Research | Fall 2020 Issue

Working for Safety

Jorja Leap spearheads an effort to examine the LAPD's work in Nickerson Gardens and beyond

By Jon Regardie

ON A MONDAY EVENING IN JULY, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Police Chief Michel Moore and a cadre of other local leaders assembled in the Tom Bradley Room at the top of City Hall to announce the formation of the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership Bureau. It was a groundbreaking step.

Perhaps more extraordinary was the trio of factors that propelled it: a visionary if not-maximized police program that had run for nearly a decade; a comprehensive UCLA evaluation that took a year to complete; and a tumultuous two months following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and subsequent demands to reimagine policing in Los Angeles.

Moore cast the new bureau in historic terms.

“This model represents a pivot, if you will,” he said, “a strategy of moving ourselves away from a containment and suppression model to one that has increased community capacity, a sense of overall safety, where you see the lower levels of crime in concert with a lower number of arrests but increased trust.”

Trying a new way

The bureau marks the expansion of a program born of an effort to reduce violence in a quartet of housing projects and bolster the relationship between law enforcement and residents. That program, called the Community Safety Partnership, was begun in 2011 by then-Police Chief Charlie Beck, civil rights attorney Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, and the City Housing Authority, with significant input from Phil Tingirides, commanding officer of the Southeast Division, and his wife, Sgt. Emada Tingirides, who were independently working on outreach efforts in Watts.

The program included assigning police officers to a housing project for a five-year period, so that they became a consistent and familiar presence (officers volunteered for the assignment and received a pay grade advancement).

The following years saw expansions to other locations and the occasional spot of good press. But even as the program gained traction, those involved with CSP had a realization: They didn’t know if it was actually making a difference.

“If it was just a bunch of civil right lawyers and residents and converted police saying it works, and there’s no documentation, [critics will] simply say it’s the fever dreams of some people who say cops ought to be social workers,” Rice told Blueprint. “So it was important to have that evaluated, because if you don’t have independent people saying it works, the cops who do not want to change will say, ‘It’s nuts and we’re not doing it.’”

UCLA lends a hand

RICE REACHED OUT TO JORJA LEAP, an anthropologist and professor of social welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, and the director of the UCLA Social Justice Research Partnership. Leap, who had spent decades working in Watts, was immediately interested, and the duo began laying the groundwork for an analysis of CSP. Rice raised the money, securing funds from nonprofits including the California Endowment, the Weingart Foundation and the Ballmer Group, and agreed to step away from the process, knowing the integrity of the evaluation would depend upon the researchers being free from pressure to deliver a result pleasing to those who controlled the purse strings. Leap went to work.

The result, “Evaluation of the LAPD Community Safety Partnership,” utilized a near-battalion of UCLA researchers, data analysts and students (Jeffrey Brantingham of the Department of Anthropology, and Todd Franke and Susana Bonis, both of the Department of Social Welfare, were also listed as lead researchers). It concentrated on CSP work in Nickerson Gardens in Watts and Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights.

The evaluation, released in the spring, ran 182 pages. It analyzed crime data, and researchers logged more than 100 interviews with residents, held 28 focus groups and conducted 425 hours of ethnographic observation. More than 750 Nickerson Gardens and Ramona Gardens inhabitants shared their opinions in an online survey. Leap, who is also a social worker, noted that residents of the housing complexes were involved in planning the study from the outset; she said it was critical to infuse “resident voice” into the proceedings.

It was a deep dive, but Leap, who is now writing a book based on the evaluation, knew every element was vital for the work to be accepted. “There’s no way you’re going to transform law enforcement,” she said, “without hitting them over the head with the research.”

Success: Crime declines

The most salient takeaway was that the police program had met its goal of reducing violence, although it took three years for crime decreases to take effect. Leap said that Brantingham created a synthetic model, complete with a control group, for CSP sites in Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs (both in Watts). He found that the presence of CSP resulted in a reduction of 221 violent incidents over six years; this included seven fewer homicides and 93 fewer aggravated assaults. The report declared that there was a financial benefit to the reduction in crime, saving $14.5 million in tangible costs.

Also important, Leap said, is that crime was not displaced to nearby neighborhoods, as occurs with some crime-suppression efforts. Rice seized on the importance of the finding.

“There’s a halo effect, as opposed to, ‘We’re damaging the adjacent neighborhoods,’” she said. “That was really good to find out.”

The surveys and interviews concentrated on CSP’s presence in Nickerson Gardens and Ramona Gardens. The evaluation reported that over time, trust of law enforcement increased and a sense of safety emerged, particularly as officers’ presence disrupted gang control of public spaces. The study found that residents appreciated police who participated in community endeavors, everything from coaching youth football teams to helping start a Nickerson Gardens walking club that ensured children had a safe path to school. Surveys revealed that residents who reached out to police for help said officers responded quickly.

Leap acknowledges that some critics called the report “copaganda,” but it was far from a sugarcoating. The evaluation identified numerous CSP shortfalls, starting with a sense of confusion about its very mission. Some officers were unsure how to meld the aims of reducing crime and in- creasing trust — and were uncertain about when to make an arrest. Meanwhile, some residents were perplexed about what the program ultimate- ly sought to accomplish.

“The confusion around CSP was stunning,” Leap said. “For example, CSP is not the youth safety partnership, it’s the Community Safety Partnership, and yet what’s really high-profile, understandably with the LAPD, was their working with youth. That’s a good thing. But the community was like, wait a minute, this should be all of us. What about the elderly? What about this? What about that?”

Another critique in the evaluation was that many residents felt CSP officers spent too much time helping kids who were interested in interact- ing with police, while harder-to-reach teenagers were left out.

Leap noted this was not exclusive to CSP — college professors tend to respond most to curious and inquisitive students. To ensure that all who needed support received it, the evaluation suggested that CSP units improve coordination with other entities, including community groups and the mayor’s office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development.

Further, the evaluation found that success was patchy. While many residents supported CSP, others were distrustful of law enforcement because their outlook was colored by past interactions and a sense of history. This foreshadowed some opposition to CSP’s current expansion; activists said new resources for impoverished neighborhoods should come in the form of social workers and economic aid, rather than more armed police.

Leap’s team ultimately offered a battery of recommendations, with overarching aims and 45 specific ideas to improve CSP. The study is a thorough prescription for change, but one that even the authors recognize might not have been embraced were it not for what occurred in Minneapolis on May 25.

A new round of protest

THE KILLING OF GEORGE FLOYD sparked a multitude of protests and a nationwide reckoning for police. Proposals in Los Angeles have been varied, including blanket demands to reduce the LAPD’s budget by 90%.

It is impossible to say what changes would have come to CSP were Garcetti and Moore not facing a cacophony to alter policing. But Leap’s timely evaluation provided scholarly research that showed the CSP program could work — and that it would work even better if top-down changes were made.

Floyd’s death, of course, was not the only timely element impacting law enforcement strategy. The coronavirus has sent waves throughout the policing world. In the first month after Garcetti ordered the closure of most bars and restaurants and many other businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, overall crime fell 29% compared with the same time last year — and Part 1 crimes (violent incidents) decreased by 25.8%, according to LAPD data released by the mayor’s office.

The downturn was short-lived. By Aug. 1, the year-over-year decrease was just 8%, and violent crime was only 6.9% below 2019 levels. Further, homicides in 2020 were outpacing the previous year’s tally.

WHEN IT CAME TIME TO STAND UP the new LAPD bureau, Moore went back to the CSP program’s roots, put Emada Tingirides in charge and promoted her to deputy chief. Tingirides said the CSP Bureau will operate at the 10 current CSP sites, with 10 officers and one sergeant deployed to each location. In the future, she said, the operation will expand.

“What we want to do now is address those 45 recommendations, ensure that our training is completed, that our mission and vision of the bureau is set up,” she said in an interview.

No one expects the new bureau to improve policing overnight. Tingirides emphasizes that the LAPD must understand how it has been viewed historically in some predominantly Black and Latina/o communities. Leap and Rice call this a “truth and reconciliation” process that could include apologizing for the department’s past and seeking forgiveness as it strives to forge stronger neighborhood partnerships.

Then there is the police side of the equation: While some cops may buy into the CSP vision, the outlook of others is rooted in a more archaic system. “This is tectonic change,” Rice said. “To go from gladiator to guardian, you’re really rewiring the DNA of how cops think and how they see their jobs.”

One advantage, Tingirides said, is that with CSP in existence for a decade, the LAPD does not have to create a new community-policing program. Leap’s evaluation is more of a repair manual than an instruction book for building something from scratch.

Tingirides does not pretend that the repairs will be quick or easy. When a new CSP Bureau site opens, for example, it will require a year of community assessment, preparation and officer training.

But she knows where the work must begin — in the communities that are served by the LAPD. “I think the most important thing is the community,” Tingirides said. People must become “aware that this program is meant to be the community working alongside the police to make change, and that we both want the same things.”

And then the police and communities must ask: “How do we get there together?”

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Jon Regardie

Jon Regardie spent 15 years as editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News. He is now a freelance writer contributing to Los Angeles Magazine and other publications. jregardie@gmail.com

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