A Few Thoughts About Community Building


I live in Los Angeles, possibly the most racially diverse city on the planet.  At my local Starbucks, more people natively speak Mandarin, Japanese or Korean than English.  Voting instructions here are given in ten different languages.  I am certainly not  the most qualified person to discuss community building or racial issues in this City, but it is something I pay attention to and have opinions about. 

I mostly care that police officers in this City and County–all large cities and counties–get as much support as possible from their departments in dealing with these difficult issues.  As budgets are cut in many other governmental agencies, street officers are fast becoming the glue that holds things together for everyone else in the large cities of America.  

Wealthier citizens want safe streets and stronger communities, but seem largely disconnected from the process of how that happens, in real life.  City leaders demand an emphasis in both safety and human rights–at the same time.  And so this incredibly difficult balancing act largely falls to command staff and street officers.  This means community building on the streets.  From what I have seen from the best street officers, this means a finely-tuned balance of command presence, respect for others, tactical skills and good judgment.  

Undoubtedly, it takes real work to develop these skills, and genuine support from command staff to encourage and allow development of these skills.  

In Los Angeles “ground zero” for addressing the challenges of community building is, and always has been, the neighborhoods of South Central.  At its core, community building here involves racial issues.  Use-of-force scenarios that break out here are likely to include a racial component.

South Central

The Watts Riots in 1965 started here and the Rodney King Riots of 1992 started here.  Neighborhoods turned from white to black in the 1960′s, and have since turned from black to immigrant Hispanic in recent years.  An uneasy truce usually prevails, but not always.  Money is tight for everyone.  The taco stands are not as busy at the end of the month–after all, customers have rent to pay.

On Florence Avenue, a Mexican nightclub, El Tiburon, sits on one side of the street; an African-American liquor store, Florence Liquor Store,  is just across the street.  I have only seen one black person enter El Tiburon—a man who helps clean the place.  Only rarely do Mexicans cross the street to buy something at Florence Liquor.  In numerous visits to the area, I have never seen another Caucasian (or Asian) face—except, of course, among the dedicated men and women of LAPD who hold South Central together (sometimes just barely so).

The Rules of South Central

I have made friends with an aging African American gentleman on Florence Avenue named Leslie. Leslie was one of the original members of the Los Angeles “Crip” gang–and has lived to tell about it.  At age 62, Leslie has been in and out of jail much of his life.  He gets by these days by cleaning several stores on and around Florence Avenue (including El Tiburon) and trying to keep people on the street from arguing too much.  Twenty years ago, he had a ringside seat to the Rodney King Riots, which had started just 2 blocks from El Tiburon and Florence Liquor.

Leslie explained his view of race relations in a very straightforward manner.  He said this: “if your clients [Mexicans] have trouble in this neighborhood, they cannot shoot a black man.  A Mexican can’t shoot a black man.  If you have trouble with blacks, come and see me and I will have it taken care of.”  I am not entirely sure what that meant, but Leslie’s sentiment is, undoubtedly, common in South Central Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

The 2010 Rampart Shooting

A similar dynamic was expressed in a Rampart-area shooting in Los Angeles 2 years ago–but this time based on class and country of origin, not just race.  A Mexican-American LAPD officer shot and killed a Central American illegal immigrant during a charging knife attack by the immigrant.  The officer was 100% vindicated by the LAPD review board and, in a later federal lawsuit, was also 100% vindicated by a Los Angeles jury.

But the Rampart Area is home to a large Central American population, and this factor created a stir in the local Central American population at the time of the shooting.  Even though LAPD officers on the scene were fluent in Spanish, the “locals” (Central Americans) could, and did, tell the Mexican-American police officers apart from the local Central American immigrants.

Similar stories can be told throughout Los Angeles—as well as in the neighborhoods of New York.

Can We Honestly Discuss Differences in Race and Culture?

As an adoptive Angelino, I see racial and cultural issues play out every day in politics and on the street.  In truth, this diversity is one of the main reasons I stay in Los Angeles and love the city, in spite of its obvious flaws. 

But as a Caucasian man raised in the rural community of Ephraim, Utah, I have often wondered why racism can seem so divisive in big cities–unnecessarily so, in my opinion. 

My small community was the Mormon version of TV’s Mayberry RFD—complete with a small town sheriff who usually didn’t wear a gun.  The only black men I ever saw growing up were athletes at our local junior college.  The first Asians I ever met were at the age of 19 when the Mormon Church sent me to Hokkaido, Japan for two years.  (I have since been baptized Catholic, but that is a different story.)  And yet no one I knew growing up seemed to be racist.

Say what you want about the “Red” State of Utah but, in my experience, most people were quite open to discussing racial and cultural issues.  However, in my experiences in other parts of the country—particularly the “Blue” State of California—it seems that racial issues are “papered over” and rarely discussed as honestly.  Racial differences in Los Angeles, and other cities, are very real.  But these concerns seem to be addressed through artificial quotas, studies and directives, rather than through honest discussion and problem-solving. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the goal of many “official” discussions about racism is to show why it no longer exists, rather than discuss the obvious fact that racial and cultural differences change constantly–and should therefore be addressed in a constant process of awareness and change.  As Bill W. taught the world, the first step to fixing any problem is to acknowledge that a problem exists. 

In a provocative book titled, Are We Born Racist, Susan Fiske suggests that everyone harbors biases–more than we think.  Ms. Fisk says:

“As memberes of a society  with Egalitarian ideals, most Americans have good intentions.  But new research suggests our brains and our impulses all too often betray us.  That’s the ‘bad news.’”

“But here’s the good news: research shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and societal circumstances.  While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamiliar to us, it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce thse prejedices.  Doing so requires more than just individual intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge sterotypes and get people to work together across group lines.”

The Sage of South Central

One of my favorite talk show hosts, Larry Elder, constantly reinforces this point during daily radio shows on KABC.  Mr. Elder, a true African-American success story, shares secrets he says are well-known in the black community–that blacks are often as racist as anyone else.  Mr. Elder does a remarkable job of discussing race relations as openly and honestly as possible, and encouraging blacks to achieve their life dreams, free from their own perceptions that often get in the way.  

In my view, we would all do well to join Mr. Elder in this discussion as openly as he approaches it.

In Los Angeles it seems easier to pretend that every racial problem either was fixed with the passing of the  Chief Gates Era, or will be  fixed with adoption of a new Chief Beck-sponsored outreach program. 

But, in my view, community building will always start at the street level where officers interact with citizens.  Community building isn’t as much an outreach program as a way of life. 

Community Building vs. Opportunism

If racial and cultural differences are not addressed by a sincere commitment to community-building, they will be—and are—addressed by opportunistic lawyers who lie in wait to file a lawsuit over each and every use-of-force that occurs on the streets.  One Los Angeles lawyer in particular is adept in use-of-force opportunism, filing 146 different Fourth Amendment lawsuits against Southern California police departments for money damages in the past 8 years.

This particular attorney has significant trial skills and jury appeal, and seems like a genuinely nice guy.  I met him at the Rampart shooting trial referenced above.  But based in large part on lawyering skills of LA City Attorney Denise Mills and the persuasive testimony of expert witness Scott Reitz, the jury in that particular case ruled in favor of the LAPD officer, no cause of action. 

Undeterred, this attorney took a different case to trial against LAPD just six weeks later. This time he hit the jackpot—a $5.7 million judgment; even though his client in the case was a known gang member who pleaded “no contest” to attempted murder for being part of a drive-by shooting that occurred just before he was shot by police.  (Inexplicably, this evidence was kept from the jury and a police tactics expert was apparently not allowed to testify.)  This verdict was on top of other large judgments by the lawyer against other So. Cal police agencies this year that total around $20 million. In fact, the City of San Bernardino recently filed bankruptcy to avoid large judgments achieved against that city by this one attorney.

But in a larger sense, is it a lawyer’s fault for gaming the system on behalf of his clients?  No, not really.  This is how the American justice system works when community-building breaks down.  In Los Angeles, to be sure, community-building seems very daunting in size and complexity. But it starts on the streets, and skilled street officers are doing it every day of the week.

But Can Lawsuits Really be Avoided?

Can some of these lawsuits be avoided through a more honest and open approach?  Yes, I actually think so.  Of course, police departments will always be targets for litigation.  But so are many other sectors of society, such as doctors and lawyers. Here is a secret that every lawyer and physician knows: that good client communication avoids lawsuits, while bad client communication invites lawsuits.  Those who communicate honestly with their clients and try to make things right, as much as possible and as soon as possible, are far less likely to be sued for professional negligence than those who don’t.  Every lawyer knows; every physician knows this; every person in business in any walk of life knows this. 

So is there some way to decrease lawsuits arising from use-of-force before large judgments become too much for communities to bear–as in San Bernardino?

It Starts with Supporting Street Officers

Many people have opinions about how to address racial issues and emphasize better community building in large cities—here are mine:

First: Command Staff should give unqualified support to street officers.  Street officers are the face of every department and are the people actually deploying force.  These are the men and women who actually interact with people on the street each and every day and do the hard work of community building.  

To do the best job possible for the people of their cities, these officers need to know their jobs and departmental opportunities are safe and secure unless they do something really egregious or stupid. 

Officers who need more training should receive it, rather than automatic discipline or career-ending threats.

Second: Departments should give better training to street officers.  How does it make sense to pay tens of millions of dollars to plaintiffs’ lawyers while failing to give street officers the best training available?  It doesn’t make sense, of course.  Better weapons and tactics training inevitably creates better decisions in use of force, fewer lawsuits and fewer verdicts.  Put another way, the more confident an officer is in his or her tactical skills, the more he or she can allow a confrontation to degrade before taking action.  This is better for everyone involved–but only happens when officers have to-level training.

When training is emphasized as a departmental corrective tool, everyone benefits, at a much lower overall cost.  When lawsuits are the de facto departmental corrective tool, the only people that benefit are plaintiff lawyers and their individual clients.  The overall cost to taxpayers is also, almost certainly, much higher.

Third: Honest communication should be encouraged and rewarded. 

Employees who are always afraid of being punished, fired or sued are less likely to communicate openly and honestly than people who have support of their bosses.  The more CYA becomes necessary, the less likely communication occurs and the less likely problems are to be addressed and solved.  Dr. Phil tells that to America each and every day on his TV show.  Relationships at every level work better when communication is open and honest—period.

Yes, these things are easy to say and more difficult to achieve, but stronger support of officers, better training and education and emphasis on sincere communication at the street level may go a long way toward better community-building, safer cities and fewer lawsuits.  But as Scotty Reitz likes to say after a hard day of range training: “If this were easy, I’d be teaching girlscouts.”



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