Amid long-running tension in East L.A.'s Ramona Gardens, youth and police are turning to dialogue to improve relations and stem violence.
The youth-led workshops began as a response to gang violence and heavy police presence and have since gained backing from some LAPD officials as an alternative way to build better community alliances. Starting this year, law enforcement and youth are taking steps to expand the program to other parts of the city.
But the fallout from a recent shooting hints at challenges still ahead.
A history of fraught relations
For decades, Ramona Gardens has drawn attention for gang activity. The public housing project, operated by the L.A. City Housing Authority, holds nearly 500 units and is wedged just north of the 10 freeway and bordered by railroad tracks. For years, a gang known as Big Hazard dominated the area, and has been subject to gang injunctions, according to LAPD maps. In 2010, the city moved to install surveillance cameras to monitor the area.
The situation has improved in recent years, some residents and police said, but at times violence still hits the community.
That's drawn action from federal authorities, such as a 2014 raid that involved the FBI and led to indictments for gang members.
This has all contributed to a tense atmosphere, where some of the buildings are painted in colorful murals that chronicle local residents who have been slain in police or gang-related shootings.
"There are generations of families who have had distrust with police and that’s not going to change overnight," said Robert Arcos, Deputy Chief for Operations at LAPD’s Central Bureau.
But the workshops are an opportunity for officers and youth to sit down away from the daily stress of the streets, where most interactions take place. Instead, parties with a long history of misunderstanding can ask questions of one another, dispel rumors and, most importantly, he said, find a constructive way to combat the violence that has plagued the community.
"That gets us in the door and if we get in the door, we get a chance to maybe sit at the table," said Arcos. "I think that gets at the whole foundation of relationship policing and connecting."
'Enough is enough'
Growing up in Ramona Gardens, Eddie Licon often witnessed the heavy police and gang presence in the blocks around his house. To him, things weren't getting better, so he and his friends decided to try a different approach.
"Enough was enough already," said Licon. "We’ve seen this play out our entire lives and we figured that something needed to be done."
Licon and two of his friends – Marlene Arazo and Amanda Gutierrez – called a meeting between police and youth. It was 2011. All three were 16 at the time.
"That was the first ever time that we brought these two groups together," said Licon.
The goal, in Licon's words, was to "look at the problem deeper in order to find a lasting solution as opposed to just booking people and putting them into prisons."
The idea for a meeting evolved into a more formal workshop, led by youth facilitators that involved specific activities and guided conversation aimed at addressing the roots of the problems. And they came up with a name: Through Our Eyes.
Still there was pushback from some of their peers.
"My homies said 'You're a sellout'," said Arazo, of the criticism she heard from other teens. Many of them, she said, could describe negative experiences with local police, which had led to deep distrust. They questioned why she would be in the same room with officers.
But she stuck with it.
"Better than anyone, youth know what they want and youth know what other youth need to succeed," she said.
"A lot of times, youth see the police in the worst times in their lives," said Stacey Vandersall, a sergeant with the LAPD who worked at Ramona Gardens. "They only experience the police in those types of settings: emergency, escalated situations."
Vandersall was first assigned to Ramona Gardens in 2011 as part of an effort from the LAPD and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles to foster better relations through a program called Community Safety Partnership. The program opened with 40 spots for officers assigned to specific housing projects across the city. Vandersall was one of them.
"At first when we first went in, it was difficult," she said. "We heard a lot of rumors, a lot of stories, there was a lot of history, so we were apprehensive."
But at that first workshop, which she attended, she saw an opening for change.
"You would listen to the youth and they would have such a negative perception of the law enforcement, that you thought, you would never be able to change it," she said. "But when you build that relationship, when you go there and you show up and you say hello to people and you listen to what they have to say, people change their minds."
Taking the dialogue citywide
"When I was growing up, there was no communication with the officers," said Lou Calanche, executive director of the community group Legacy LA, where the workshops take place. She grew up in Ramona Gardens in the 1990s. "We just didn’t talk to the police and stayed away."
But when the three youth – Arazo, Licon and Gutierrez – approached her with the idea to start the workshops, she saw an opportunity to make a fresh start.
"Police officers can’t solve all the community’s problems," she said. "We need to invest in young people. Not just in Ramona Gardens, but in other areas."
Since the first workshop in 2011, the youth have revamped the curriculum, changing some of the language and dropping parts that didn't work. Earlier this year, they completed an 18-page training manual for other youth facilitators.
That's drawn the support from the LAPD.
"When you listen to the title of the program, 'Through Our Eyes,' it hits you right at the core," said the LAPD's Robert Arcos. "That is exactly it."
It's a chance, he said, for officers to correct misconceptions about their daily work as well as for them to listen directly to what youth have to say about how they experience policing. And he's pledged some of the nuts and bolts to try to make it work: training hours for officers and opening up other stations to try it out.
"We realize that communication is a two-way street," said Licon, now 20 and a third-year student at the University of Southern California. "We really need to work together to create any type of change."
Still the road ahead has its share of obstacles.
At a workshop earlier this month at the Legacy LA offices, Amanda Gutierrez said it had been a struggle to keep the meeting on track. Two weeks before, a friend was shot and killed and some of the youth had dropped out.
"I’ve been in pain and it’s really draining," said Gutierrez. "At times, I felt like not doing this workshop, just cause I felt like I can’t see eye to eye with officers because I feel confused."
Next to her Marlene Arazo wore a white t-shirt with their friend’s name, Jonathan Valdovinos, and the dates of his birth and death. According to police, an assailant shot and killed Valdovinos, 23, around 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 25 on Murchison Street, a path that leads into Ramona Gardens. Police are investigating it as a homicide. His friends said he was shot walking home from a market while carrying his lunch in his hands. The shooting – in broad daylight – and arrests that took place after a memorial put the community on edge.
Still, Gutierrez and the other youth went forward with the workshop, with seven teens and eight officers. At times it was tense, but it ended up lasting nearly two hours.
Coming so soon after the death of a neighborhood friend, it was a sign of what was possible, said Gutierrez.
"Reflecting back on our whole mission, it empowers me to move forward," she said.