YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

In Jordan Downs housing project, police are forging a new relationship

A program begun in 2011 aims to make officers more a part of this Watts community instead of 'the invading army.' It's working, slowly.

February 16, 2014|By Kurt Streeter

Officers Keith Linton and Otis Swift stopped their patrol car, rolled down a window and motioned to a hoodie-wearing teenager. In this part of South L.A., such encounters can be tense — or worse.

"Hey, Linton. Hey, Swift," the teen said. "How y'all doing?"

"Doing good, my man," Linton replied, launching into a conversation about basketball.

Similar scenes played out all afternoon as the cops worked their beat in Jordan Downs, a housing project in Watts with a violent reputation and a history of ill will between residents and police.

Part of an experimental LAPD squad trying to bring a softer style of policing to the area, Linton and Swift didn't make arrests or issue tickets. Instead they greeted every resident they could — even giving respectful nods to the gang members hanging out in an area known as the "parolee lot."

"We haven't had anyone cussing us out and no one has flipped us the middle finger," Swift said. "Around here, that's progress. Not long ago we'd pop in, make an arrest.... We were the invading army.

"We've found out that way doesn't work."

Jordan Downs, once predominantly African American, is now mostly Latino. More than half its adult residents are unemployed, only two in 100 have college degrees and the average family earns about $1,250 a month. It is home turf for the Grape Street Crips, whose reputation largely defines the development's identity and whose blood-soaked feuds with rival gangs created the feel of a war zone.

But Los Angeles officials are pinning their hopes on a transformation. They have launched a nearly $1-billion plan to tear down all 700 units and replace them with up to 1,800 mixed-income apartments and a shopping center. The hurdles are significant. The plan leans partly on federal funds that may not materialize. And a parcel of land slated for construction needs cleanup after the discovery of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Anticipating that a makeover eventually will occur, the city's housing authority is attempting to change the culture of Jordan Downs. The idea is to fill the new buildings with residents who have a fresh outlook and brighter prospects. The authority has poured at least $6 million into programs like job training classes, gang intervention and support groups for parents.

It also wants to do what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: heal the community's relationship with police.

In 2011, the housing authority gave the LAPD $5 million to help form the Community Safety Partnership, creating a squad of 11 officers focused entirely on Jordan Downs, emphasizing the steady buildup of relationships instead of the gruff patrol work historically done there.

There have been plenty of kinks.

Some officers in the partnership — which has similar-sized squads in three other L.A. projects — are struggling to balance the old style and the new. In the words of one who asked not to be identified because of tension among his colleagues, there's a concern about becoming "glorified social workers with guns."

Still, instead of operating at arms-length, officers have become familiar faces inside Jordan Downs. They coach youth football, help with a Girl Scout troop and shepherd victims of violence to grief recovery meetings. They drive USC students to the project for tutoring sessions, take kids camping, and talk to gang members about getting jobs and leaving the streets.

"For a long time, the attitude from many officers was: 'Hey, you live in the projects, who the heck are you?' " said Sgt. Emada Tingirides, who runs the partnership with her husband, Southeast Division Capt. Phil Tingirides.

Linton, 38, and Swift, 40, are part of the push to change that attitude — perhaps the most-trusted duo to patrol Jordan Downs in years, said many who've spent their lives within its warren of low-slung, cinder-block apartments.

"The way they are dealing with people here, treating us like human beings, it makes us see the police don't have to be an enemy," said Eugene Pogues, 19, who is known as "Squeak."

Last year, the officers were watching some basketball at the Jordan Downs gym when Squeak passed out. Swift called paramedics, and Linton cared for the teen until help arrived. The officers found out later that Squeak had suffered a heart attack.

"For the first time, police are actually part of the community. Part of that means being close when something happens," said Swift, who, like his partner, is African American. "Every good thing we do here ends up paying off, ends up building trust."

But trust is tenuous in Jordan Downs.

From 2000 through mid-2011, 25 people were killed inside the development, along with scores more in nearby housing projects. Change came when a network of police-monitored video cameras was installed and the partnership began.

Los Angeles Times Articles