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3 Visions For The Future Of Police In South LA

Bruce Patton (left), Gilbert Johnson and Marqueece Harris-Dawson share their perspectives on living in South LA during the unrest of previous decades and today.
Bethany Mollenkof for NPR and Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Bruce Patton (left), Gilbert Johnson and Marqueece Harris-Dawson share their perspectives on living in South LA during the unrest of previous decades and today.

In the weeks since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, people around the U.S. and the world have flooded the streets in rage and protest against police violence toward African Americans.

There's particular resonance for Los Angeles, which has a long and familiar history with police brutality and civil unrest. For those who lived through earlier convulsions — the Watts rebellion of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992 — today's events surface intense personal memories.

NPR's All Things Considered spoke with three African American men who bore witness to one or both of those events. Over the decades, each of them has thought seriously about how policing in Los Angeles should change — and each has arrived at a different answer.


Get rid of the guns

Bruce Patton was born in South Los Angeles in 1952 — when the area was known as South Central, the name he still prefers — and has lived there his whole life.

The Los Angeles City Council officially changed the neighborhood's name in 2003 to avoid negative associations that outsiders had with the area. Patton says changing the name doesn't erase the neighborhood's problems or history.

"It needs to be understood that South Central has not been forgotten. The treatment we received in South Central has not been forgotten," he says.

One of his earliest memories of the troubled relationship between police and African Americans unfolded in August 1965 in the nearby Watts neighborhood. A California Highway Patrol officer stopped a black driver, a crowd gathered, a fight ensued, and the unrest ignited existing tensions between police and the black community.


Patton remembers mowing the lawn at his grandmother's house and seeing smoke in the distance.

"We, of course, did not know what it was," the 68-year-old says. "In essence, we just knew it was a disturbance, and that some black people finally had enough. And like a pressure cooker, it exploded."

Patton was 13 at the time. He didn't understand enough to be scared. What he did pick up on was something very different from fear.

"Deep down inside, it was a joy that black people would stand up and have the audacity to stand up and push back," he says. "Fighting back. That was the joy."

The problem, he says, is that his community has been fighting back against an issue that never seems to change: police violence against black people. And at least for Patton, the solution to that problem is clear: He advocates taking all guns away from the police.

"There's no need for policemen to have a gun. That is what gives them the propensity to kill you," he says. "It's their approach to the people in these communities that makes police officers fear for their lives."

Patton says that's because these police officers go into neighborhoods such as his without asking the right question.

"His mind should be as a doctor is," Patton says. "He should say, how can I help that person?"

He says police in his community don't think about their work this way.

Get rid of the police

Twenty-seven years after Watts burned, unrest spilled through the streets of South Los Angeles again — when four police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of a black man named Rodney King.

Riots erupted on April 29, 1992 — at the corner of Normandie and Florence avenues, right in front of a liquor store called Tom's.

"It was mayhem. It was crazy. It was like world war or something going on," Gilbert Johnson remembers.

Johnson, 36, is from a different part of South Los Angeles, where he was once part of a gang. For a long time, his gang affiliation meant he couldn't stand at this particular corner because, he says, "there was a very good chance I could get killed or beat up severely."

He was 8 during the Rodney King riots. He says there was so much anger in his house at the time that when the looting started, his brother and uncle got in on it.

"Everybody was doing it," Johnson says. "They got out there and capitalized off the situation, too."

He remembers the things they stole: guns, appliances, TVs, food, clothes.

"It was a pretty good moment, as far as if you look at it from that standpoint, because we were all poor," he says. "You know, we used to get free food, stand in lines to get food, recycle cans to get food, food stamps."

He says it didn't feel wrong, because the system had already wronged them so many times.

Johnson ended up spending most of his young adult life in and out of prison. He says cycling through the criminal justice system only reinforced his view against law enforcement.

Today, he's a community organizer, leading youth and gang intervention programs.

But when it comes to policing, he calls himself an abolitionist — as in, abolish the police.

"I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people across South LA, and they do not want more law enforcement," he says.

He supports alternatives such as gang intervention, mental health services and neighborhood watches where community members "could be first responders."

When asked if he thinks his community can ever have a workable relationship with the police, his answer is blunt: "No, I don't."

Get to know the communities

Marqueece Harris-Dawson completely understands perspectives such as Johnson's. "I've been in the place that you're at," he says.

But he doesn't agree.

"I think there's obviously a use for LAPD and other police departments," says Harris-Dawson, a City Council member who is also a native of South Los Angeles.

While Patton wants all guns gone from the Los Angeles police, and Johnson wants to see the police completely gone — Harris-Dawson, 51, says he just wants to see the police focus on fewer things.

"We ask police departments to solve homelessness. We ask them to solve truancy. We ask them to solve blight, traffic problems, pedestrian safety," he says. "We ask them to solve a whole bunch of problems that they oftentimes are not the appropriate set of individuals to do."

And while the Los Angeles Police Department is getting overloaded with all these tasks, Harris-Dawson says he thinks the city is also overloading it with money that could be spent on schools or health care.

When it comes to policing, he says initiatives such as the Community Safety Partnership are the best way forward. The program, which began in 2011 in the Watts neighborhood, embeds Los Angeles police officers — the same ones, for several years — within a neighborhood. They watch kids grow up there. They get to know the community.

Harris-Dawson says the Harvard Park neighborhood in South Los Angeles had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the city before the program was implemented there in 2017, including six murders that year.

The Community Safety Partnership program assigned 10 officers to the area. Since then, the council member says, there have been no reports of violent crime or homicides in the neighborhood. It's a remarkable decline in crime — and, more important, he says, increase in trust.

Such programs measure successful policing differently, Harris-Dawson says.

"One of the big differences is oftentimes officers are evaluated by how many citations they give away or how many people they arrest," he says. "Here we say, how many interactions did you have? How many church services did you attend? How many events with young people did you participate in?"

Ultimately, Harris-Dawson says, the more police officers get to know the people they're policing, the less likely people will resort to violence.

In the past, Patton and Johnson say they have seen little improve between police and their community. But the current wave of protests does offer them hope.

There are more people listening and more communities are rising up, they say.

"We have a chance to really organize and galvanize all this momentum and push it in a positive way," says Johnson, the community organizer. "A lot more people are out there protesting because they want change. So, yes, I see this as a moment of hope amidst all the chaos."

Sami Yenigun edited the audio story. Maureen Pao edited the Web story.

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