Crime & Justice

Can a new LAPD captain win over the citizens of South LA?

LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Community-Police Advisory Board member James Taylor, a bishop at Freedom Missionary Baptist Church, attends a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Captain Jorge Rodriguez has returned as head LAPD's Newton division.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Andrew Ramirez, community liaison for Community Health Councils, Inc., speaks about vacant lots in the area during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez speaks with Rev. Fred Thompson after a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Officer Flo Talamantez is the Community-Police Advisory Board coordinator for LAPD's Newton station.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Community-Police Advisory Board member James Taylor, a bishop at Freedom Missionary Baptist Church, speaks during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez, left, talks with Adela Barajas, founder of Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts, during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
LAPD Captain Jorge Rodriguez speaks during a monthly community meeting at LAPD's Newton station on Thursday, Feb. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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Captain Jorge Rodriguez stands to address a community meeting in his crisp blue LAPD uniform. Double bars on his shirt collars indicate he is the top ranking officer here at the Newton Police Station on Central Avenue south of downtown.

"Just because I wear the uniform that they all wear, it doesn't mean that I'm in collusion with them or cahoots,” he tells the group. “I'm their boss. I want to hold them accountable.”

Rodriguez is talking about his own officers, who work the poor, high crime neighborhoods east of the 110 freeway in South LA. He is seeking to rebuild community trust in the Newton Division, where the fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford in August sparked angry protests. Ford, 25, was an unarmed, mentally ill African American man who allegedly tried to grab an officer’s gun.

The killing of Ford came just nine days after the death of Omar Abrego, who died after a struggle with police following a car pursuit. Abrego, 37, was also unarmed.

The community's frustration with the LAPD goes beyond the usual cadre of police critics. Jorge Nuno is a lifelong resident of the area who owns a marketing firm that helps produce community events for the police.

"You feel disappointed,” he says. “How did this happen in Newton? I thought we had something going here (in terms of building good relationships). What's happening?"

The Newton Station has a tough reputation. Until it became politically incorrect a few years ago, cops called it “Shoot’n Newton” because of the relatively high number of gun battles. The 2012 police movie "End of Watch" was set in Newton. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hard-charging patrol officer. There are plenty of gun fights.

But in real life, that kind of aggressive policing goes too far for a lot of residents.

In a tidy stucco home off 52nd Street, a bird named Coco tweets the arrival of a stranger.

William Taylor, 28, who cleans and waxes floors at Children's Hospital, recalls when police stopped him last year, and asked him to lift his shirt. 

"They even took pictures of my tattoos and I wasn't doing anything,” he says. “I was just hanging around with my friend. We were just walking home from the store.” The tattoos are the names of his girlfriend and mother, he says.

“Does he know what the police are doing out here?" Taylor wonders of the new captain. 

A reporter poses that question to Rodriguez. "I don't know exactly what they're doing at all times," he concedes. 

But Rodriguez, 52, defends his officers. The former Marine says interaction with people can be difficult in a neighborhood he compares to a war zone.  

"Sometimes we have a hard time. Just like the military does fighting some of these insurgents,” he says. “The people here who are committing crimes they don't have a tag on them saying 'I'm a criminal. ' They blend in with the community."

Rodriguez, a native of Cuba, tells a story about something he saw as a youth in his home country to illustrate his sensitivity about overreach by authorities.

He remembers seeing a man on the street, ranting a tirade against Fidel Castro.

“Within seconds there were uniformed police officers tackling the man to the ground, putting him in the car and (they) took him away.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, about 40 residents, business owners and clergy gathered for a meeting of Newton's Community Police Advisory Board (CPAB). Rodriguez moved through the crowd easily - he served as captain here two years ago.

His fluent Spanish is welcomed in a neighborhood where about 80 percent of the people are Latino. 

“I’m really glad he is back,” says community activist Adela Barajas, who sits on the police advisory board. “I really like the style of policing that he does because he’s all about community policing.”

Barajas says too many Newton officers still see themselves only as “enforcers.”

Rodriguez says younger officers tend to have that attitude more than their older colleagues.

"You’re young, you’re inexperienced, and at the time you think everybody is bad,” he says.

Rodriguez promises to re-build community trust by holding more events like this one.  He wants to offer more activities for kids.  He say's he'll require his officers to meet with residents who file complaints against them.

Rodriguez says forcing officers to talk to complaining citizens makes waves in the station house but it makes a difference in officers' attitudes.

“They go out kicking and their head is down, but once they get to talking to the citizen, the officers come to the realization we do need to work with these individuals.”

It's a good formula, says civil rights attorney Connie Rice. For a dozen years she's worked with the LAPD to improve community relations. 

But what's missing in Newton, she says, are the resources the department is putting into its flagship partnership program in Watts – $3 million dollars a year for programs like handing out eyeglasses, overtime for officers, and extra gang intervention workers who actually ride with police.

"So it's a very different kind of policing,” Rice says. 

Can one new captain make a difference?

“One captain can make an extraordinary difference if that captain is someone who understands that to get close to the community your going to have to own up to your past mistakes," Rice says.

Rodriguez acknowledges the LAPD has a rocky history.  He asks the people of Newton to give him another chance to earn their trust.

“Our job is not just about arresting people,” he says. “It’s about helping people and connecting them with services....If the community doesn’t trust the officers, I don’t care what community you are in, nothing is going to get done.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained several misspellings of the captain's name.