Dialogue Helps LA Residents, Police Build Bridges

January 16,2015

LOS ANGELES— Tensions have flared between police and African Americans around the United States, after a series of confrontations and controversial shootings of young black men. But some police departments are working to build bridges. In South Los Angeles, community leaders say the effort is helping in one neighborhood with a history of violence.

Captain Phillip Tingirides is responding to a call from a woman assaulted by her boyfriend.

The information is sketchy, but police locate the site, question the victim and later apprehend the suspect.

Just days ago, a young man was shot and killed after a confrontation with gang members in a nearby parking lot.

“Somebody came in here from that gang and just arbitrarily starting shooting people,” said Tingirides.

Candles mark a street-side memorial for one of two women recently murdered, whose bodies were left burning on the street. It happened around the corner from a road grimly called Death Alley.

Violent crime in Los Angeles has risen for the first time in a decade. But the murder rate has dropped dramatically from levels 20 years ago, partly because of outreach by police. Outreach has included activities like mentoring kids and coaching their football teams.

“It gave our officers -- who really only responded to bad situations where we get called and they see the worst part of people at their worst moment -- [a chance] to see a different side of the community,” said Tingirides.

Problems are longstanding between this minority community and police. The streets of South Los Angeles erupted in violence in the Watts Riots of 1965, and again in 1992, both times in protest over treatment of black men by police.

Weekly meetings of the Watts Gang Task Force bring together local leaders and police for regular dialogue. Every day, special police units patrol public housing projects as part of a community safety partnership. Police sergeant Emada Tingirides, the wife of Captain Tingirides, coordinates the program. She is black and he is white, and the biracial couple is well known to residents.

Emada Tingirides said relations have improved here in her 20 years with the department.

“There were times when you could only go into the public housing developments with a minimum of four officers, because officers were shot at. We were constantly going back and forth violently with the community,” she recalled.

The housing projects are also safer because of help from activists like Cynthia Mendenhall. A gang member in her youth, she later lost two sons to the violence.

“If you do not have people like us in place all over the United States - New York, Chicago, Detroit, wherever [there are] these police shootings, in front of the people, in between the police department, it will never work,” said Mendenhall.

A controversial shooting in August angered residents. Los Angeles police shot Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, and they later said he had tried to wrestle a gun from one of the officers. The family disputes the account and the investigation continues.

But most in the community refuse to turn to violence, said Perry Crouch of the Watts Gang Task Force. He looks to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. for inspiration.

“That was not his dream. His dream was to snatch down the walls of racism and prejudice, and we will all bind together as God's children,” said Crouch.

He said while the dream has not been realized in South Los Angeles, through dialogue, the goal is getting closer.