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L.A.'s Next Chief Should Listen to What the Community Wants

April 14, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

The Los Angeles Police Commission has a few days before it begins the formal process of hiring someone to replace Chief Bernard Parks. During that interval it might be useful for the commissioners to leave the politically charged atmosphere of City Hall and the neighboring LAPD headquarters and spend time in this city's high-crime neighborhoods.

The effects of their choice to replace Parks will be felt most profoundly in such neighborhoods--places like Boyle Heights on the mostly Latino Eastside, patrolled by officers from the LAPD's Hollenbeck Division.

The history of relations between the Los Angeles Police Department and Latino L.A. has been decidedly mixed. All too often it has been marked by bitter incidents--from the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 through the Rampart scandal of 1998.

What makes this sadly ironic is that Latinos are generally pro-police. They are born into a conservative culture that respects authority and they often live in high-crime areas where it's good to have cops around. That's why so many Latino youngsters aspire to law enforcement careers.

Smart police leaders--and Hollenbeck Division has been blessed with a few--try to tap into this reservoir of pro-police sentiment. But Parks hasn't done enough of that, as was illustrated by a little-noted flap in January.

That was when members of Hollenbeck's community police advisory board made an eminently reasonable but politically provocative request of the Police Commission: Have the L.A. County Sheriff's Department help the LAPD in Boyle Heights.

Residents were concerned because a surge in gang crime and drug dealing had led to a perceived increase in homicides in Hollenbeck Division--38 deaths in 2001.

During the same period, sheriff's deputies in East Los Angeles, in the same part of town but just across Indiana Avenue (the city-county border), were reporting the lowest homicide rate there in 30 years--five deaths in 2001.

Not surprisingly, folks in Boyle Heights pondered this contrast and started asking questions. And the answers they got, while reasonable, were unsatisfactory.

"They told us they needed more manpower," according to Mary Lou Trevis, a member of the community advisory group.

The combined effect of declining recruitment, defections to other police agencies and the redeployment of officers after Sept. 11 left Boyle Heights underpoliced, even as sheriff's deputies in East L.A. were implementing community policing programs.

This led to another reasonable question: "Why can't we do what our neighbors are doing?" Trevis says. So Trevis did some research and discovered that it was not unusual for local police departments to ask the Sheriff's Department for aid when their jurisdictions are understaffed. Although the Boyle Heights residents got a sympathetic hearing on the idea from the Police Commission, they were not able to get Parks' support. County Supervisor Gloria Molina also helped squelch the plan, insisting that deputies in East L.A. had enough work.

"We knew we might not get what we wanted, but at least we got their attention" says Ross Valencia, a Boyle Heights resident who also sits on the Hollenbeck advisory board.

Recently, more narcotics detectives have been assigned to duty in Hollenbeck Division, and residents hope that will have some effect on their spiraling crime rate. But they remain skeptical.

"The problem hasn't gone away," says Msgr. John Moretta, pastor of a large Catholic parish in the area and also an advisory board member. "We've had 17 homicides since the start of this year--171/2 if you count one poor kid who's brain dead."

I know enough about how squishy statistics can be, especially crime statistics, to not attempt to use the homicide numbers on the Eastside to prove anything. Least of all that deputies in East L.A. are doing a better job than the hard-working officers in Hollenbeck Division. In fact, LAPD has statistics that indicate, despite the perception in Boyle Heights that crime is up, that 38 homicides annually has been the average number in Hollenbeck for the last five years.

But those numbers, and the Boyle Heights community's reaction to them, illustrate a creative challenge to whoever succeeds Parks as head of the LAPD: how to channel the energy of the many law-abiding residents of Boyle Heights into a real community policing program.

"We want to work with our Police Department as a team" is how Trevis puts it.

Such grass-roots support should not be frittered away. And anyone who presumes to lead the LAPD must commit to using it as enthusiastically and creatively as possible. Not just in Boyle Heights but in every part of Los Angeles.

*

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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