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Life at Ground Zero

L.A.’s Police Chief Bill Bratton unveiled the first stage of what he promises will be a complete restructuring of the way the department deals with gang-related crime. “When I came to this department, it was totally out of the game when it came to dealing with gangs,” said Bratton when he formally announced the plan last week. “Well, today marks us getting back into the field. We‘re at the 1 yard line with 100 yards to go. It will not be easy. There are only 9,200 of us. But we’re going to build trust, we‘re going to build compassion, and we’re going to build relationships.”

Of course, the LAPD has been trotting out gang plans since the late 1970s when Daryl Gates formed CRASH, followed in the late ‘80s by his 1,000-officer-strong Operation Hammer, under which gang members were rounded up en masse. Hammer succeeded in alienating residents of the city’s poorer communities -- as they watched every kid in the neighborhood wearing baggy pants or a Raiders jacket regularly thrown up against walls -- but produced few prosecutable arrests. Meanwhile, gangs and gang violence proliferated. Other gang initiatives included the 1993 plan, originated under then--Police Chief Willie Williams, involving a partnership with the FBI‘s Violent Gang Unit. This strategy was at its most aggressive in 1995, when an 800-member FBILAPD team executed the largest raid in department history, resulting in 83 arrests, but only one actual charge for a violent felony.

Bratton announced his gang plan at the Crenshaw Christian Center, a large pristine, gated complex in the area policed by the 77th Division of the department’s crime-heavy South Bureau. Historically, gang crimes tend to ebb and flow between the poorest areas of East L.A. and the poorest areas of South Los Angeles. In recent months, South Bureau in general, and the 77th Division in particular, have been ground zero for gang murders. In fact, last year, out of all 658 homicides that occurred in the city of Los Angeles, nearly one in six occurred in the 77th.

The knot of officers from the 77th that had gathered at the back of the room as Bratton took the podium admitted they knew little about what to expect from this latest strategy. Nonetheless, in the past few weeks the mood of the rank and file has gone from a wait-and-see attitude about the new chief to a mood of hopeful expectancy. “Bratton put on the LAPD uniform the very first day,” said a senior lead officer. “Willie Williams never wore the uniform.” “And he likes cops,” added another. “Our last chief didn‘t like anybody but himself.”

Mayor James Hahn spoke first and said the gang strategy has two parts: a plan for a partnership with the community, and a system for assigning resources. Versions of both components are being put into place first in South L.A., since right now it is there that the need is the greatest. Then, in coming weeks, the dual gang strategies will be reassessed as to which portions of them might be rolled out to the rest of the city.

Hahn introduced the community-partnership section of the model using upbeat buzz phrases like “ . . . holistic approach . . . community collaboration . . . reforming the internal culture . . . foundation of trust . . .”

All well and good. But what does it mean? In the bad old days of the LAPD, the police also claimed they were partnering with the community. However, the groups that the police sought out for its “partnerships” were of the Neighborhood Watch Committee ilk -- factions that by their nature were prone to cozy relationships with law enforcement, but operated nowhere near the heart of community life. Grassroots gang-intervention organizations -- the people who actually spoke to gang members on a daily basis -- were avoided as if plague-ridden. In fact, many officers openly characterized the very concept of gang intervention as a form of aiding and abetting criminal activity.

So what did Bratton intend to do that was different?

Two months ago, when meeting with community organizations on the gang issue, it was true that Bratton threw out a wider net than those of his predecessors. Still, he talked with mostly mainstream political powerhouses like the Reverend Cecil (Chip) Murray of the First AME Church and John Mack of the Urban League, but failed to seek out closer-to-the-ground groups that had real influence and credibility on the street. More recently, however, he and his deputy chiefs began to meet with the kind of experienced gang-intervention workers that the department had previously shunned. Bratton was also reportedly looking to the Valley Bureau as the model for the gang initiative he and Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann were in the midst of designing.

 

In the past year, the Valley’s two commanding officers, Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann and, under him, Commander Michael Moore, had been quietly pioneering what was far and away the department‘s most enlightened gang policy. Bergmann and Moore formed a working coalition made up of law enforcement and the heads of community-based organizations -- including such high-profile gang-intervention personalities as former kick boxer Blinky Rodriguez. In addition, they pulled in researchers at Cal State Northridge to help them map out how they might best use their overstretched resources. They attempted to differentiate between hardcore shooters and the gang members on the periphery who, with the right kind of help, might move toward a decent future. They also started work on a small pilot program to address California’s horrendous prisoner-recidivism problem, sending multidisciplinary teams to meet with gang members ready for parole in order to aid them with reentry to society. (California leads the nation with a staggering 71 percent recidivism rate, with each prisoner costing $26,690 per year to incarcerate. Budget crisis anyone?)

Bratton liked the Valley Bureau‘s innovations, and decided to use them as the basic template for his departmentwide initiative. It was a further sign of change that Bratton began to tone down his own rhetoric on the gang question. In fact, by the time of the Wednesday-morning gang press conference, Bratton had stopped lumping all gang members together under one banner of criminality. Instead, he says that the department intends to use its resources to target only those responsible for committing violent crimes. “We’re talking about a core group of, say, 400 or 500 people,” he said. The rest of the “kids need to be given alternatives. We have to give them activities and good schools. We have to find them jobs.”

Alternatives notwithstanding, Bratton is clear about the fact he wants aggressive enforcement -- which brought him to the second part of the gang plan: deployment. Of all the dilemmas that face Bratton, deployment is one of the thorniest because of one simple fact: The LAPD doesn‘t have enough officers to adequately police Los Angeles. This is particularly true in areas like South Bureau, which has lost an incredible 106 officers since 2001. “What that means in practical terms,” said an officer from nearby Newton Division, which has seen similar losses, “is that on a Saturday night when we’re supposed to have five black-and-whites out there patrolling, we‘ll be lucky if we’ve got two.”

To remedy this, Bratton and his recently appointed gang czar, Hillmann, have worked out a system that they hope will make the best and smartest use of the troops they‘ve got, which means the department’s special units like Metro, the motor task force, narcotics and other enforcement groups that can be pumped into any area of the city as needed.

Yet unlike with Daryl Gates‘ Hammer or Willie Williams’ FBILAPD hybrid, Bratton still maintains there will be no flooding of the streets with cops. Instead, he says, crime stats and gang intelligence will be analyzed on a day-to-day basis, then decisions will be made as to “long- and short-term strategies” for deployment.

The newly formed cadre of officers who decide where and when the various units are deployed is housed in a one-room command center at the back of the South Bureau Traffic Division located in the interior of the Crenshaw shopping mall, right next to Sears. The room is crammed with 15 or 20 desks and a big pin board in one corner of the space on which the 11 homicides that have occurred since the beginning of 2003 are marked with numbers.

Like the police at the 77th, the officers who staff the room seem unsure about the details of the plan, yet are optimistic. “Now that things are starting to happen,” said one detective, “it‘s like Christmas. And we’re the little kids who can‘t wait to open up the packages. We’re almost overanxious. In the last month,” the detective continued, “several cops I know made suggestions to their commanding officers, and the next day they got calls from deputy chiefs at home, wanting to know about their ideas.” He paused. “Has anything like that ever happened before in this department? Absolutely never.”

It seems clear that Bratton wants something new, a point he expresses to the troops as well as the media. When he spoke at a recent roll call at the Central Division, he likened the conditions at the LAPD to the movie The Perfect Storm.

“It‘s my feeling that there’s a unique convergence of forces this year in Los Angeles,” Bratton said. “There‘s an opportunity to build a foundation of trust between the police, the union, city government, the community -- and even the media. There’s a unique opportunity to build bridges based on trust.”

 

Yet, how far away Bratton‘s vision may still be was demonstrated by a rumor making the rounds at the Valley Bureau where, in three incidents in the last two weeks, gang members were reportedly detained by officers but not arrested. Instead, the homeboys were allegedly driven into enemy gang territory and forced to exit the police cars.

Commander Moore learned of these incidents last week at the gang press conference, and was dismayed by the news. “If that’s really true, it‘s not only criminal, it’s incredibly damaging given the history of where this department has recently been. I came from Rampart, and we dealt with several cases of this sort. So I take this really seriously. But I can‘t do anything unless I get specifics. Then I’m going to investigate. These things all come down from leadership. If we want to capture the hearts and souls of all of our officers, leadership has to set the tone. I know it, and I believe Chief Bratton knows it.”

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