Over the years, the Los Angeles Police Department has often had a rocky relationship with some of the communities it has been charged to police — particularly the African American, Latino, and LGBT communities.
It’s easy enough to pick out the lowlights: The series of incidents that led to the infamous 1965 Watts riots, the Rampart scandal, the Rodney King beating, the “May Day Melee” in MacArthur Park, to name a few.
Any big city police department is going to have its own collection of dark memories — some as bad, maybe some worse than LA’s. But the LAPD has a held reputation for being especially tough on minorities. Ask a long-time Black or Latino resident. If “Driving While Black” wasn’t invented here, it could have been.
But, if you were to judge by recent events — especially around the Department’s refreshing approach to LA’s gay and lesbian community — that woeful reputation may change for the better.
Transgender Policy Sets Pace
The procedures for dealing with transgendered individuals unveiled by Chief Charlie Beck in mid April are a good example of the ground-breaking culture change that is taking place at the LAPD.
These new procedures require LAPD officers to refer to transgendered individuals by the name and gender they prefer, and precludes officers from searching transgendered individuals solely for the purpose of determining their anatomical gender.
On a Thursday afternoon, we sat down with Officer Alessandra (Sandra) Moura, the LAPD’s liaison to the LGBT community, to ask how the new policy is being received by the rank and file and to learn more about the department’s changing culture.
“I don’t see resistance among officers. Often, officers come up to me for help on how to implement the policy. They want to know how they should go about searching a transgendered person,” Moura told us as she lauded the LAPD’s commitment to protect and serve all communities within its jurisdiction.
As a member of the Department’s Media Relations & Community Affairs Group under Lieutenant Valencia Thomas, Moura networks with other police departments who want to from the experiences of the LAPD particularly in this unchartered realm.
“I’m working closely with Officer Celeste Norman, who’s handling LGBT outreach efforts for Riverside PD,” Moura says, who spent her formative years living in Brazil and France, before moving to Woodland Hills at 10 and learning English as her third language. “And I’m working with police departments in Phoenix and San Francisco, and trying to connect with people at the New York Police Department.”
Moura says her boss, Commander Andrew Smith — the tall, shaved-head community relations officer who became the LAPD’s face at the Occupy LA encampment at City Hall — calls them the “experts” in community relations.
Outreach to LGBT Community
In a similar vein, the LAPD is midway through a nine-week orientation for the LGBT community held at the Department’s training facility at Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium. Arranged by Officer Moura, the academy is designed to give community members an overview of LAPD polices and procedures, with a curriculum and teaching methods that are similar to the Department’s traditional enforcement academy.
We attended one of these three-hour sessions a week before interviewing Officer Moura. The classroom appeared to be filled to capacity. Three one-hour presentations were given by officers from hate crimes, narcotics, and vice. The nine-week course includes presentations on domestic violence, constitutional policing, and use of force, among others, leading to a graduation on June 14th.
Although this academy was specifically directed at the LGBT community — and others are given for African American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander communities — the presentations themselves are not geared to a specific demographic, but are designed to give people in the community a sense of what it is to be an LAPD officer. Potential officer recruitment is a second goal, according to Moura, and at least a few of the two dozen attendees we saw looked like potential candidates for the regular police academy.
“We had an LGBTQ academy in 2002, but stopped there,” said. Lieutenant Thomas. “We started again last year, so this is the second annual event.”
Can’t Police What You Don’t Understand
Moura credits the Department’s leadership — from Chief Charlie Beck on down — with instilling and enforcing a more community-oriented policing approach.
“We’ve learned how important it is to understand the communities we police,” says Moura, citing the shooting of Manuel Jamines in 2010, who had approached police officers wielding a knife.
“It turns out Jamines was Mayan and didn’t understand Spanish,” she explained as she recounted how officers at the scene tried to get Jamine to drop the knife. “We didn’t even know Los Angeles had a Mayan community. It’s small but it’s there, and it’s up to us to know where each community is, understand its needs, and be prepared to deal with them on their terms.”
Although allegations of rough handling during the police destruction of the Occupy LA encampment have been leveled at LA police officers, overall LAPD’s handling of the Occupy Movement was strikingly better than all other major city police departments across the country. One need only remember the Oakland riots, the dunderheaded pepper-spraying at UC Davis, and the NYPD’s heavy-handed tactics at Occupy Wall Street and on the Brooklyn Bridge. During the weeks of the LA encampment, officers seemed to go out of their way to be friendly and approachable.
Moura, who knows fellow officers who have lost homes in the foreclosure crisis and who nearly lost her own, said officers understand and care about the issues the Occupy Movement is attempting to address, but also need to do their job protecting the public.
“We take pride in staying calm, keeping our cool, not responding to taunts,” Moura said, recalling the massive LAPD response to the May Day protests, which at times seemed to involve more police and sheriff deputies than demonstrators, and included a half dozen menacing helicopters overhead.
“We knew the first group that gathered at Olympic and Main were there for fun, to have a parade,” Moura said, referring to a crowd that included immigration rights groups, gay pride groups, and labor. “But we were nervous. We thought others coming in from other parts of Los Angeles might be looking to make trouble later in the day.”
Second Annual LGBT Heritage Month
Moura is especially excited about LA’s Second Annual LGBT Heritage Month, festivities which kick off Friday, June 1st, at City Hall.
“Chief Beck has just confirmed,” says Moura, a UC Santa Cruz graduate, who dreams one day of working as a detective with juveniles, steering them away from the bad path they’ve started on. Speaking of Chief Beck’s leadership and commitment to community-oriented policing, Moura says, “Last year, he spoke to a packed house in the City Council Chambers, bringing everyone to their feet. He spoke without notes, from the heart, and started with, ‘This isn’t my father’s Los Angeles Police Department.’”
Moura, a single mom preparing her daughter to start college in a year and her son a few years after that, said police officers in the room were moved.
“I almost shed a few tears too,” Moura concluded. “It was pretty moving.”
After a tour of her department and an hour interview with Officer Moura, we also walked away feeling pretty moved. From what we saw, Chief Beck just might be right.
– Dick & Sharon