The deep distrust of police officers among many African Americans and Latinos was on display Wednesday night at a KPCC forum on the future of policing in Southern California.
“I’ve never actually felt safe around police,” said Jonathan Henderson, a sociology student seeking his Masters Degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He recounted a recent encounter with an officer who stopped him on campus.
“He got out of the car, walked over with his hand on his holster, and asked ‘what are you doing here,” said Henderson, who is black. “There’s a greater chance of that happening because of my race.”
Too few officers live in the communities they police and the few that do are seen as outsiders, said Robert Cristo, a student at Whittier College and a member of the Youth Justice Coalition.
“You don’t see them as your neighbor, you see them as the guy with the badge and the gun,” Cristo said.
Henderson and Cristo were part of a KPCC panel at the LA84 Youth and Sports Foundation in the West Adams District of Los Angeles. It was moderated by AirTalk host Larry Mantle and will air Thursday at 11 a.m.
Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna said he wasn’t surprised by the sentiments. “I had very negative experiences growing up with the Sheriff’s Department” in East LA, he said. “Its not like we (in law enforcement) are strangers to a lot of the activity that’s being described.”
But he maintained police mostly do an outstanding job. “Ninety-five percent of our contacts go great,” he said.
Luna urged people to cooperate with police, even if they are mistreating you. “If you get into a negative encounter with a police officer, don’t fight or resist. Do exactly what they are telling you to do.”
File a complaint later, he said.
Henderson and Cristo said they wouldn’t trust police to discipline an officer involved in misconduct. Henderson also wondered why the burden rests with residents to submit to an officer’s demands, even if they are unreasonable. “Shouldn’t police empathize with me?”
Repeated interactions with criminals, particularly in South LA, can affect an officer’s attitude, said LAPD Lt. Al Labrada, who works in the community relations section of the department.
“You become involved in so much of the violence that occurs around you, you tend to have a negative perception of a lot of things,” he said. “For officers working in South LA, it’s sometimes not healthy.”
Labrada said that’s one reason he left the area after working there 14 years, including eight years as a gang sergeant.
“We have a long way to go” in building trust, he said. “But we also need to look at the fact (that) officers are making progress.” Labrada pointed to community policing programs in Watts as an example.
"There are a lot of places in South LA where they have improved tremendously, " agreed Francisco Ortega, a senior policy analyst with the LA City Human Relations Commission
But the neighborhoods south of the 1o Freeway remain a difficult place to build police community relations, he said. A history of police abuse, poverty and changing demographics add to the challenge.
“There are a lot of issues with immigrants distrustful of police,” he said.
The forum focused in part on solutions. For Ortega, the answer is more civilian involvement in police departments.
“We have to involve civilians within the ranks….civilians that play an equal role as sworn officers,” he said. “They would be trained in engaging the public exclusively.”
Members of the community also need to play a more proactive role in reaching out to police, LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Rafer Owens said. Owens, who is African American, was born and raised in Compton and works as a deputy there.
“There is a lot that the black community does to police that I have seen,” he said, referring to disrespectful acts.
“What I’m asking the community to do is go back and ask to know your community police officer,” he said. What does that look like?
“It looks like coffee with a captain. It looks like a donut with a cop.”
Luna added police officers need to do a better job of explaining their actions to people.
Cristo, of the Youth Justice Coalition, said more officers should either live in the communities they police or visit them.
"You should go to the movies in the community. You should buy your groceries in that community,” Cristo said. “That way when somebody gets killed in that community, it can hurt you just as much as it hurts everybody else,” he said.
This event is part of ongoing coverage to commemorate AirTalk’s 30th anniversary. For more events, visit our AirTalk 30 page. In the meantime, here are a few excerpts from Wednesday night: