Can community policing defuse racial tensions? LAPD’s new deputy chief says yes

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Emada Tingirides grew up in one of LA’s roughest neighborhoods and returns to lead a different approach to policing there

When Emada Tingirides was a young girl in Watts, she never met “Officer Friendly”. Back then, in the 1970s, just a few years after the Watts Rebellion of 1965, relations between the police and the then predominantly Black residents of the 2.1 sq mile Los Angeles neighborhood were still pretty tender.

By the time she was nine, her young, single mother moved the family away from the neighborhood as gangs, crack and violence took hold in Watts’ infamous public housing projects – Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 15,000 young, Black men in LA died from violence, many of them in Watts.

In 2011, Emada and her husband, Phil, a now retired Los Angeles police department deputy chief, started a model community policing program called the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) in Watts. Since then, shootings have dropped 66% and homicides are down to nearly zero in housing developments there. Key features of the program include extensive police training, walking foot beats instead of patrolling by car, and a five-year commitment to a neighborhood from officers. There’s also a Girl Scout troop and a youth football team. Emada, now 50, was promoted in July from captain directly to deputy chief. She will oversee the CSP within LAPD as the program expands to three of the department’s four divisions. It has been so successful that Tingirides has been invited to consult with police departments in other cities, including New York and Chicago.

The backdrop to this is a summer that saw LAPD officers accused of brutal treatment of protesters and the fatal shooting of Dijon Kizzee, as calls came from activists for the presence of social and mental health workers, not sworn-in and armed officers, in communities of color. Emada, LAPD’s second-ever Black female deputy chief, recently spoke with the Guardian about how she has seen a different approach to policing transform relations between Watts residents and the LAPD – and how a black girl from Watts became the face of Officer Friendly.

What made you want to become a police officer?

My mom had me at 15 years old, and I was born on the steps of Hamilton high school. And I just remember watching her persevere and never give up and she became a nurse. I’ve just always watched my family give back so I knew I wanted to give back. But I didn’t know I wanted to give back as a police officer. But after the Rodney King incident, and then the riots after that verdict, is when I felt so compelled that I needed to go and serve and represent the Black community. And it was just almost like a calling.

Many people, particularly in black communities, are raised to fear and not trust the police. What do you think needs to happen to rebuild that trust and respect?

What’s important for us in fixing it is we have to understand the fear. We have to understand where the fear is coming from. That part of truth and reconciliation is just saying: “I hear you, you’re afraid. Tell me why.”

Once we understand that, it’s got to be taught to our young probationary officers in the academy. They have to understand the community they’re stepping into. And then part of that is going into the community and not telling the community what we’re going to do for you but asking the community, “What do you need from us?”

That part of truth and reconciliation is just saying: ‘I hear you, you’re afraid. Tell me why’

I know that there were efforts at police reform after the 1992 riots, but what has changed in the culture of the Los Angeles police department to allow initiatives like the Community Safety Partnership program?

So much has changed. I know right now the consensus across the country is that very little has changed. But the LAPD actually represents the communities that they’re serving. I believe we’re over 9% African American on LAPD. Our Latino officers mirror the city of Los Angeles, and so our department within itself looks different than it did when I came on 26 years ago. We’ve made an effort to ensure that we recruit and target people from the community to join our department and give back to their communities. I think we’ve constantly been self-examining and re-evaluating our organization for decades.

How stressful is it to be an African American police officer in these communities? Is that more difficult or less difficult than it used to be?

I have seen all sides of it. I’ve had people drive by and honk their horn and say: “You go girl. Never seen a female black captain. Wow, can I take a picture of you?” I was walking through Nickerson Gardens a couple weeks ago, and I pass this group of gentlemen, and they said: “Hey, she’s a captain.” And an officer walking behind me said: “Yes, she’s getting ready to be a deputy chief.” And they said: “We’ve never seen a black captain. That’s crazy.”

And then on the other side of that, I’ve been called an Uncle Tom. I’ve been called a sellout. I take it as an opportunity to educate people and tell them someone in my uniform wearing this badge may have done something to you along the way. And I’m sorry that you feel that way. But my name is Emada. Nice to meet you. I’ve had people come back now and tell me: “Man, I thought you were a sellout or this or that. But you all right. You’ve been here 10 years now. You never left us. You’ve done right by us. You’ve treated us right.”

I think right now, with everything going on across the country, it is difficult for African American police officers. I’ve talked to a lot of black officers who feel like they’re stuck in the middle. I’ve talked to a lot who have said: “I’m for what BLM stands for, but I’m also for what law enforcement stands for.” And my response is, we have to be balanced. We have to have a balanced approach. I think we do need to align our training with preservation of life and deescalation.

I hadn’t even seen the video of what happened to George Floyd. My kids came to me, and my daughter said: “Mommy, did you see this?” And she’s 17. And she showed it to me and I was just so shocked and appalled and hurt by what I saw and how that translated to my kids. I do not support defunding the police. What I do support is a reallocation of resources to go into the community to help address some of these social ills.

Has there been any pushback to the program?

There’s been pushback from some activist groups saying that we didn’t ask for this, we asked for defunding of the police and here you are creating a new bureau for the police. Initially, I think there was some pushback [in the department]. There were some people saying so you’re just social workers with guns. This isn’t our responsibility. And I think that there had to be a culture shift within some of our officers to really understand what we were doing. And almost a decade later, that foundation’s been set. And now it’s just bringing awareness outside of our department into this type of policing concept. There’s been pushback from some activist groups. “I’m saying that we didn’t ask for this. We asked for defunding of the police. And here you are creating a new bureau for the police.” That has been some of the pushback. LAPD officers understand this concept and understand the program.

Do you see a difference in the way that children in Watts look at the police now?

Probably six or seven years ago, I was in Imperial Courts. I was talking to this little kid, and the mother said: “Don’t you fucking talk to the police! Get the fuck away from my kid!”. That sticks in my mind.

And when we decided we were going to start the Watts Bears football team at the time, the officers told me: “Well, how do you expect us to get out and recruit these kids, they don’t like us.” And I said: “You guys got to keep going back. Don’t give up.” And so the officers would go out and knock on doors and some people would close the doors in their face. Some people took their flyers and tore them up. And this was when we were telling them it is a free program for your kids. But they didn’t want to be associated with the police.

Now fast forward six years and we have kids who started off with 2.0 GPAs. And now they have a 4.0. And they’re saying it’s because of the mentorship they got from the officer. We’ve been able to see these kids grow from middle school to high school and now off to college and them calling us to tell us: “Hey, I’m FaceTiming you I’m in my dorm, or I’m away from Watts. I feel scared. What can I do?” So there’s a place for us and we’ve had a huge impact on the lives of children and families. And there are a lot of people who behind closed doors are telling us people have no idea the impact you’ve had in our families, and our kids wouldn’t be in college if it wasn’t for you.

What would you like people to know about LAPD and police in general?

What’s so important is we don’t broad brush. There are so many things that have happened with the Catholic church and with malpractice and with things in government. The difference in our case is that wrong could be the result of us taking someone’s life. It’s one of the things that we hope we can go through our career without having to do.

I’m going on my 26th year. I remember chasing a young boy who was spray-painting graffiti on the side of a church. He pulled a gun out of his waistband and he started running. I remember in my mind thinking, dear Lord, please don’t let me have to shoot this young kid. The last time he looked back at me, we locked eyes. I gained on him. Then I landed on him and the gun went flying. I remember handcuffing him and sitting him up, I looked at him and I said: “What are you thinking? What are you doing? I could have shot you. Why didn’t you point the gun at me? What was your thought process?” And he said: “Well, I thought about it. But you looked so mean and determined. I was scared.” And I said, “On top of that you were defacing the church, man, where’s your mama? Let’s get you home and find out what’s going on with you.”

He looked so scared running with that gun. But those are instances that you don’t hear about. –

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