On a recent hot summer afternoon, LAPD Sgt. Emada Tingirides opened the trunk of her police car in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts and handed out bead bracelets and books to three excited little girls.
She checked in with a longtime resident who was volunteering at the gym then started walking a foot beat.
With 1,064 units, Nickerson is the largest public housing project on the West Coast and a place that's long struggled with gang violence. Tingirides, 44, leads a group of 50 officers who patrol the housing projects of Watts as part of the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership.
It's the kind of policing advocates have insisted would have prevented last summer's fatal shooting of Ezell Ford by LAPD gang officers on 65th Street and Broadway, a few miles away. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Police commission faulted the actions of one of the officers, which led to the shooting. Ford, 25, was unarmed and his family says he suffered from mental illness. The shooting sparked angry protests.
“I call it cultural policing,” said Tingirides, whose been on the force for two decades and had a brief moment of fame when she and her husband, LAPD Commander Phil Tingirides, sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama during this year's State of the Union address - a recognition of their community policing work.
“It’s about gaining an understanding of your community,” she added.
To get in to the special program, officers must commit to five years of walking the projects and focusing not on arrests but rather on building relationships. Tingeridis is reluctant to say whether the interaction with Ford would have gone any differently with one of her officers. Police have repeatedly said Ford struggled and went for an officer's gun.
But Tingeridis did say she picks officers who have “passion and compassion for this community.”
New recruits first get trained on Watts’ turbulent history. It's important to understand that there’s a lack of socio- economic development here, she said, “and that’s going to cause a guy to be really, really down,” she explains.
Her officers coach local football teams, lead Girl Scout troops and visit elderly residents, in addition to watching the local gangs.
“They are entering into the life of this community in an ongoing way,” said UCLA Professor Jorja Leap, who helped design the program. “Before, it was purely suppression by the LAPD here. There was no relationship.”
Leap said this kind of policing could very well have made a difference in the Ford case: “It decreases the odds of that occurring.”
Officers walking a foot beat over a long period of time in the neighborhood might have approached Ford differently, she said.
Leap wants the LAPD to expand this type of policing to all 21 divisions. Tingirides thinks it belongs in every police agency.
“We are invited to birthday parties, baby showers," she said. "I really wish it would go nationwide.”
The program has joined with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles to offers programs for kids and simple help – like luring philanthropy to provide eyeglasses.
Stationing more officers on foot has also reduced crime from a few years ago, said Jordan Downs resident Koko Diaz.
“Back then, you couldn’t even go to the parking lot. You would get mugged.” It’s different now. “I have barbeques,” she said. “We can enjoy each other as neighbors."
But Leap acknowledges the LAPD believes regular patrol cars in sprawling Los Angeles are a more effective crime fighting tool.
Tingirides knew she wanted to join the unit a few years ago after an angry crowd gathered over a murder. There was no way the riot police could have kept them in line, she said, so she called in community leaders.
“That moment is what turned it for me,” she said. "To take away that ego, and realize that I need them more than they need me.”
It was the community itself - leaders of the clergy, non- profits and civil rights activists – who asked the LAPD for this type of policing four years ago. The community-led Watts Gang Task Force and Civil Rights attorney Connie Rice were driving forces.
Tingirides walks a little further through the maze of Nickerson’s two story cinder block buildings, and runs into a group of boys. One blurts out an expletive about the police. Another calls the LAPD “racist.” “I don’t like the police,” said a third.
Tingirides replied: “I respect you for not liking us, but you shouldn’t say things like that.”
A man in his twenties lurked nearby. He motions for the children to stop talking to her. This new style of policing is a harder sell for some people.
“There is still that disdain and hatred for police officers,” Tingirides conceded.
Later, Cindy Culbreath chatted freely with Tingirides. She’s lived in Nickerson for more than 30 years.
“When they reach out to the community, it’s a good feeling,” she said. But Culbreath she still sees regular patrol officers harassing young men.
“So half the police that come up in here, they still don’t have any respect for the Homies.” Tingirides admits not every LAPD cop practices she CSP philosophy. In fact, some see it as "babysitting," she said.