A few years ago, relations between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and residents of South L.A. were improving. Today, that relationship is on shaky ground.
Most noticeably, the increase in fatal use-of-force incidents between African Americans and LAPD officers has caused the former welcoming hands of many residents to withdraw, replaced by suspicion.
In the midst of this tense environment, one man is aspiring to make a positive contribution to South L.A. and its surrounding areas.
“I came into this job with the agenda of helping the community and the police department. Everybody knows that police community relations need to be improved. I’m certainly a part of trying to make our city better [and] particularly address the issues in South L.A.,” said Matthew Johnson, president of the L.A. Police Commission.
Johnson has a strong history of community involvement; he’s served on the board of directors for Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South L.A. and is currently a trustee member of the national board of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Also, Johnson is on the board of directors of the Urban League of Los Angeles and active with many nonprofits in greater L.A
“I think those relationships will be an asset,” he said. “There’s many other relationships I’ve built over the years as being a socially-engaged citizen in Los Angeles and there’s a lot of new relationships that I’ve been building everyday.”
For Johnson those new relationships, it seems, are focused on reaching people on an individual level.
“It’s an area that I’m spending a lot of time making sure that I’m building those strong relationships with as many people in the community as possible, really, in all parts of our city, but South L.A. in particular,” he shared.
His emphasis on South L.A. will be needed, especially in light of the serious LAPD-related issues affecting the area. For instance, gang violence has dramatically increased with two-thirds of the gang homicides occurring in African American communities. Additionally, African Americans account for 40% of all homicides in the city.
These statistics coupled with the rise in use-of-force incidents by law enforcement, have fueled tensions. Johnson insists that he shares the community’s concern and last week, he unveiled his agenda to address the situation.
“We will be taking a deep look at use-of-force in general…specifically, where we are today compared to historically and where we are compared to other departments. We will be taking a deep look at our training, what we’re doing compared to what other jurisdictions are doing…making sure there’s proper focus on de-escalation training and training around people suspected of being mentally ill and review of use-of-force incidents involving folks that are suspected of being mentally ill,” he said.
LAPD officers will soon be equipped with front-body cameras; a move that Johnson feels will benefit officers and citizens while providing a sense of transparency.
“One of my expectations is that the use of the body cameras is really going to change the nature of police interactions with the community. There’s a lot of early evidence that shows that the number of complaints decrease with officers that have cameras versus officers that don’t have cameras,” Johnson said.
Another focus for Johnson will be community-based policing.
L.A.’s sprawling geography restricts most policing to patrol cars, making it difficult to build one-on-one relationships with residents and businesses. However, the LAPD has found success in implementing the approach in the city’s housing developments.
“As the president of the Police Commission, [this is] certainly a major priority for me to make we are fostering the expansion of those efforts. It’s also a huge priority for the mayor and it’s something our police chief believes in,” he noted.
As Johnson and the LAPD move forward with reforms, he is asking the community to lend their support as well by doing things like develop positive activities for children in their neighborhoods and report crimes if they see them occur.
Also, he’s calling for consideration about the job that police officers are charged to do.
“We have to acknowledge that the police do have a very dangerous job. They’re often dealing with people on their worst day. When the police are responding to a call, something has gone wrong. It’s a very difficult, very stressful job and there’s got to be some level of understanding for that,” said Johnson.
But, Johnson recognizes that developing the public’s understanding requires that police officers treat citizens professionally and respectfully. While reaching mutual accord between both parties will take time and effort on everyone’s part, he thinks his reforms will improve the process.
“I fully intend on using all of the resources of the Commission, including our Office of Inspector General which gives us the ability to look really into every area of the department and audit and issue reports, and his staff of 40 investigators, to really work in partnership with the LAPD, making the LAPD the best police department that it can possibly be,” declared Johnson.
“In order to really effectuate change, this has to be a partnership. By and large, all of the police officers I have met, they’re on board with this. They want to serve the community, not have an antagonistic relationship with the community. It’s our responsibility to make sure that they are trained properly and have the proper tools to do their job right.”