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L.A. is seeing its police officers in a new light

Crime is down and a degree of trust is taking hold. Many credit Bratton and say they hope the trend continues.

November 01, 2009|Scott Gold, Catherine Saillant and Joe Mozingo

Hilda Samayoa did something a few weeks ago that would have been highly unusual in her South Los Angeles neighborhood not too long ago: She called police to report that a gang had set up shop in a nearby house.

She did so, in part, because of growing confidence among residents that the Los Angeles Police Department will help them out. Given that distrust between the community and police has historically run deep -- and lingers today -- police are still surprised when they get a call like hers.

Acting on the tip, officers raided the gang house and arrested 15 people, as well as seizing four weapons and a cache of narcotics. Samayoa and her two daughters say the little street has been transformed, with no more menacing men lurking on the corners. "They vanished," said one of Samayoa's daughters. "The work that [the police] did showed that they cared."

The progress the LAPD made under Police Chief William J. Bratton in the last seven years can be measured as much in the sweeping drop in crime as in the little interactions that reflect an easing of tensions.

Residents across the city say they hope the trend outlasts the personality as the mayor selects a new chief to replace Bratton, who officially stepped down Saturday.

From 2002 to now, the department's stats show dramatic drops in every major category of crime: drops of 53.1% for homicides, 38.6% for rapes, 66.9% for aggravated assaults, 28.6% for robbery.

Robert Fields, a dentist who's run a practice in Van Nuys for 38 years, said gangs used to rule the neighborhoods surrounding his business district. Street crime and graffiti along Van Nuys Boulevard kept customers away.

Now, with regular bike patrols and cleaner streets, pedestrians throng the sidewalks to shop.

"Ever since he's been chief, things have gotten better," said Fields, 65. "They're still likely to break into cars, but everything is less."

In the Valley, gang homicides have fallen 60%, rapes 55% and carjackings 63%, according to LAPD statistics.

But does it really change people's perception of crime when they hear four shootings per month instead of five?

Magdalena Zacahula, 52, and her 13-year-old daughter, Denaly, said they didn't sense any change in Highland Park.

Walking along Figueroa in the middle of the day two weeks ago, they stumbled on two gangbangers in a vicious fight, hitting each other with tire irons. "We had to go into the dress store," said Denaly. "They were bleeding and everything."

Zacahula never lets her daughter walk alone. She accompanies her to school -- a private Catholic school because the public school is too dangerous, in her view.

Denaly listed a slew of recent shootings, mostly between the Avenues and Highland Park, two local gangs. Homicides in the area are still high. There were 26 in 2002. There were 26 in 2008.

"There's a lot more drive-bys," she said. "There should be more police here."

Bratton clashed early with the City Council over his desire to increase the department by more than 3,000 officers, for a total force of 12,500. He found an ally in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and has slowly upped hiring, but he has been constrained by the budget. There are now 10,005 officers, 828 more than he started with.

Bill Koontz, chairman of the Mar Vista Community Council's safety and security committee, said Bratton has managed to be effective even without a big increase in boots on the ground.

"The police have become more efficient," said Koontz, who also sits on the community police advisory board of LAPD's Pacific Division. "Overall, he has been able to do a lot more with a lot less. Los Angeles has far fewer cops than New York but is still getting the same types of crime reduction numbers."

Crimes in Mar Vista and most other parts of the Westside tend to be those against property, such as burglaries and vandalism, rather than shootings or rapes. There were 8,681 reported property crimes in the Pacific Division in 2002, and 5,748 in 2008, a 34% drop.

Koontz praised Bratton's use of crime statistics to figure out where problems existed and how much manpower was needed to resolve them. He hopes the next chief continues this.

In South Los Angeles, Samayoa attributes much of Bratton's success to giving his captains more authority and pushing them to interact with community leaders -- a definite change in approach in an area where the police were long viewed as an occupying force.

But she says the relationship has a long way to go. Too often it hinges on a handful of officers. When those responsive officers are transferred or promoted, she said, "we have to start all over again."

Samayoa, who runs a local neighborhood watch, is unique in her fearlessness to confront gangs with no shield of anonymity. "They know what we do," her daughter said.

Adela Barajas, a community activist who grew up on Long Beach Avenue in South L.A., agreed that the new chief must find a way to continue "bridging the relationship" with the community.

She also said it will be crucial for the new chief to continue to expand the use of gang intervention workers, street-level liaisons between the gangs and police.

Police have reported marked success using gang intervention to augment traditional crime-suppression tactics, but many police officers are wary at best, and it remains a controversial strategy.

"Law enforcement is not all about suppression," said Barajas. "They should be partners."

Like most other civic leaders in South L.A., she said she was not concerned that the three finalists are white men.

"Humane values are what matters," she said. "We are interested in fairness, in someone who will treat everyone the same -- regardless of whether you are in South L.A. or Beverly Hills."


Martha Groves contributed to this report.

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