The overall Los Angeles crime rate is increasing for the first time in more than a decade and Police Chief Charlie Beck is searching for a way to change that.
Increase in Crime Rate
Across Los Angeles, violent crime is up 26% and property crime is up 11%. Though homicides are slightly down, the number of shooting victims is up 24% compared to the same period in 2014. To deal with the increase, Beck is taking significant steps.
His goal is to increase the numbers of elite Metropolitan police in high-crime neighborhoods. The city’s current policy has been one of building relationships with these communities. But critics of the plan feel the influx of more than 200 highly trained Metro officers will offset this balance and undermine the years of progress the department has made by using beat cops to patrol neighborhoods. Metro officers are known more for their training in weapons and specialized tactics rather than their skills for building relationships with residents.
Given the rising crime numbers, experts feel the LAPD has little choice. Something has to be changed.
According to Beck, the new crime-fighting strategy will be data-driven. Deployments of police will be based in part on the crime pattern algorithms known as “predictive policing.” The key is to show strength without alienating residents.
“They’ve got to do a dual attack,” says Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of South Carolina. “Sometimes that requires going in and dealing with the criminal element.”
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff acknowledged the change in approach is not ideal, but given the deteriorating situation in some areas, something needs to be done.
“It’s necessary, and I’m really sorry that it is,” Soboroff said. “It is a reaction to a rise in crime.”
If crime begins to fall, “I’d be the first one to stand up there and say, ‘This isn’t necessary anymore,'” he said.
Mayor Garcetti’s State of the City
The change in LAPD’s approach was announced by Mayor Eric Garcetti in his State of the City address. His words sparked debate both inside and outside the LAPD. Critics of the new plan worry how the increased deployment of Metro officers will be perceived, especially in the wake of recent high-profile police shootings of black men both in Los Angeles and elsewhere like Ferguson, Missouri and South Carolina. In these instances, numerous protesters took to the streets to speak out against increased police brutality.
Connie Rice, a longtime civil rights lawyer who has worked with the LAPD on determining community policing strategies, praised Beck for embracing “relationship-based policing.” According to Rice, under that approach, officers “consider it a failure when they make an arrest.”
She questioned if Metro cops would have the same mindset towards policing.
“The Metro officers are a super paramilitary version of policing. They are not the cops who have relationships and know the communities,” Rice said. “They tend to be very aggressive, historically. They don’t get to know a community…. They don’t get to know the people they police or, for that matter, the local officers.”
History of Policing
“Paramilitary” policing and the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams remains a sensitive topic. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the LAPD under then-chief Daryl Gates was the subject of criticism for its use of military-style vehicles and organizing massive “gang sweeps” in South Los Angeles. These gang sweeps often resulted in hundreds of arrests on a given night.
Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the LAPD sought to end these paramilitary tactics in favor of a more cooperative approach with community groups.
Not Following in Footsteps
In a recent interview, Beck said the new initiative will not follow hard-charging Metro operations of the past. According to him, this incoming crop of Metro officers will have a more progressive training that more in-line with the current approach cops are taking in the neighborhoods.
“I don’t think they’re going to carry the same general philosophy that Connie associates with 1980s Metro,” he said.
Soboroff agreed: “They are not Ferguson-like. They are not South Carolina-like. Our training — sensitivity training, use of force training — is off the charts. I would be concerned if that was not the case.”
Under the new plan, Metro officers will not be entering neighborhoods plans of increasing arrests, LAPD officials said. Rather, their increased presence in local neighborhoods is designed to send a message that the LAPD is nearby and ready to respond if necessary. Their efforts will focus mainly on violent and gang-related crime.
The term “gang-related” can have varying meanings and has for a long time been regarded as controversial. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department use a member-based approach that classifies a homicide as “gang-related” if the victim or the assailant is known to be a gang member.
And according to Lt. John Tippet of the LAPD’s South Bureau, crime can be classified as gang-related if it occurs in a neighborhood where there’s an ongoing rivalry. Forty percent of the homicides in the city occur in the South Bureau.
According to the National Gang Center, a project funded by the U.S. Justice Department and the Bureau of Justice Assistance that studies gang activity there are two common definitions for “gang-related.” One is the member-based approach. Another less common approach considers whether the crime was committed in order to benefit a gang.
The National Gang Center has found while cities across the U.S. are experiencing some of their lowest numbers of homicides in decades, the percentage of homicides that are classified as “gang-related” remains unchanged. In some cities it has risen. Still, as the center notes, firm national statistics based on a single definition are nonexistent.
In Los Angeles areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department, 60% of homicides in 2014 were gang-related, down from 69% from last year.
So why the controversy over the term “gang-related”? A longtime gang-intervention worker said the controversy stems from that fact that in some communities, you can be seen and classified as a gang member for simply living in the neighborhood.
Ben “Taco” Owens said not all crimes involving a gang member — a fatal robbery, for example — should be classified as “gang-related.” He feels the classification is overused.”Every drive-by shooting isn’t a gang-related drive-by,” he said.
Though Wes McBride, the executive director of the California Gang Investigator’s Assn., acknowledged the term’s controversial nature due to political and philosophical differences, he went on to say “it’s better to count it.”
“If gang members weren’t gang members, chances are they wouldn’t be doing that crime,” he said.
Even though homicide numbers are down locally, McBride said, “gangsters still fight.”
“They still kill more than any other identified entity in the nation,” he said.
Chief Beck’s approach will look at integrating the Metro officers into the communities. Metro officers will be assigned to one of the LAPD’s four geographic bureaus so they will get to know the communities they police, Beck said.
“These are the same cops that were patrolling neighborhoods before. They’re just given a slightly different mission,” Beck said. “I’m not hiring mercenaries from outside the Police Department. I’m changing the mission of the good cops that we have.”
The LAPD also has plans to create a Community Relations Division that will help the city expand its efforts to reach local youth through Girl Scout programs, sports, scholarships, and providing basic needs like vision care. “The department is going to focus on building relationships as we move forward,” Beck said.
In his State of the City address, Garcetti sought to ease concerns about what the new deployment of Metro officers would mean for residents in high-crime areas.
“I want to be very clear: Having more police officers there is not about having a greater presence in terms of an occupying force,” Garcetti said. “This is about making sure that we have cops that we know, and that can immediately make a crime spike not become a crime wave.”
Metro officers have already been in the practice of responding to crime hot spots in a more limited way. For example, when Chief William J. Bratton arrived in 2002, he sent Metro forces to South L.A. to combat a homicide epidemic. This “new” approach is actually something that has been done numerous times in the past.
But perhaps there is something warranted in the fears of critics of the approach. In 2007, Metro officers swung batons and fired dozens of rubber bullets at a May Day immigration protest in MacArthur Park. The actions injured hundreds in what the department admitted was a breakdown of Metro officers’ discipline.
Following that incident, Metro has shrunk to about 200 officers from a high of 350. This addition of 200 officers from elsewhere within the LAPD will mean the division size will double.
In light of the recent protests over policing nationwide, Alpert agrees there are risks that come from deploying more specially trained officers to city streets. These risks are especially true in Los Angeles, given the troubled history of the LAPD and the changes it made under federal oversight following the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s.
“L.A.’s the epicenter,” he said. ” Everybody looks at L.A. because of what’s happened since the consent decree. L.A. has done a good job, but it seems to be slipping back a little bit.”
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