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Laying Down the Law in a Neighborly Way : Barbara Kennedy Helps Clarify Police Policy in Watts

November 13, 1994

Barbara Kennedy is a 21-year resident of the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, where she runs a state-funded program to prepare people for the job market. In September she took a 30-hour LAPD course, called Community Police Academy, designed to improve relations with the community by familiarizing residents with police procedures. She was interviewed by Mike Wyma.

I always have paid close attention to the activities that are going on in Imperial. The thing that I was concerned about was when the police detain young men unlawfully. Often the young men don't understand the law totally. They don't understand that the police are supposed to give them a statement, a reason why they are detaining them. If they don't, they're detaining them unlawfully.

Sometimes I intervene. I go up and ask, "Why are you stopping them?" They ask, "Who are you?" If the residents are just having a beer or are just gathered in a group and the police put them on the ground and search them, I tell the residents the law. First thing is they can't be drinking in public. Some of them are 16 and 17 and don't know that. At a seminar we held for residents I told them, "You want me to police you or you want me to call the police to police you?" They said, "Go ahead, Barbara, you police us." So I tell them the law.

Imperial is primarily very young, 35 and under. If they don't know and haven't been taught, they're in ignorance. You learn from mistakes of the people before you, or you'll have to learn from your own mistakes. It can be a cycle.

The harassment has stopped a great deal here. The tensions with police, it's slightly better. The officers have been given some good training on being sensitive in the area they're patrolling. There have been a lot of things that happened here--deaths and drive-bys and even children being shot.

When a little girl got shot and was killed in 1990, the police were there and didn't even chase the car that had just driven by. The shooter was in it. Someone who was there told the police, "That's the car! Go after it!" But they went to see if the girl was really shot. There was almost a mini-riot because they didn't pursue the car. That was in 1990. It really is different now. The kids are still on alert, because there's so much shooting at night. It's a shame you have to teach the kids to dodge bullets, but that's the way it is.

We had a meeting on search warrants. That was after the LAPD came in at 6 o'clock one morning and they had a search warrant for someone who didn't even live at that residence. They went ahead and tore up that place looking for evidence, and that was unlawful. We had a meeting with the LAPD to look at some search warrants and get some information, so people can tell if it's a legitimate warrant. Some of them aren't. They look like photocopies of some other warrant with the new information put in.

The search was the first part of '92. The warrant was for people who had lived there before but moved out. I didn't know then how to put in a complaint with the LAPD. But the congresswoman, Maxine Waters, gave us some forms. She came in and told us the laws about police harassment and informed the guys what they could do: Document the date and time of the incident and send in the forms. Abuse used to happen out in the open. Now people know to report it. You have to report it.

We've talked to the young men. They know that if they're stopped, make sure the taillights are fixed and your seat belt is on. Have your driver's license and your insurance form and don't bring on the appearance of doing wrong.

We really are trying to police our own people. Something they think is petty can be a felony. For example, tripping the mailman and picking up the mail he dropped. Or doing something to the mail truck. They think that's petty but that's a felony.

Crime seems on the rise. The police say it came down about 2 or 3 percent, but you don't notice that. It's bad. Tempers rising, people arguing. To defuse it, you pull them away and listen to it. They want you to know how they're really feeling. If they get to the point where they're not being heard, then their gun or their fist or their stick is going to do the talking. But I believe it can be defused. They can be talked out of violent crime.

The police understand it. In domestic problems they'll step aside if I ask them to give me a chance. That's if they think he will listen or she will listen. But if they see a weapon they won't step away. They taught me that. The first thing is to disarm them. The police have to protect themselves and the other people around.

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