The Anaheim Police Department had a rough year in 2012.
In July of that year, police shot and killed two Latino men during a single weekend. Residents of the low-income neighborhoods of Central Anaheim were furious. Protests erupted into violence that became a full-blown riot, including damage to local businesses.
It was a sign things needed to change.
Police Chief Raul Quezada, who was appointed in 2013, told KPCC last year that police fell short in interacting with the community. Since then Anaheim police have renewed an effort at community policing.
A KPCC reporter who spent time with officers and in the neighborhoods of Central Anaheim last month found that police have made some inroads with residents. But some relationships are still strained and concerns over profiling of Latino youth remain.
Before 2007, the department had as many as 20 officers on its community policing team, according to Lt. Tim Schmidt, one of the supervisors in charge.
But when the recession hit, hiring stalled and most community policing officers were put back on regular patrol. The department kept one community policing officer and one sergeant assigned to each of the four police districts.
“We didn’t have any chance to do outreach or put officers in the neighborhoods,” he said.
Schmidt said the community policing team is now back up to 14 community police officers. In addition, the Anaheim City Council last year appropriated approximately $2 million per year to hire an additional 10 officers over a period of four years.
Theresa Smith began working with the police department on reforms after Anaheim officers shot and killed her son in 2009. She collaborates with youth groups in Anaheim and concedes that police are making an effort to forge relationships in the community. But she says officers are still too quick to judge young people.
“They’ll just stop a young man because he’s wearing a certain piece of clothing or he’s with somebody and he’s considered a gang member,” Smith said.
Citations for drinking
For the last six years, Officer Cezar Vasquez has worked in the Guinida Lane neighborhood. That's the same neighborhood where police killed a man in 2012.
Vasquez said the area is a hotspot for drug deals. Gang members loiter in parking lots or sit in cars. When he walks the beat, whistles ring out from the modest apartment buildings, signaling the cops are in the neighborhood.
There’s also a homeless encampment behind a shuttered store front near an elementary school.
“All this foot traffic going back and forth, it doesn’t make you feel safe in your own neighborhood,” Vasquez said.
He convinced the owner of a coin laundry to install a metal back door with a lock to keep drug dealers, buyers and homeless people from using the business as a go-between.
To eliminate the foot traffic and crime, police crack down on what Vasquez calls “quality of life issues” such as drinking in public, graffiti, loitering or code enforcement violations.
On a recent visit, Vasquez and a partner found two men sitting on upturned buckets in the parking lot of a market. A beer wrapped in a paper sack sits nearby.
In polite Spanish, Vasquez asks, "Sir, are you drinking in public?"
Vasquez says the residents don't like the public drinking -- and residents have been warned.
On this day one man is given a citation.
Later, a group of community police officers, wearing dark sunglasses, walk the neighborhood near East Lincoln Avenue and North State College Boulevard.
An officer stops an anxious 19-year old walking home from school.
“Do you live here,” she demands.
“How old are you?”
“What’s your address?”
“What apartment number?
“Who do you live with?
“Where are you coming from?”
The nervous youth stammers out his apartment number; he says he lives there with his parents.
Police let him pass.
'Not soft on gang crime'
Asked about these interactions, Lt. Schmidt said community police officers have to make stops and contacts like this to learn the neighborhood and reduce gang crime.
Some neighborhoods have gang members who don’t live nearby but come in to deal drugs or recruits kids to join their gang, he said.
“Community policing is not soft on gang crime,” Schmidt said. “You’re building the intelligence base that tells you who the gang members are, who’s trying to be a gang member or where they’re hanging out.”
There’s no precise way to measure whether community policing has been successful, said Susan Lee of the Advancement Project. Her organization was instrumental in helping the Los Angeles Police Department introduce community policing in Watts ten years ago.
The community-policing program in Watts has been touted as a national model. It’s helped reduce violent and gang crime and accelerated investigations because residents are more willing to talk to police.
Lee said that when community policing is done right, residents should feel like interactions with police officers are reasonable.
“When folks get stopped on the street,” she said. “Is (there) trust by the community that those stops are being done in a fair and objective manner?”
Lee added not every police department should practice community policing the same way. But they all should have one thing in common:
“It’s an attitude of going into the community and saying, ‘I’m not the expert,’” she said.
Most community residents told KPCC that relations between police and the neighborhoods seem to be going in the right direction.
"It was really bad like seven years ago," said food mart owner Jose Vasquez. "There’s been a lot of murders and stuff like that. But now, it seems it calmed down."