As sunset approaches, a crowd amasses outside King Taco, a popular restaurant in the high-crime, densely populated Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. About 25 moms from the largely Latino neighborhood are there to greet Captain Jeff Bert of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division, maybe grab a bite, and then start walking. About a dozen of these ladies—deputized as “mamma captains”—are Captain Bert’s entrée to neighboring businesses and homes where residents are eager to talk about the gangs and violent crime that are crushing their sense of peace.
This occasional “walking the beat” event is part-listening tour, part-community policing. It grew out of the larger city-funded Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) program run by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. It offers counseling, mentoring, academic assistance, sports, as well as parent leadership classes, and “community mobilization.” To that end, starting in 2013, the hospital arranged for the group of monolingual Spanish-speaking Cypress Park moms to meet regularly with the Captain and he was pleased to accept their invitation.
“The parents requested this because they feel like they are disenfranchised. They feel intimidated and treated like they’re not important,” says Aida Cerda, director of youth violence and gang prevention at Children’s Hospital. The residents, many of them undocumented immigrants, tend to be wary of government officials. “When people trust gang members more than the police, that’s a problem. The captain says to them—you deserve people that care about you.”
Walk, Stop, Listen
The first stop Bert and his tour guides make is Michelle’s Party Supply store down the road from King Taco. “People say I shouldn’t be working here alone,” says Lesly Lopez, standing behind the counter of the tiny shop festooned with glittery merchandise. She says she called the police about a suspicious person and they didn’t respond for an hour. “It’s kind of scary to think that a pizza delivery person gets here faster than a cop.” Her grievance was noted.
The group pushes on, stopping at the library, a community refuge of sorts, to hear the latest from the librarian. Then they walk up the road a few blocks to pay Carina Pena a visit. Pena’s children are giggling and playing outside and the crew of visitors quietly crowds into her well-kept house to listen as Pena relates her fears to the plain-clothed Captain.
“I often go out in the evenings and I see a lot of graffiti and across the street, I saw a boy who looks like a gangster and he was whistling like giving a sign to someone down the street and those are the things that worry me,” Pena says. The captain nods and first tells her the facts—that Cypress Park is not the biggest gang (there are about 80 active gang members) but “it’s a very violent gang.” They’ve shot people, robbed people, and dealt drugs, he says.
“So, I understand your fear and I promise you I’ll put more police officers on this street at nighttime,” he says, “but also, if you see something, you can come inside and call from the safety of your house and say that some gang members are tagging and we will come.”
Street by Street
Community-oriented policing strategies, in which citizens help design, implement and evaluate law-enforcement programs, were the subject of a recent report by the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The meta-analysis of law enforcement practices such as community partnerships, organizational transformation of the police and problem-solving activities, yielded ambiguous results: community-oriented policing is associated with between 5 percent and 10 percent greater odds of a decrease in crime, or it could have no effect on crime at all.
But the California Cities Gang Prevention Network—Los Angeles is one of the 13 participating members—says the best anti-gang practices weave together enforcement, intervention, collaboration, and a community’s “moral voice.” That’s the philosophy behind California Gang Reduction Intervention and Prevention program (CalGRIP), which has provided grants to cities, including L.A., for everything from job training to re-entry services, the most successful efforts of which draw on active, local community support.
From his vantage point of pounding the pavement with two-dozen neighborhood leaders paving the way, Captain Bert is confident about making a mark. He says successes are sown street-by-street, but also in monthly neighborhood meetings where problems are hashed out. That, he says, allows him to identify where he needs to deploy additional officers. He’s planning to add more foot patrols and bike patrols in the area. According to his office, in the first three months of 2015, there were five gang-related crimes in Cypress Park, including four aggravated assaults. That’s down compared to the same period last year, where there were seven gang-related crimes in Cypress Park, including three aggravated assaults.
As he walks this pre-arranged beat, Bert knows he could confront the attitude that law enforcement officers are menaces themselves due to a string of highly publicized police shootings. “These moms, all they wanted to do was spread the word that the police are here to help,” he says, “To me that has been the greatest gift of all this.”
Arlene Schneir, Associate Director, Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says there’s a big payoff in putting in the time. “It’s a lot of slow work in the beginning and then it hits critical mass,” she says. “If a captain goes to the neighborhood to listen, that’s powerful. Kids grow up with different attitudes when they see police are on their side.”