Police refine tactics against South LA gangs


LOS ANGELES - Chastened by a history of aggressive tactics backfiring, Los Angeles police are trying a softer, more sophisticated approach in their latest efforts to crack down on gang-related street violence.

They are being more careful about whom they go after, they say, and more mindful of how they are perceived. "The same old stuff with a different twist," said Cmdr. Richard Roupoli of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau.

The aim is to resolve an old dilemma for the department: how to crack down on wrongdoers in South Los Angeles without stoking old resentments against police.

As Police Chief William J. Bratton rolls out new programs designed to suppress violence in time for the summer's hottest months, he says people should notice a change: Police are trying to usher in what Roupoli calls a "surgical and strategic" approach.

But community reaction after recent LAPD anti-gang operations suggests that the police face a tough and delicate challenge if they want to avoid further alienating an already skeptical and often frustrated community.

"They took a lot of people to jail for nothing," said Jerry Lockhart, 29 and unemployed, as he sat on a porch near where one of the operations was conducted.

"I understand they need to protect the community," Lockhart said. "But help us when we need it. Don't just mess with folks. It causes confusion."

Most of those arrested in the raid were black men, he noted. It cemented his view that the LAPD harasses black men like himself on weak pretexts even as it fails to protect them from violence.

The operation Lockhart had watched was an example of what department officials say is their new way of doing business. It consisted of a series of raids by local police and federal agents that resulted in 67 arrests at targeted locations in South Los Angeles.

Police contend that such operations show how far they have come since grimmer days in South Los Angeles when aggressive policing and racial strife seemed locked in an endless feedback loop.

Rather than saturate neighborhoods with police to intimidate gangs - tactics that once earned the LAPD a reputation for indiscriminate harassment and the moniker of an occupying army - officers tried to tread lightly this time.

They carried warrants - zeroing in on only a few individuals rather than conducting mass sweeps - and tried to show more consideration for law-abiding residents. They tried to do more explaining and display more courtesy.

The strategy resulted in some unusual scenes: A few feet from where agents and officers were breaking down doors, their colleagues were handing out apologetic letters to rattled neighbors, and local ministers were standing by to bear witness, invited by police.

Meanwhile, back at the station, community relations officers were hurriedly calling their acquaintances among locals to give them the inside scoop - a measure aimed at quelling rumors. And after suspects were taken away in handcuffs, onlookers were invited to a meeting to talk it over.

"There is nothing new under the sun with respect to police work. But you can package it and sell it differently," Roupoli said. "We want the community to have a comfort level with what we are doing."

The LAPD, sheriff's deputies and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration took part in a raid south of downtown last month. Besides the arrests, drugs, cash and more than two dozen guns were seized.

The operation was touted as a measure to contain violence. But most of the suspects were arrested on drug charges, largely possession and sale of controlled substances.

Some were parolees who were searched and booked. Others were taken into custody on outstanding warrants and weapons violations. No homicide suspects were arrested.

But Roupoli and other LAPD officials seemed eager to offer reporters not just the usual array of guns and drugs at the customary news conference when the operation was over. They also offered stories of residents giving raiding officers thumbs-up signs and whispered thanks.

LAPD South Bureau Chief Earl Paysinger said a key measure of success was that police have so far not received any formal complaints - a sharp contrast to years past. It's a sign that the new approach worked, that the sweeps would help to enlist a reluctant public in the effort to fight gang crime, Paysinger said.

However, in interviews with housing project residents after recent raids, ambivalence over the police actions was widespread.

Such minority communities - particularly black areas, where homicide rates are highest - have a history of poor relations with the LAPD. Police face a constant challenge in trying to convince residents to step forward as witnesses when serious crimes occur, so they often lack sufficient evidence to arrest the perpetrators.

Police behavior in the past has not helped to build trust, department officials acknowledge.

The new way, Bratton said, is for anti-gang tactics to be more focused. "We are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past and line up every black and Latino kid against a wall just because they are dressed like a gang member," he said.

The chief has repeated this vow in South Los Angeles appearances as he has announced other anti-gang measures.

But if the raids offered a test case, results were mixed.

Some people said they were reluctant to speak about their thoughts as they glanced about to see who was standing nearby. But a few praised the surgical approach. "They know who to look for and who not to," said Venetia Burton, 44, a mother of six who lives in the Jordan Downs housing project.

Many other residents said they viewed the raids as excessively forceful, and they were quick to point out that those arrested had committed only minor crimes or offenses they considered victimless - not serious assaults and murder.

Among them, one message was echoed repeatedly: Save aggressive police tactics for crimes that leave people dead and injured.

"They just come in and point guns and violate people's rights," said Tyreea Perkins - 10 years old - summing up her impressions as she watched a raid at Jordan Downs.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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