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From oppressor to partner

In 1992, the LAPD was regarded with suspicion and downright hostility by many in South L.A. Much has changed in two decades.

April 22, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • LAPD Sgt. Rick Arteaga is photographed at Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard in South Los Angeles, the same intersection he was working the day the riots broke out on April 29, 1992. Twenty years later he heads a team of senior lead officers in the 77th Street Division, a few miles from where he and fellow officers had to face hundreds of angry rioters.
LAPD Sgt. Rick Arteaga is photographed at Vermont Avenue and Manchester… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

What LAPD Sgt. Rick Arteaga remembers most about the first night of the riots is a curbside history lesson at the intersection of Manchester and Vermont.

Six police officers were trying to face down 400 angry residents. The Los Angeles Police Department brass had just ordered the officers to withdraw.

"Get in the car!" Arteaga yelled. But his rookie partner froze, unwilling to turn his back on the advancing mob. In those menacing seconds, a single fear grabbed them both: This was a crowd bent on vengeance and they were about to be lynched.

Arteaga grabbed the shotgun from the floor of his patrol car and made a noisy show of loading a round. The crowd backed off just long enough for his partner to retreat.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 24, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. riot profiles: In the April 22 Section A, an article consisting of eight short profiles of key figures connected to the 1992 Los Angeles riots said that Rodney G. King was struck more than 50 times by Los Angeles Police Department officers as he was handcuffed on the ground. In fact, King was not handcuffed while officers struck him. The article, compiled by the Times staff, drew the erroneous assertion from a story published March 6, 1992.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 29, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. riot profiles: In the April 22 Section A, an article consisting of eight short profiles of key figures connected to the 1992 Los Angeles riots said that Rodney G. King was struck more than 50 times by LAPD officers as he was handcuffed on the ground. King was not handcuffed while officers struck him. The article drew the erroneous assertion from a Times article published March 6, 1992.

Word of the "not guilty" verdicts in the Rodney King case had, in minutes, reached the streets. Arteaga had never seen anything turn so bad so fast.

People were cursing and shouting at him: Four hundred years! You've been suppressing us for 400 years!

Arteaga, just 29, was thinking, "What did 400 years have to do with me?"

Everything. Because he wore the uniform of a force that had ruled South Los Angeles like an occupying army.

Twenty years later, Arteaga heads a team of senior lead officers in the 77th Street Division, a few miles from that riot standoff.

The team, streetwise veterans of this part of the city, is the heart of a community policing effort born in the riot's aftermath.

The officers are the face of a more enlightened department. But they share the legacy, too, of its darkest hours.

Critics say the police gave up when the riots erupted, letting big chunks of Los Angeles burn while looters and hoodlums ruled.

The officers say commanders held them back, fearing that street clashes would produce endless violent video loops and countless battered Rodney Kings.

Some cops are still bitter about that call: They weren't running away. They were following orders.

"We were considered cowards," Arteaga said. "It was hurtful that we were being blamed for what the community did."

His words reflect the disconnect:

They were burning down their community. Police were outsiders, standing back.

For 20 years, the department has wrestled with that. Now crime is more than pinpoints on a map.

The riots were proof that what was wrong in South Los Angeles could not be fixed with battering rams.

An independent commission investigating the LAPD in 1991, after King's beating but before the riots, castigated the department for excessive force, racist cops, indifferent commanders and disdain for residents.

Community policing was prescribed as a way to restore the public's trust and dilute the "siege mentality." Its focus was on crime prevention and mutual respect between officers and citizens.

Today crime is lower than it's been in decades, and 70% of L.A. residents say they approve of the Police Department.

But it took years -- and a series of police chiefs -- for the LAPD to manage the philosophical shift. That evolution relied on many things: progressive leadership, broad recruitment, technological advances and, not least, a drop in violent crime that gave everybody room to breathe.

In the busy 77th Street Division -- 12 square miles in South Los Angeles, from the edge of Watts to Inglewood -- there were 143 homicides in 1992, but only 32 last year.

"It used to be corners you'd go by and there were gang members everywhere," recalled senior lead officer Gary Verge, whose turf abuts the Crenshaw area.

A lot of those gang members are now behind bars. "That's a lot less bad guys on the block."

There's also a lot less crack cocaine, which fueled violence among drug dealers and robberies by desperate addicts.

"Now, there are times you're driving in circles and nothing's going on," Verge said. "There are fewer shootings. Not so many people running with guns. People aren't turning and fighting as much as they used to."

The drop in tension pays dividends. Police officers aren't primed for trouble, and residents don't blame them for everything.

"We used to go to block club meetings and we'd be the problem," Verge said. " Police ain't this. Police don't do that. Now they trust us to solve the problems."

They have the luxury, finally, of focusing on nuisances that more prosperous places don't tolerate: street vendors clogging a busy corner; young men gambling in the park; graffiti covering a vacant house; a trash-strewn alley where transients smoke crack.

And a bunch of guys wearing baggy pants, crowding the sidewalk outside a tattoo parlor.

I'm on a ride-along with Verge when he spots them on Crenshaw Boulevard. He pulls his patrol car to the curb, gets out, walks over, tells them to move. The young men argue. The Times photographer riding with us aims his camera and shoots. A few parolees wander off; they can't afford a beef. Several people pull out cellphones and start recording the scene.

A helicopter hovers overhead, a backup officer arrives. The heated back-and-forth goes on. Fifteen minutes pass.

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