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Community-Based Policing Slowly Takes Root at LAPD

TOUGH TIMES AT THE TOP. The Struggle to Lead the LAPD. One in an occasional series.

June 21, 1996|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 7 a.m., and 34 of Los Angeles' finest are gathered beneath fluorescent lights and battered acoustical tiles to be told why community-based policing is the LAPD's past and its future. Many, frankly, are not buying it.

For two hours, Cmdr. Garrett Zimmon, who heads the department's Community Policing Group, passionately describes the philosophy and explains its roots. Not one officer takes one note; when Zimmon is done, they do not have a single question. A few put down their heads and nap. The rest dash outside for bad coffee from a vending machine.

"This can be a slow process," Zimmon says after the meeting. "It takes time to bring people around."

Just about everyone who is familiar with the LAPD's community policing efforts agrees that progress has been hard-won. And yet, the idea is slowly, sometimes painfully, taking hold within the Police Department and the rest of city government. As it does, it is testing the management of the LAPD and raising leadership questions that cut to a core debate about the Police Department's place in the civic life of Los Angeles.

Among those questions: Should the LAPD be involved in organizing communities? Should officers attempt to tackle social problems that extend far beyond crime--issues as diverse as urban decay and parenting? And can city politicians trust the police with the power that comes from an energized and supportive citizenry?

In the policing laboratory that is Los Angeles, those questions are not only guiding the course of law enforcement here. Their answers also have important national ramifications as major cities throughout the country wrestle with how best to control urban crime while avoiding police corruption and brutality.

It has been five years since the Christopher Commission recommended that the LAPD adopt some form of community-based policing, a philosophy of law enforcement that de-emphasizes arrests in favor of problem solving and community involvement. It was four years ago this month that Police Chief Willie L. Williams arrived to carry out that mandate.

With his term entering its final year, Williams is proud of the progress the department has made, but he acknowledges that the LAPD has much more to do.

"We've had some successes, and we still have some ways to go," Williams said in a recent interview. "We're probably 30% to 40% of the way, which isn't bad."

Indeed, while the progress has been far slower than some had hoped, there are signs of change in every pocket of the city:

* In the West San Fernando Valley, officers have gotten out of their cars and are walking beats along the Reseda corridor, a notoriously high-crime area. Graffiti have dropped off. So have vandalism and robbery.

* In the Newton Division, an area long known as "Shootin' Newton," detectives who once would canvas a crime scene and then leave now spend hours sitting with neighbors, chatting, seeking out their suggestions for repressing crime. Through that program, they are closing more cases and solving more crimes.

* Two officers in the Pacific Division formed a soccer league, distributed gifts to needy children and helped push down crime 40% in a dangerous neighborhood.

* The 77th Street Division called upon citizens to help identify crack houses and then shut them down.

* Hollywood Division moved prostitutes off a notorious stretch of Sunset Boulevard and stepped up traffic enforcement on notoriously busy weekend nights.

Those are successes, and most if not all of the city's 18 police divisions can cite programs or officers who have made a mark. Moreover, some of the initial resistance to community policing has broken down, according to officers and leaders at all levels of the department, in part because recognition has spread that the idea has its roots in the LAPD, a fact that helps ease its acceptance by a proud department wary of outside pressure.

Diverse Acceptance

The strongest sign that community policing has set roots at the LAPD may be in the fact that it is embraced by a growing group of department leaders. No longer confined to a small coterie within the LAPD, community policing has adherents at all levels of the department.

For evidence of that, witness two of the city's police captains and the divisions they head: Bruce E. Hagerty of Hollenbeck and John Mutz of Wilshire.

Hagerty is old school. He grew up in a military family. His strong frame fills out his uniform, which he wears with pride. He is gruff and plain-spoken, and he has the look of LAPD: mustache, no beard, thick hands and solid gestures.

Mutz is new wave. He wears monogrammed shirts and cuff links, loafers and tailored suits. He is cleanshaven, lean and thoughtful, and he admits that he is not always the Police Department's biggest booster. "I'm not estranged from the LAPD," he says without trepidation, "but I'm not a big fan of it."

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