How police are trying to rebuild trust in LA gang territory

The passenger seat of a police cruiser is an interesting place from which to observe the tension in America right now.

When it’s a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) car patrolling gang territory in a historically troubled community, there is undoubtedly an extra intensity.

Watts, in south-central Los Angeles, will always be linked with a defining moment in the history of racial tension in the United States.

The riots against police brutality in Watts, south central LA, in the 1960s
Image:Riots took place against racial inequalities in Watts, south central LA, in 1956

What started with a confrontation between a black motorist and a white traffic cop in August 1965 exploded into days of riots. Tensions over inequality and discrimination boiled over.

Further riots occurred over police brutality in 1992, after the trials of four officers accused of beating a black man called Rodney King resulted in no convictions.

Today, Watts is the focus of an initiative to lower the modern-day tensions.

On Patrol with Officer Coughlin
Image:Sky’s Greg Milam on patrol with Officer John Coughlin in Watts, south central Los Angeles

The LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership (CSP) has put one hundred officers on the streets with the aim of building trust between the police and community.

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Tactics like de-escalation, the focus of so much discussion in the national debate following the death of George Floyd, has been part of the CSP’s playbook for years.

LAPD has temporarily banned the use of chokeholds pending a review in the wake of Mr Floyd’s death.

Veteran CSP officer John Coughlin describes what happened to Mr Floyd as “evil”.

He says the CSP’s work in Watts has made a “massive improvement” in relationships.

Officer Coughlin talks to a resident of Watts, south central LA
Image:Officer Coughlin is one of a number whose work aims to improve relations with the police

Still, the slow drive past a group of known ‘Bloods’ gang members, the catcalls and gestures, would hardly qualify as a cordial encounter.

But CSP is largely welcomed. Even gang members, officers say, respect the effort to keep children out of the cycle of violence.

“The police come through, they do their job. They see someone doing something that ain’t right, of course they’re going to stop them,” Watts resident Jesse Snead told me. “The cops, they’re ok.”

Jesse, a resident of Watts, south central LA
Image:Jesse Snead, a resident of Watts, said police do the job they need to do

He’s not as hopeful about nationwide change.

“There’s always some bad apples in the bunch,” he added.

At a playground, officers stopped to chat to a group of children, aged five to 12.

Police talk to some children in Watts, south central LA
Image:The police work includes talking to children

The youngsters press their claim to join a football team supported by the CSP, another updates them on the progress of the strawberry plant given to him by an officer.

On another block, sisters Aracelli and Marilyn prepare to take up college scholarships secured by the programme. It is a path out of the projects.

They are undoubtedly positive impacts in a place with a history of strife. Giving youngsters an option for a different life is a CSP aim.

Aracelli and Marilyn
Image:Sisters Aracelli and Marilyn are among those to benefit from college scholarships secured by the CSP programme

No-one pretends there’s not another side to the story – there is a gritty reality to policing a place with a history of violent crime – but CSP is a hopeful story.

Its commander, himself African American, says the programme provides a model.

“No doubt,” said Gerald Woodward. “As you build authentic relationships with the community, enlist their concerns and ask how do we come up with some solutions for you, there’s an impact and you see the crime actually reduces.

The police commander in Watts
Image:Commander Gerald Woodyard says the aim of the project is to come up with solutions for the community, which leads to crime reduction

“There’s almost like a halo effect.”

He acknowledges this is a pivotal moment for the country, brought about by those 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis.

“I explained it to my kids and it’s impacted me deeply and I’ve got to go to work, put on the same uniform and be professional,” he said.

Los Angeles riot in 1992, prompted by the arrest of Rodney King
Image:LA was hit by riots against police brutality in 1992

“That’s the hard part. Being a person of colour, when you take the uniform off, you’re still African American. In reality we need more people to reflect the community that we are serving.”

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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