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In the wake of the media exposure of police brutality, voices have been raised in the search for new policing strategies calling for reform of police departments and better mechanisms of accountability. For many, the experience of different forms of community policing seem to be the answer. However, as good as a community-oriented policing is or ought to be, we need to go beyond policing and shift the conversation towards addressing the socio-economic and historical causes that have led brown and black communities to continue being the victims of violence and police brutality.

Policing Strategy

The danger of concentrating all our efforts on police reform is that it reinforces a way of thinking which posits that the solutions to the problems affecting low-income brown and black communities is one of law and order. This has been the dominant approach nationwide in general and in Los Angeles in particular. According to data obtained at the Los Angeles City’s budget webpage, police expenditures have increased 14.8% since 2009 and will increase 23.8% more this year, which is more than what the educational budget has increased. This reflects the vision that policing efforts are the main reason behind the reduction of violence in Los Angeles and that only by increasing law enforcement’s budget violence will be reduced.

The danger of concentrating all our efforts on police reform is that it reinforces a way of thinking which posits that the solutions to the problems affecting low-income brown and black communities is one of law and order. 

The LAPD has praised itself for adopting a model of community policing that, according to LAPD’s webpage, is fundamental for reducing the fear of crime and improving the quality of life in neighborhoods citywide. The praise for this strategy has not only come from within the institution. In the midst of the Baltimore uprising, some community representatives at the Watts Gang Task Force and at the Southern California Cease Fire Committee argued that Baltimore should look at L.A. in order to learn how to move forward and improve relations between the community and the police.

There is no doubt that community policing has brought some positive change to Los Angeles. The creation of Community Policing Advisory Boards (CPAB)—where community leaders and police officers get together to talk about problems affecting their communities—and the training of some police officers to be in charge of “bridge-building,” have had some positive outcomes. However, it has not produced a significant transformation in the way state authority is exercised in low-income brown and black communities across the city.

Moreover, many of the positive results have come out of individual efforts rather than an institutional change. As Adela Barajas, founder of LAURA (Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts) explains: “There is night and day in LAPD. There are those who would treat you respectfully, who will be open to criticism, and will go the extra mile to help the community. And there are others who will treat you as a suspect because they do not like the way you look or because you criticized them.”

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Robles’s impression is shared by many community leaders and CPAB members.

Furthermore, many younger residents of these communities do not feel these improvements. Their experience with law enforcement reinforces the feeling that driving or riding a bike while black is still considered a suspicious activity. The constant pullovers and searches foster a sense of second-class citizenship. The fact that these encounters are not recorded in the official statistics does not mean they do not occur. In many ways, in fact, community policing has become part of a larger disguise masking the ugly face of the way policing is being conducted in Los Angeles.

Capt. Rodriguez, Chief of Newton’s Police Station in South L.A., states: “People should stop seeing the police as the panacea for all the community’s problems.” It is not through policing that the quality of life of the community will be improved. In his ethnographic study of urban policing in Paris suburbs, French anthropologist Didier Fassin argues that the police and the residents cannot be held solely responsible for the tensions between them; there is a history and a context that defines this encounter. We will do better if we attempt to transform the context.

Community Coalition President, Alberto Retana, points out that without structural changes, it will be very difficult to alter the existing situation. Practical and feasible ideas are being developed and they should receive a proper consideration. L.A. for Youth, for example, has proposed to redirect 1% of county funds and 1% of L.A. City funds spent on law enforcement towards funding youth centers, youth workers, and creating youth jobs.

The movement fighting for police reform needs to join forces with the movement fighting for social and economic reforms, says Retana. He is definitely on point. We need to encourage the political and social mobilization that is growing as a result of police brutality, and focus on shifting the approach from one of law and order towards one that improves education, social services, public health, and employment conditions—in short, to an approach that truly addresses the quality of life of low-income brown and black communities.

Sebastián Sclofsky

Sebastián Sclofsky