To Los Angeles neighborhoods where crime has shredded the social order, now comes community-based policing--an idea that is at once disturbingly vague, tantalizingly hopeful and eagerly embraced by people with vastly different notions of what it entails.
To Ping Own, a Taiwanese immigrant with an auto service center near Los Angeles Harbor, it means clearing out the day laborers who gather on the curb outside his business and scare away his customers. To Cleve Freeman, it's using the police advisory board he heads to clean up a trio of dilapidated houses that have become embroiled in South-Central's drug trade.
To police officers such as Margaret Mazotta or Keith Thomas, it is a near-endless meeting--convened in parking lots and living rooms, diners and doughnut shops--where residents lay out their concerns and ask for the Los Angeles Police Department's help in solving them.
And to the institution of the LAPD, community-based policing may be the last best hope for recapturing the public trust shattered by the beating of Rodney G. King, broken again by the response to the 1992 riots, and only recently on the mend.
Yet, despite the enormous stakes, community-based policing remains more of an ideal than a program. It is slowly unfolding across the city, and in South Los Angeles--where a newly assigned deputy chief publicly introduced his version early this year--it faces its greatest test. It is a work in progress, winning accolades despite its vague outlines and encountering resistance from some officers who worry that it distracts from the hard business of law enforcement.
Some residents also are skeptical, unconvinced that the LAPD will recast itself in a friendlier image.
LAPD officials take every opportunity to proclaim that the effort is genuine. Although Police Department leaders and law enforcement scholars draw up the plans, street cops and residents ultimately will be the ones who carry it out. The success or failure of community-based policing in their neighborhoods, particularly in South Los Angeles, will decide whether the idea is an overrated concoction that leaves Los Angeles even more vulnerable than it is or an overdue reform that restores a measure of peace.
Nearly six years ago, when Edward Dabbs came to the Normandale Recreation Center on Halldale Avenue near 224th Street, he found a community program in crisis. Gang members from the neighborhood would congregate at the center, drinking malt liquor and smoking marijuana around the building. Graffiti covered the walls. Broken glass littered the grounds. Frightened residents stayed away. In those days, Dabbs had little company and lots of work.
"My first week here, all I did was paint out graffiti," Dabbs said. "They had covered every wall with graffiti, and they were started on the sidewalks."
Conventional policing had failed the Normandale center. Police responded when the center was burglarized or its windows were smashed, but officers can only spend so long at a crime scene. When they left, crime crept back inside.
One aim of community-based policing is to approach problems differently, to focus on preventing crime rather than simply arresting criminals. In this case, that job fell to Margaret Mazotta, a personable, tough, 10-year veteran who nimbly juggles two roles--social worker and street cop.
As she travels around what the department calls her Basic Car Area--a long, narrow band of Los Angeles that runs from Palos Verdes Drive North to 190th Street--Mazotta pauses to chat with merchants and homeowners. She calls out to a minister and drops by a schoolyard to hear how various students are doing. Children who know Mazotta come running up to her car when she stops--they know from experience that she is a reliable source of baseball cards and balloons.
But she is not shy about mixing it up either. When during a recent tour of duty a call came over the radio about a possible attempted kidnaping, she set down her coffee, said a quick goodby to a couple of neighbors and sprinted to her car.
And when she spotted a group of idlers gathering near Ping Own's auto center, she did not hesitate to challenge them. One of the men, hurrying to get away, darted across the street. She cited him for jaywalking, explaining the violation in Spanish.
"I am an immigrant too," said Own, his voice tight with frustration, as the men shuffled off. "But these men, they scare my customers. They ruin my business. That's why I need the Police Department to help, to save my business."
Faced with the stubborn problems at the Normandale center, Mazotta blended soft touch and stern resolve. She corralled other officers from the Harbor Division to increase patrols. She organized anti-graffiti efforts and trash cleanups. She took a few of the children at the center under her wing. When she enters these days, they come running up to her for advice and a hug.