One year to the day after Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney G. King and sent the LAPD and the city into convulsions, more than 500 residents of South-Central gathered in a school auditorium for a meeting they hoped would usher in a more productive era in police-community relations.
In those days, Chief Daryl F. Gates was hanging on for his professional life, and the city's faith in its police had plummeted to record lows. But the Christopher Commission, a blue-ribbon group of lawyers and local luminaries, had proposed a way out: community-based policing, a theory of law enforcement intended to break down the militarism of policing and rebuild relationships with neighborhoods.
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas led the charge to turn that admonition into something concrete, a citizens group that would help guide LAPD operations in one of the areas where the department's community relations were most fragile, the 77th Street area of South-Central. Paul Jefferson, then the captain in that area, lent his support.
After hearing a description of community-based policing and getting answers to their questions about the idea, the citizens at that meeting divided up into groups. Some were classified as residents, some as students, others as merchants or organizational representatives. They had to show where they lived, and then, over the next several weeks, each group elected representatives for each of 77th Street's "basic car areas."
"Many of those people were very, very concerned about crime," said Anthony Thigpenn, who helped organize the policing councils. "They brought their own ideas about what to do about it."
The result: 77th Street police officers got eight Community-Based Policing Councils, groups of citizens impaneled to ride herd on the LAPD and help direct its crime-fighting efforts.
Jefferson, now the chief of police in Modesto, said the approach was a novel one, particularly in its use of elections to pick community representatives.
"It's safer to have the captains pick the people, but I didn't want to do it that way," he said. "Why not step out and really get the community involved? We were having some serious problems, and this seemed like a way to give the community a stake in the process."
There were limits on the councils: They were to advise the police and help set local LAPD priorities. They also were expected to mobilize residents to help themselves. But they were not to be given authority in areas such as police discipline.
Under those rules, the eight councils boldly set out to change policing in Los Angeles. But no sooner had their model begun to unfold than the LAPD, reeling from the riots and the appointment of a new chief, closed it down.
Today's LAPD leadership has shown little enthusiasm for the 77th Street model. Police Chief Willie L. Williams is a stalwart supporter of community policing, but he favors a setup in which police captains pick their advisory board members over one in which residents pick their own representatives.
Not once since that night in 1992 have residents gathered anywhere in Los Angeles to debate community policing and approve a plan to put it into action. That, community policing backers say, is a shame.
"I think the department lost or threw away a significant opportunity to relate to the community," said Ridley-Thomas. "They never gave it a chance to work."