In the two decades from 1980 to 2000, more than 15,000 young men died violent deaths in Los Angeles. Nowhere was the violence more entrenched than in the public housing developments of Watts, a 20-square-block area seven miles south of downtown. Police likened working Watts to entering a war zone. It was, says Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, who served as a gang officer in Watts in the late 1970s, “an amazingly, surreally brutal time.” Residents in turn saw the police force as an occupying army.
Today, Watts is attracting attention for a very different reason: It’s become a model for how police and minority communities can work together to improve relations and reduce crime. Community residents and gang intervention workers have played a critical role in this process, but it wouldn’t have happened without the skill and commitment of two married LAPD officers, Commander Phil Tingirides and Sergeant Emada Tingirides.
Phil Tingirides was appointed senior area captain for Watts in 2007. He immediately set out to build strong relations with the Watts Gang Task Force, a group created after a series of gang shootings in 2005. He started weekly meetings with the task force, developing trust and relationships that eventually allowed the LAPD to police Watts in a different way, one that would dramatically reduce the rate of violent crime.
In 2011, the Community Safety Partnership was born. A collaboration between the LAPD and the city Housing Authority, the program placed an additional 30 officers in public housing developments in Watts. To head up the initiative, the police turned to Emada Tingirides. Together, Emada and Phil Tingirides looked for officers who were interested in relationship building, not suppression. More than 300 applied. Over the course of the following year, the police started a football team, the Watts Bears, as well as a Girl Scout troop. They sponsored dances and raised money for scholarships.
The results over the next few years were staggering. Shootings by young men and women fell by two-thirds. Homicides dropped nearly to zero in the housing developments where the program was in place. Watts is still a poor, high-crime community. But while South Los Angeles as a whole has seen violent crime rise this year, Watts has seen it fall even further.
Across the country, the police profession is grappling with what some call a crisis of legitimacy. It’s a crucial time for cities to get it right on building relationships between police and the communities they serve. The Tingirideses have consulted with other cities, including Chicago and New York, on implementing an approach similar to the one in Watts. But it’s not easy, says Emada: “They need to get community support in putting together programs. And they need to have patience. It takes patience.”
Phil agrees. “You are changing the culture of communities and the police department,” he says, “and real culture change takes time.”
It’s time worth investing. Phil and Emada Tingirides’ work in Watts -- together with the work of community residents, gang interventionists and many others -- has become a model of reform and a symbol of hope.
-- By John Buntin
Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch their acceptance speeches below: