.H. — Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — an elite gang suppression unit whose flamboyantly aggressive paramilitary campaign, Operation Hammer, generated 50,000 arrests in three years, as well as more than 2,000 allegations of excessive force. “They did not see people as people,” said Nina Revoyr, COO of the Children’s Institute, which operates out of Watts. “They saw them as problems to be contained.”
In those days, if you were young and black in Watts — or worse, if you dared to venture out of your neighborhood to the affluent Westside —you could expect to find yourself at any given moment spread-eagled on the front of a squad car for wearing the wrong colored shoes. You could count yourself lucky to get away without being beaten or arrested. “We had times where guys was framed with drugs; drugs was put on people,” recalled Donny Joubert, an ex-Blood who grew up in Nickerson Gardens, and now works as a gang intervention worker. “We had officers that came here and took money from people.” The open contempt LAPD gang cops routinely showed for the civil rights of Watts residents was the accelerant for the community’s violent explosion in 1992 following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, just as it had been for the 1965 Watts Riots, 50 years ago today. “Hate” was not too strong a word for how many Watts residents felt about the police in those days — even those who reviled the gangs with equal fervor.
This year, crime is once again on the rise in Los Angeles, for the first time in a decade. But at the staff meeting at Southeast, Sergeant Whiteman reported to his colleagues that in the first six months of 2015, Jordan Downs had seen a 44 percent drop in violent crime compared to the same time period last year, and a 36 percent reduction in property crime. Lately, the most pressing issue the officers under his supervision were hearing about from Jordan Downs residents was illegal parking. There had also been some complaints about teenagers loitering. Sergeant Whiteman’s report from one of the most notorious gang zones in the world had all the blood and adrenaline of a suburban crime blotter.
Jordan Downs has experienced just one homicide in the last four years. Between 2011 and 2013, violent crime there dropped by 70 percent. In the same time period, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts also saw their violent crime rates halved. The decline in violence in what were once the garrisons of L.A.’s most murderous gangs has been accompanied by a steep rise in public trust in the police officers that patrol the three communities. At a time when police shootings are a daily occurrence in the United States, and police relations with poor communities of color across the country are as bitter as they have been in decades, in the three Watts housing projects that were at the center of two massive uprisings against LAPD repression, officers are greeted with nods and waves from people who know them by their first names, and by kids running up to say hi.
Cops pulling up onto schoolyards near the three projects today are more likely there to tutor teenagers than to frisk them. Officers help organize backpack giveaways, neighborhood cleanups, and health fairs. Some have even adopted children from the projects to keep them out of the foster system after losing both of their parents to violence or incarceration. “You got hard core gang members shaking the police’s hand, in the corner, talking to them, having conversations, and talking sports — chilling with them,” said Joubert, describing a common scene at Nickerson Gardens. “These cops don’t go in like they’re afraid of people,” explained Revoyr. “They don’t go in like they think that all folks are out to get them. They see and respond to people like people.” Just a few years ago, parents wouldn’t let their children even talk to the officers; they didn’t want them mixed up with the police in any way. “If you go through there now,” Joubert said, “you see the officers toting them on their shoulders, carrying them on their back.”
The synchronous trends in the three projects of reduced crime and increased public trust in the police are not a coincidence. They’re the outcome of a new mode of policing, conceived of by Connie Rice and developed jointly by the LAPD and the Watts community, which is beginning to spread, tentatively, from a small, experimental unit in Southeast Division to the rest of the third largest municipal police force in the country. If its successes can be repeated throughout the rest of the LAPD, then it may provide an actionable vision for reform that could be applied in New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, and every other American city with a dysfunctional relationship between its police force and its most embattled communities.
When Connie Rice first began frequenting the projects in Watts in the early 1990s, she was helping to broker a truce between the Bloods and the Crips. At that time, her relationship with the LAPD was strictly litigious. Along with her colleagues at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rice had filed a litany of lawsuits against the department for brutality, discrimination in promotions against women and minority officers, and every other LAPD misdeed that came across her desk, which was many.
The truce, which began just days before the 1992 riot, held down the murder rate in Watts for years. But at the end of 2005, seven gang-related homicides occurred within a two-month period. Fearing a revival of the gang wars of the 1980s, the ex-gang members who had organized the truce, Donny Joubert among them, asked then-City Councilmember Janice Hahn to convene a meeting of Watts community leaders to find a way to stem the violence.
Hahn brought Phil Tingirides, the new captain of the LAPD’s Southeast Division, to the meeting. For many of the Watts residents in the room, that was a first. They had never before had a way to safely engage in a two-way conversation with the department.
Tingirides was the sixth captain of Southeast Division in five years, a fact that irked the community; the rapid turnover made it impossible to build any meaningful understanding between ordinary Watts residents and the station’s leadership. Fortunately for Watts, Tingirides wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. When he accepted his new post, LAPD’s current chief, Charlie Beck, had reminded him that there were only three ways out of his position: die, retire, or be promoted. Dying wasn’t in Tingirides’ plans, and with six kids to look after as a result of his recent marriage to Sergeant Emada Tingirides, an African-American officer who grew up near Nickerson Gardens, retirement was out of the question, too. And as Beck knew, Captain Tingirides couldn’t be promoted any further up the chain of command because he didn’t yet have a college degree. Watts would finally have some stability in the Southeast Division leadership.
At the meeting at Hahn’s office, Watts residents lit into the new captain. They voiced their long pent-up list of grievances with Southeast officers and their tactics. They pressed Tingirides relentlessly on what he was going to do about it. “I was getting my ass handed to me,” Tingirides said. “We had some real hard sit-downs in that room,” Joubert acknowledged. “He had to hear us out. And then, we had to hear him out.”
The group began to meet regularly, and Tingirides soon had his turn to recite his own complaints back to Watts residents: he believed many neighbors were too willing to ignore criminal activity happening next door. Eventually, the meetings became formalized as the Watts Gang Task Force, which convenes weekly to this day. Another regular meeting took place at Southeast station. Residents of the projects, including current and former Crips and Bloods, and LAPD officers would discuss their grievances with one another, and do their best to hammer them out. The conversations were not easy. They required careful diplomacy on both sides with their respective constituencies. “Everybody ain’t with peace,” Joubert remembered telling Captain Tingirides about the residents of the projects. “Everybody ain’t with the fact that we even trying to have a sit-down with the police department. But you going to have the same problem in your police station.”
Outside of the tense meetings in cramped conference rooms, residents of the Watts projects started organizing softball and basketball games against the LAPD. After decades of animosity, gang members, police officers, and ordinary Watts neighbors were getting to know each other, and talking frankly about their relationships with one another, every week. “He stood there and listened,” Joubert recalled of Tingirides. “And he started understanding.”
Tingirides grew up in South L.A., not far from Watts. His grandparents, who emigrated from Greece during World War I, ran a neighborhood butcher shop. His father joined the LAPD in 1956; Tingirides followed in his footsteps 24 years later.
For a time, Tingirides’ senior lead officer was a man named Randy Cochran. Cochran, like Tingirides, was a white cop operating in a black neighborhood. But unlike many white officers in Watts, he was neither fearful of the community nor physically aggressive. He routinely wandered through Nickerson Gardens by himself in search of suspects, at a time when officers rarely did so. Tingirides can remember only a single occasion in which Cochran used force, and afterwards, “he patted him off and said, ‘we didn’t have to do that.’” Cochran “made phenomenal arrests,” Tingirides recalled, because he was kind and respectful to members of the community he patrolled.
During a period in the 1980s, Tingirides was assigned to Metro Division, the elite paramilitary unit of the LAPD. Tingirides’ experience with Metro’s strong-arm tactics convinced him that they were ineffective in the long term, though he insists that at the time, it was the only tool they had. “We were not getting anywhere with just going out and arresting people, and we had to try something different,” Tingirides told me. “And I wanted to try that relationship-based policing that I saw Randy Cochran do on a different level.”
In 2008, the principal of 99th St. Elementary School launched an outreach program called Donuts with Dads, in which fathers from the neighborhood were invited to read to kids. But only about a quarter of the households in Watts had fathers in them, and the dads that were around were not easily able to take time off of work. So the school had firefighters and cops come in to take the place of the fathers. “It was a dog and pony show,” Tingirides said of the program’s kick-off. “The mayor was there, the chief was there, TV was there.” But he noticed something: these weren’t the kids that cops would see on a radio call, while they were angry or in the midst of a crisis. They were the same kids, but in a normal environment — “like my kids, except they had gold and silver in their teeth instead of porcelain.”
Tingirides had an epiphany. Here was a chance to begin to change the perceptions that neighborhood kids and Southeast officers had of one another. Officers could come to the school and see the kids in a different context than what they see on radio calls. The kids could see the officers as people other than the ones putting dad in handcuffs.
With his wife, Emada, Captain Tingirides began recruiting street cops to do readings at the school on a weekly basis. Slowly, perceptions began to change. When officers first started showing up at the school, the kids ran away, screaming, “He’s going to arrest us!” Within a year, the kids were running toward the officers instead.
Emada suggested to the principal that they start setting some goals. If the kids read a certain number of books, she said, officers would put on a pep rally at the end of the year, and Tingirides would jump out of a SWAT van in a chicken suit. The kids did their part, and Tingirides soon found himself doing a chicken dance in front of a bunch of screaming children. The next year, he found himself in front of the same kids, getting his hair dyed pink and then shaved off.
Back at the station, channeling the conversations he’d had at the Watts Gang Task Force, Tingirides pressed officers to start exercising their empathy. “Stop being so offended by a guy standing on a corner selling weed,” he told them. “If you didn’t have any food to put in your baby’s mouth, what would you do? How far would you go? What’s acceptable to you to feed your child, because you have no money, because you can’t get a job, because you don’t have an education, because you grew up in a dysfunctional family, because you couldn’t get to school without getting beat up, and so you couldn’t concentrate because you’re worried about how you’re going to get home safely?”
Southeast station is a mammoth concrete fortress that might fare well against an armed insurrection, or an alien invasion. It was built in 1978, the same year that Daryl Gates became the LAPD’s Chief of Police. Its brutalist architecture was congruous with its relationship with the surrounding community during Gates’ 14-year tenure: disparate, aloof, braced for attack.
Inside of its grim exterior, however, the Southeast Division was beginning to leave that past behind. Chief Beck and Connie Rice were paying attention to the changes underway, both within the division and among the residents of the three Watts projects. Then, in 2010, a group of P.J. Watts Crips at Imperial Courts attempted to gang rape the women in a Korean-American family during a home invasion. Rice went ballistic. She was afraid for the families in the projects, and she was afraid that the psychopaths who had perpetrated the crime might unravel all the progress that was being made in Watts. She met with Chief Beck and demanded that a new community policing unit be funded and built to keep Watts from spiraling once again out of control.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the war between the Bloods and the Crips was at its peak, Beck was a sergeant in the C.R.A.S.H. unit. Rice had deposed, cross-examined, and sued him on a number of occasions. But by the time Beck became chief, Rice’s relationship with the department had been transformed. After the Rampart Scandal in the late ‘90s and the federal oversight of the LAPD that emerged from it, Rice worked hand-in-hand with then-Chief Bill Bratton to write and implement reforms aimed at transforming not only the behavior, but the entire culture of the police department. When Rice first heard that Bratton had made Beck the new head of the Rampart Division, she was disappointed. “Old wine in old bottles,” she thought. “He was ruthless, and he was aggressive, just like SWAT and gang units are,” Rice remembers of Beck’s days as a gang cop. But she soon discovered that he had changed. His old gang cop swagger was gone. When she asked Beck what had happened to him, he told her that he had realized that search-and-destroy policing was no longer working.
Now, as chief, Beck gave the green light to Rice’s proposal to build what became the Community Safety Partnership program. The twin goals of CSP were to avoid unnecessary arrests and to build public trust, and then put that trust to work in making the community safer. “We wanted to see if the populations that hate the police the most could learn to bond with them,” is how Rice explained the vision behind the program. “It’s community policing on steroids,” is how Sergeant Whiteman put it.
CSP officers — there are about 50 — are assigned to each of four housing projects: Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts, in Watts, and Ramona Gardens, which is in the Latino majority neighborhood of Boyle Heights, on the east side of the city (the program is currently expanding to two more projects, Avalon Gardens and Gonzaque Village). By design, the CSP unit commands some of the highest salaries in the department, allowing it to attract the best candidates, and those who are tapped to join it are automatically promoted. It is made up largely of veteran officers. “Some of them are old SWAT and gang guys who want to make atonement for what they did,” said Rice. It is also disproportionately female (Rice insists, only half-jokingly, that women make better police officers than men).
When an officer starts with CSP, she is retrained by Rice’s organization, the Urban Peace Institute, in the fundamentals of “community trust policing.” That means un-learning years of standard LAPD procedure. “My concept was, these cops would not be promoted based on how many arrests they made,” Rice said. “In fact, if you made an arrest, you’d have to explain it, and it would not count in your favor.” Instead, CSP officers’ performance is evaluated on how theyavoid making arrests, as well as on what programs they develop to keep kids safe when walking to school through gang territory, or how many kids in their jurisdictions stay in school, or how much trust residents say they have in individual officers. That means a significant amount of their time is spent mentoring children, hanging out at after-school events in parks and playgrounds, and participating in planning meetings with local community groups. It’s a jarring transition for some. “I come from a historically enforcement background,” said Whiteman, who joined the force in 1998 and came to CSP just eight months ago. “So I’m taking time to shift my thought process. I need to be reconditioned from how I’ve been trained for the last 17 years.”
When Rice first approached residents of the Watts projects with the idea of CSP, some of them jumped down her throat, accusing her of trying to bring a police state into their backyards. Those perceptions began to change as officers cleaned up a Jordan Downs alleyway that had been an open air drug market for years. Then, they brought in medical teams to screen people for diabetes and hypertension. Next, they distributed hundreds of pairs of bifocals to elderly residents. After that, they brought computers to school classrooms. In Ramona Gardens, CSP officers organized a farmer’s market. These were not the cops people in the projects had known all too well for decades.
Joubert remembered the first time he saw a CSP officer at a pickup basketball game at the Nickerson Gardens recreation center, around the time the program began. The players were mostly young men, including a lot of gang members. Joubert watched as the officer took off his holster, his vest, and the rest of his gear, put it in the trunk of his car, and joined the game. It was something he had never seen before. Soon, Chief Tingirides and other officers started bringing their families to the rec center when the community organized toy giveaways and other events.
Those relationships between CSP officers and community members are part of what accounts for the staggering drop in violent crime in Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts. As a gang intervention worker, Joubert’s job is to squash personal conflicts before they turn into gang violence and trigger the ever-escalating cycle of reprisals. He described a hypothetical scenario this way: a boy from Nickerson Gardens, which is associated with the Bounty Hunter Bloods, sleeps with a girl from Jordan Downs, which is Grape Street Crip turf. The girl has a boyfriend, who finds out about the affair. He gathers his friends to confront the boy, but he doesn’t want to admit to them that his girlfriend cheated on him. So instead of telling them the truth, he turns it into a gang thing. The gang intervention workers, who are respected former gang members themselves, start hearing rumors of a squabble brewing between the Bloods and the Crips. They then do two things: they contact the CSP officers at each of the two projects and loop them in, and they start interviewing all of the parties involved. The CSP officers and the gang intervention workers share information and work together to squelch the rumors, while the gang intervention workers get to the bottom of the real cause of the conflict. Then they separate the beefing parties until cooler heads prevail. If a hit does occur, Tingirides told me, the department will also put a heavy police presence on the streets, taking their cues about when and where from the gang intervention workers.
In addition to navigating potential gang flare-ups, gang intervention workers also act as liaisons between CSP officers and neighbors who don’t respond well to instructions from uniformed cops. The respect, Joubert said, must be mutual. “When officers say, ‘well you got these guys over here, they disrespecting, we cannot take this no more.’ So we step up. We tell the guys, ‘you can’t do this. You can’t smoke. You have to respect the officers.’”
Controlling crime, violence, truancy, and everyday quality-of-life issues has become a joint project of the police and residents of the projects, instead of a catalyst for hostility between them. The byproduct has been an environment that people want to be a part of, rather than a nihilistic world that invites only anger, violence, and disorder. “People feel like change is here,” said Rice. “And so they invest in it. They’ve been given the room to rise to the occasion.”
CSP is a small unit, which is radically different from the rest of the LAPD. Rice is somewhat skeptical as to whether the success of the program can be brought to the rest of the department; the old school mindset is so baked into its culture. Joe Domanick pointed out to me that because of Bratton, stop-and-frisk policing is at an all time high. And he warned that when crime rates rise, as they currently are in Los Angeles, chiefs feel pressure to revert to the old ways. He said community policing throughout Los Angeles is already beginning to teeter.
Still, Domanick believes that with the right leadership, the CSP model can be brought to other cities — though it will take a very long time. “It takes a long time to build up community trust through community policing,” he cautioned. And it takes a generation, he said, for a culture shift to take place within a department.
After the staff meeting at Southeast Division, Captain Tingirides — now Commander Tingirides — took me out in a black LAPD Dodge Charger on a drive through the projects. Most of the people we passed waved at Tingirides, or cocked their chins at him in salutation. “That would have never happened a while ago,” he told me. “People would have been mad dogging.” As we passed Jordan Downs, he pointed to a young man walking down the sidewalk. “That is something you would have never seen a while back — a guy walking through there with a bright red shirt. This is purple land.”
The Grape Street Crips still exist at Jordan Downs, just like the Bounty Hunter Bloods still exist at Nickerson Gardens, the PJ Watts Crips at Imperial Courts, and the Big Hazard gang at Ramona Gardens. But nowadays, Tingirides told me, people in the Watts projects don’t really see them as gangs anymore — they’re just the identities of each of their communities. People still sport their colors from time to time, on t-shirts and shoelaces, though the handkerchiefs and bandanas are gone. But it’s more in the spirit of wearing a Clippers hat to claim your team and your city. It’s no longer an invitation to get shot at.
That morning, a homicide occurred in Watts, though not in any of the three housing developments. We happened to roll past the brother of the victim standing outside of a church; Tingirides waved to him, and he nodded back. The Metro Division police, who were recently deployed to Watts in part to learn from CSP’s successes, were out looking for suspects.
I asked Tingirides whether the suppression-trained Metro cops looked down on CSP’s pacifist approach. “It doesn’t matter,” he told me. “That’s the direction the department is going in.” CSP’s crime reduction figures are so unmistakable that Beck has been able to say to the rest of the force, “Look what they’ve done in Southeast.”
On the way back to the station, we encountered the aftermath of a minor head-on collision. Commander Tingirides got out to make sure everybody was ok. We ended up waylaid for 40 minutes, waiting for another squad car to arrive. While we were standing around, Tingirides chatted with the tow truck driver, who he knows from the neighborhood. He asked him about the homicide. The driver told Tingirides that there was a carful of men rolling around the area in a silver Monte Carlo, armed with AK-47s, in case of retaliation.
When we finally left the scene, Tingirides called the tip in to the department. After hanging up, he allowed himself a moment of self-satisfaction. “That’s what happens when you know everybody in the neighborhood,” he said.
Outside of the Watts projects, the rest of the LAPD is still catching up with Southeast. It has a long way to go. Last year, a young black Angeleno named Ezell Ford joined the list of victims of lethal police violence whose names have become familiar to households everywhere: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose. The cops who killed Ford, Rice said, were doing the old style, search-and-destroy policing. I asked Donny Joubert whether the same situation could have unfolded at Nickerson Gardens, with a CSP officer. He doubted it. But even if it did, he wouldn’t expect the community to explode, as it did in Ferguson, and as it has twice in Watts’ past.
“We’re able to work it out,” he said. “We’re able to talk it out to where you’re not going to see this community blow up, or burn up stores. They believe in the system. They trust the system now.”