Police & Community Partnerships in L.A. Housing Projects

LA’s Community Safety Partnership has been covered by a variety of media outlets including NPR and The New York Times Magazine. I happened upon it while changing channels via a recent episode of the HBO program “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
One of the segments was on the Watts Bears kids football team. The Watts Bears youth football and track program is open to children living in the Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Jordan Down public housing developments.
Police athletic programs are nothing new. Many cities have such programs. But it turns out that the Watts Bears are just one component of the Community Safety Partnership developed by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and the Los Angeles Police Department.
In 2011, HACLA and the police department implemented a community-engaged policing strategy in four public housing communities in the Watts neighborhood: Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs, and Ramona Gardens. The Watts neighborhood has the greatest concentration of public housing in the city and each development had been marked by deep-rooted gang problems, drug sales, and crime. The point of the CSP was to try something different from brute force policing—the agency’s primary method before—instead focusing on rebuilding the relationship of the police department with the community, because ultimately the safest communities police themselves. Repositioning the relationship between the community and the police department and the role of each in public safety comes in part through youth participation on the football and track teams, and how that reconstructs relationships between police officers, children, and their families.
The articles and the HBO piece don’t fully explore the genesis of the program, which was spurred by the Advancement Project, a California based civil rights organization that considers community safety a fundamental civil role.
Constance Rice, the Advancement Project’s founder, has authored a book which outlines the organization’s approach to providing the means for all children to reach their potential, particularly in poor communities. The role of the Advancement Project in the creation of the Community Safety Partnership is described more fully in a USC masters thesis in journalism.
They pitched the idea of a safety partnership to the police department, and developed special training modules for participating police officers, totaling 50 hours of training time.
While the CSP doesn’t focus so much on arrests, police officers will do so depending on the circumstances. In the three years prior to the launch of CSP, there were an average of 23 murders per year in the target area. Two years after the program started, there were zero. In the third year, there were two murders, but the perpetrators were quickly apprehended within days, due in large part to information provided by the community.
Other programs are intertwined with the CSP. For example, the Mayor’s Gang Intervention and Youth Development office is a program participant, and sponsors a focused funding program targeting gangs. Another program supports extension of recreation center hours until midnight during the summer. A Girl Scout troop has been organized in Ramona Gardens, the Harold Robinson Foundation helps fund weekend youth camping trips, and an arrest diversion program, the Sunburst Youth Academy, helps youths develop better behaviors and avoid incarceration.
The Community Safety Partnership is an important example of how investment in the development of social and civic infrastructure within poor communities can have significant positive impact on residents, public safety, and community development, as opposed to the “lockdown” culture typical of a “warrior-focused” policing strategy.
The program is being evaluated this year, although it is expected that it will be renewed beyond the initial five year term; HACLA is also considering expanding the program to other properties.
(Photo credit: Flickr user Brandon Blanke, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Richard Layman
Richard Layman is currently Director of Business Development for BicyclePASS, a “bicycle facilities systems integration” startup firm focused on providing high quality support facilities for biking as transportation including parking, bicycle sharing, electric bikes and other programs. He is a revitalization advocate and consultant in Washington, DC, with experience in historic preservation, commercial district revitalization and transportation planning, and he blogs about various revitalization topics at “Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.”

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