Right from start, police recruits take to the sidewalks

With her factory-fresh police belt holding revolver, mace, two nightsticks, and one radio, Jeanine Giordano strides into Hollywood Star Market.

"Sir, we are just walking a foot beat up and down the street. ... I'm sure you've seen us," says the young police recruit to a Korean working behind displays of beef jerky and pen lighters. "If you have any problems or questions," she adds after a conversation, "go ahead and let us know."

The clerk's nervous frown melts into a broad smile.

Score one for the new attempt by the Los Angeles Police Department to repair one of the most tarnished, adversarial images of any police force in the country.

By pushing officers out of squad cars and onto sidewalks, many police departments have tried to reestablish ties to their communities. What's new about the LAPD's move, formally announced last week, is that it's starting from the bottom up: training new recruits to walk the beat.

The innocuous-sounding Community Interaction Program (CIP) - 50 graduate-ready recruits at a time who fan out across the city's most pedestrian-heavy crime areas - is a new twist on an old idea, courtesy of one of America's most innovative police chiefs. The story behind it clarifies, experts say, why many of law enforcement's own brass feel police often go awry.

"Police work started out as a foot beat in which officers got to know everyone, and worked on crime from the inside out, proactively and preventively," says Lieutenant Nick Zingo, of LAPD's training division.

That changed partly for economic reasons - cops in cars could cover more ground in growing cities - and also because of strategic shifts by many to mobile task forces used to get tough on entrenched urban crime.

"When [police] do nothing but respond to calls, everything the police see is negative and under high stress - suspects, witnesses, victims," says Zingo. "This [program] allows the police to establish relationships."

That's exactly what Ms. Giordano and her two fellow trainees, Conor Sever and Joseph Romo are doing. As three of 50 in the program's second class of trainees, they spend four weeks of eight-hour shifts walking Hollywood Boulevard, getting to know residents and business owners - and making arrests, if necessary.

"This is the real stuff, the stuff we've been waiting for," says Mr. Sever. The 28-year-old said he loved Academy training, but it was "like a laboratory." "We're finally dealing with real people and real concerns, seeing what affects them personally and helping them resolve their problems if we can." The trio made five felony arrests, including a drug bust and an in-progress car theft, in their first three weeks.

In the handful of precincts where the LAPD is trying CIP, daytime crime - petty theft, burglary, car theft, assault - in the target downtown and Hollywood areas has plummeted to nearly zero, according to Hollywood precinct Captain Michael Moriarty.

Many residents and business owners on Hollywood Boulevard are embracing the new program.

"I wish they had been doing this years ago," says lifetime Hollywood resident Trent McCoy. "Having a show of police on the streets really lowers the anxiety," he says.

Police watchdog groups nationwide are taking notice, too. They say despite the talk of new emphasis on community policing - which accelerated nationally after the beating of Rodney King here in 1991 - there has not been as much progress in the training and culture of police departments as they would have hoped.

Sending Giordano, Sever and Mr. Romo onto the foot beat in this formative stage in their police training is the inspiration of LAPD Chief William Bratton, who has been on the job since 2002. He earned a reputation for turning around the Boston and New York police departments. His novel ideas included analyzing crime reports geographically with central computers, deploying officers accordingly, and holding precinct chiefs accountable for crime.

But in Los Angeles, which has only one officer for every 429 residents (compared with 1 for every 218 in New York), the gains have been slower - the result of painstaking refinements.

In announcing the new program last week, Mr. Bratton recalled his first assignment as a rookie Boston officer, walking a business district in an all-black neighborhood.

"That experience changed the rest of my life," he said. Likewise, he wants the first experience of new LAPD officers to be "not in a black-and-white [police cruiser], not chasing radio calls, but the intimacy of face-to-face contact with people in the neighborhood."

Bratton also wants recruits to see the LAPD in a new light and change the perception many residents have of the force since the Rodney King beatings. Despite 14 years of investigations, federal oversight, new chiefs, and civilian boards, police abuse incidents continue: a 13-year-old boy shot and killed, a baby killed, and beatings caught on videotape.

"This city's police have made no progress in all that time," said Mary Alice Jones of the Congress of Racial Equality at a recent protest. "They ... ride roughshod through neighborhoods nestled in the cocoon of their police cars."

Many disagree with her assessment and attribute the city's recent falling crime rates to getting desk cops back out on the street and veteran officers into community patrol as well as coordinating with neighborhood watch groups.

In the past two years, violent crimes (rape, homicide, robbery, assault) have fallen about 29 percent and property crimes (burglary, car theft) have decreased by about 10 percent.

Some national experts see that the CIP program can help solidify the connection between a drop in the crime rate and improved police-community relations.

"There have been a whole host of ways that police departments have gone out of their way to get closer to the communities they serve, but they usually involved putting established cops back into foot beats," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Brutality. "That's not the same as teaching police from the outset that getting to know their community members, and fighting crime together is a superior way to go."

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