In stunning reversal, LAPD goes from reviled to respected
The police department once known for beating Rodney King has resuscitated its public image by reaching out to the minority communities it once antagonized.
In the five years since Chief William Bratton took the force's top post, Angelenos' opinions about the department have improved significantly. Nearly 8 in 10 registered voters say they "strongly approve" or "somewhat approve" of the LAPD's performance today – an 18 percent rise since 2005, according to a Los Angeles Times poll released Tuesday.
"This is fabulous news and serves as a model for the entire police community of America to study and copy," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "Los Angeles's police problems seemed so entrenched for so long that many doubted anyone could bring around such a dramatic change."
Los Angeles has long been notorious for having one of the lowest police-to-citizens ratios among major American cities. But with Mr. Bratton's encouragement, the city has expanded its police ranks to historic highs. He has also helped lower crime in every category by using an array of technology to gather data and analyze it, helping him deploy his force more intelligently.
Yet Najee Ali, an activist in the black community who has often been at odds with the police, attributes the reinvention of the LAPD's image to Bratton's efforts to meet with community leaders regularly – particularly when there has been a controversy or a police shooting in a minority neighborhood. He says the LAPD has expanded its cultural sensitivity training and recruited a wider variety of races. A majority of recruits are now Latino.
"All the previous leaders of the LAPD were extremely unresponsive to the complaints of residents," says Mr. Ali. "Bratton has made the entire department more visible and transparent by virtually opening up its soul to a community that it was often at odds with."
The poll numbers reflect giant gains in the eyes of both blacks and Hispanics, Ali adds. The percentage of both demographic groups who approve of the LAPD rose by double digits since the 2005 survey. That stands in contrast to the 1990s, when the police beating of Rodney King erupted into the most costly riots in US history, and so-called Rampart scandal exposed chronic misuse and planting of evidence to obtain convictions. Just after 1991, only 40 percent of Angelenos polled said they approved of police performance.
"It seems that communicating with your community and being transparent rather than hiding away and not saying anything is the way to go," says Ms. Powers of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "For whatever reason, that tactic seems counterintuitive to many police chiefs, but Bratton has shown that it can be done under the worst of conditions and histories."
The latest poll, however, showed anger in some whiter communities. They worried that more cops have been shifted to the inner city.
"As the LAPD has cracked down on gang neighborhoods in South Central, it really does feel like the gang activity has moved into the San Fernando Valley," says Ron Sorentino, a lifetime resident of Sherman Oaks. "We're seeing all kinds of suspicious activity that we didn't used to see."