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Praise, Suspicion Greet Police 'Outpost' : Law enforcement: The LAPD's experiment at the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts is testing the waters of a new approach to police-community relations.

October 15, 1989|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That's a key concern of Officer Myrna L. Lewis, a nine-year Police Department veteran, who has been assigned to the outpost since July. While other officers spend most of their time patrolling the project or taking reports, Lewis, a state-licensed family counselor, may spend her time doing such chores as picking up litter in an effort to show residents that she, too, is concerned about the community.

An outsider walking through Imperial Courts, among the pastel-colored rows of box-like apartments, might view the community much the same as other low-income areas.

But amid the signs of poverty and neglect, children play and laugh in yards, and adults who sit on their stoops or gather in parking lots return greetings.

Nevertheless, tension rises when the subject of police is broached. Even people who seem enthusiastic about the increased police presence are cautious about how much and what they say.

"Some residents don't want to talk to the police and they don't want to be seen around police because people will think they are telling on someone," Lewis said.

For the last several weeks, Lewis has spent much of her time meeting with project residents and city recreation workers to establish a youth sports league in Watts. Eight soccer teams, four of them from Imperial Courts, are scheduled to take the field this month.

Lewis also attends meetings of the residents' advisory council, publishes a one-page newsletter and makes herself available as a sort of all-around answer woman.

She described what she does as "kind of a community-outreach type thing."

Gwen Johnson, a mother of four who has lived in the project for 12 years, praised Lewis for arranging to move her teen-age son's school bus pick-up site from outside the project, where he was in constant danger of being attacked by gangs, to a spot inside Imperial Courts.

Lewis said it took her just a few days and a handful of phone calls to the school district to accomplish the task.

"She's police, don't get me wrong," Johnson said. "But she is also like a neighbor."

Johnson's feelings about Lewis, however, don't necessarily translate into satisfaction with other police officers. A few weeks ago, she said, officers from the police anti-gang unit stopped her son a few feet from her apartment as he was on his way inside to get dressed for work. She said the officers, who also were questioning two adults, had her son "jacked up" against a wall.

Johnson said she complained to a sergeant at the Southeast Station and was assured that it would not happen again.

Similar stories were told by other residents.

So far, the greatest setback suffered by the program came when Kanita Hailey was shot.

Witnesses have complained that a police patrol car was less than a block away when the shooting occurred, but did not immediately chase the car carrying the gunman and allowed him to get away. After a crowd gathered and people loudly voiced their anger about that, the residents contend, officers attacked them with batons, breaking one man's arm.

Police have denied the accusations. At the request of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, the city's civilian Police Commission has ordered the department's Internal Affairs Division to investigate the matter. That investigation is incomplete, Wasson said.

Though he believes that police acted properly, Wasson was clearly frustrated by the incident.

"It's like we took three steps forward and two back," he said.

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