Second in a two-part series. Read part one.
The hardscrabble working-class Bay Area city of Richmond has an ugly history of violence — so ugly that a state senator once compared it to Iraq.
In 1990, during the peak of the nation’s crack epidemic, the city, which at the time had 86,000 residents, recorded 62 homicides. In 2007 — during a period of generally falling crime rates nationwide — Richmond still notched 47 killings.
Desperate to quell the violence, city leaders hired a new police chief and turned to a concept called community-oriented policing. When he arrived, Chief Chris Magnus’ first job was the daunting task of reengineering the department’s tough-guy culture.
“When the officers were dealing with the gang members, it was basically we’re tougher than you,” Captain Mark Gegan said about the department’s previous attitude. “It was a very occupational force.”
That changed under Magnus.
He started by awarding promotions based on how well an officer commits to community engagement, not on how many bad guys they bust. Officers started walking the beat, and the ability for senior officers to choose quiet beats was taken away. The idea was to turn the community from an adversary into a partner.
It was a difficult transition, and, according to Gegan, required a police chief willing to stand up to the police union and the status quo.
The early results have been clear. Last year, there were 11 reported homicides — the lowest since at least 1971, according to a list in the Contra Costa Times.
The apparent success in Richmond comes as the Santa Ana Police Department is considering an overhaul of its own community oriented policing model. The Santa Ana City Council is expected next month to contract with an academic consultant to conduct a survey studying what residents expect from community policing.
And Santa Ana’s actions come as deteriorating police-resident relations has become a nationwide issue in the wake of riots last year following high-profile officer-involved brutality in Ferguson Mo, and Baltimore.
In June, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced a major initiative to assign hundreds of police officers to neighborhoods. The officers won’t be responding to 911 calls and will instead focus on addressing neighborhood issues. New York calls it “neighborhood policing.”
Closer to Santa Ana, the Los Angeles Police Department is placing renewed emphasis on the idea and just last month opened its new Community Relationship Division. Commander Ruby F. Malachi, head of the division, said Los Angeles has always done community policing but that the new effort includes a significant increase in the number of foot patrols throughout the city.
Malachi described the foot patrols as “critical” to community policing. They allow officers to be there for “non-enforcement” encounters, for “the good times and the bad times.” It can even mean an officer joining a neighborhood basketball game or helping a single mother put on her son’s tie.
The main idea, similar to what happened in Richmond, is to get officers to change their mindset from “warrior” mindset to community “guardian.”
Malachi said there are creative ways for officers to get out on foot, like taking the bus or just taking a walk between calls. “You have to get out of the car. You have to get out of that barrier or that wall between us,” Malachi said.
The department also works with the Los Angeles mayor’s office to host “summer night lights” events in neighborhoods, including those that are under gang injunctions. The restrictions on gang members are relaxed during the events, which feature meals, sports and other activities.
The purpose of such initiatives, said Gegan of the Richmond Police Department, is to get everyone on the same team. If prostitution comes up as a neighborhood problem, Gegan says the police organize the community to help solve it.
Specifically, that means organizing residents to walk the neighborhood daily, logging the license plates of Johns, noting which street lights are out, and chatting up business owners. It means the police “empower the good people,” Gegan said.
And if there’s a park in Richmond with gang problems, residents have the opportunity to help redesign the park and work with city officials to clean it up — trimming the bushes and washing out the graffiti, Gegan said.
“What I’m talking about is so sort of easy to do,” he said. “If [residents] are involved in that process, and it has the same result, which is displacement of the problem… their appreciation [for the police] will be tenfold… it will be talked about for years like, ‘look at what we did.’”
The difference in attitude was probably best visualized when Magnus himself joined an anti-police brutality protest and held a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The gesture, unfathomable in most cities, made national headlines.
The department in Richmond has also taken advantage of a U.S. Department of Justice program, called “Operation Cease Fire” whereby youth considered likely to join a gang are given the opportunity to move to a new city where jobs and schooling are waiting for them.
While not all of them go for the offer, some do, Gegan said.
“Those most likely to offend, are focused on, very thoughtfully,” Gegan said. “We know you’re very at risk. We know you’re going to end up dead or in jail.”
Gegan has been around since the 1990s. He said he saw how the department was before, the “downward spiral” of crime and mistrust in police, and the unsuccessful tough guy, enforcement-based approach. He said community oriented policing, at least the way Richmond does it, made a difference.
“Now that I’m a captain, and I’m in charge, I know that it works.”