Deputy Chief Mark A. Kroeker's first experience in South Los Angeles was as a 21-year-old police officer fresh out of the academy. It was 1965, and Watts was in flames. Since then, he has held various positions in his ascent on the Los Angeles Police Department's promotional ladder.
After the March, 1991, beating of Rodney G. King, Kroeker became commanding officer of the department's San Fernando Valley Bureau, which includes the suddenly infamous Foothill Division, where the beating occurred. In little more than two years, he was credited with helping restore confidence in the department through a community-policing program.
Recently, Kroeker, 49, returned to the turbulent South Bureau, which is based in South-Central and includes the Harbor Division in San Pedro. There, he hopes to repeat his success in the Valley. But the challenges are daunting. He must deal with many residents who view police officers with distrust and hostility, while at the same time work to restore confidence in a demoralized rank-and-file police force.
The son of Mennonite missionaries, Kroeker was raised in the former Belgian Congo and Europe. A graduate of Cal State L.A. and USC, he is married with three adult children.
Question: The South Bureau is much different than the San Fernando Valley in terms of higher crime rates, demographics and high levels of fear, distrust--and in some cases, outright hostility toward the police. What is your strategy for dealing with these differences and starting successful community-policing programs?
Answer: My mission is twofold. I have to work with the department in re-establishing a level of self-worth on the part of the officers, many of whom feel that they have not received the recognition for the work they have done. So my responsibility with them is to lift that sprit, to encourage them in good, solid, good-hearted police work.
Then, in the community, I see a real similar thing. There has been a lot of negativity, a lot of acrimony, a lot of turbulence. The hostility has been there. Bridging that gap between the officers and community and bringing them together is the ultimate goal. In order to do that, you have to have trust.
The communities may be different and have different profiles, but there's a universal sense of the oppression of crime, and there's a universal sense of fear that prevails, whether in the Valley or the Harbor area.
Q: What specific strategies will you use?
A: I've only been here a few weeks, and I'm real reluctant to point to any programs which I intend to implement immediately here. I need to observe and assimilate the conditions of the people and get a good feeling for the officers' capabilities and their workload.
Q: What was your reception like at Harbor Division?
A: I stopped in at Harbor at 11 o'clock (at night) and said "hi" to the roll call. I told them about how I would try to set an example, and then I talked to them about taking care of themselves physically, staying in shape. Real cops don't eat doughnuts, I told them.
Early in the morning someone knocks on my hotel door, and it was the bell boy, and he had a box of doughnuts, and a note that said "Real cops do eat donuts," signed by the Harbor Division morning watch. Each doughnut had a bite taken out of it.
Then the bellboy knocks on the door at 6:30 a.m., and this time it's a huge box of doughnuts, uneaten, that said it was from the "Harbor area workout program," wrapped with sealed evidence tags and signed by all the officers on the morning watch. Isn't that funny? I still have the note; I think that's kind of special.
Q: There was a big ballyhoo over the gang truce (in Watts). To some extent, it has held. Is there any way the police could seize upon this and make it into something bigger and better?
A: I'm not above trying anything. If anybody can do something that will bring relief to this violence, then I would be supportive.
Q: Are you familiar with the Harbor-area gang truce? Harbor Division statistics show that gang-banging has dropped by more than 30% in the past year.
A: I had heard about some of that. If it is the case where some people who have been affiliated with gangs now are no longer involved in violence, I salute them. I'm very gratified. That just represents fewer horror stories for us to deal with. If some of that is attributable to some people taking an oath saying (they) won't hurt anyone anymore, well, that's my kind of person.
But if someone has committed a crime, we still intend to go after them. There's no amnesty. But there is hope, if somebody will put down their weapons.
Q: Do you plan to reach out to gang leaders and call them in?