The Long Beach Police Department has taken steps recently to improve relations with the communities it serves. The move comes in the wake of nationwide protests that followed killings by police officers of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo. and New York.
In January, LBPD Police Chief Robert Luna appeared at a community forum in central Long Beach to assure residents his department is “concerned” about relations with the community. But amid a backdrop of complaints over racial profiling and use of excessive force, many question whether enough is being done to repair ties. VoiceWaves spoke to six community residents and activists about their views.
Michael Brown, 36, helped launch the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, a national movement that aims to put the spotlight on police violence targeting African Americans. He says when it comes to community policing, there needs to be more accountability.
“The community should have control over who polices them and actually hold these people accountable,” Brown said. That would include the ability to force out officers involved in shootings such as in Fergusson, Missouri last August.
“When these officers shoot somebody, why can’t we have their name? That doesn’t make any sense,” Brown said. “You have to put structures together that people actually believe in.”
Residents can also protect themselves by knowing their rights, Brown suggested. “Knowledge is always power … You don’t have to acquiesce and you don’t have to be trampled over.”
Still, given the history, Brown is skeptical about improved relations between police and the African American community.
“Black people in this country have never had a good relationship with the police and that is not by accident. That is by design,” he said.
Though crime was high, he says, many people refused to call the police. So LeBaron began attending community watch meetings, where he spoke to residents and learned that many were too embarrassed to call, thinking the police had betting things to do.
“Please bother us. Let us come and respond.” That was the mantra he formed after this experience. Not long after, 911 calls began coming in and crime rates soon fell.
Le Baron credits that in part to the more than 100 community watch groups that formed during his tenure.
“It’s the community’s opportunity to organize and address the issues,” LeBaron said. Meetings are run by residents, and happen on people’s front lawns, living rooms, or in community centers.
Despite the successes, however, LeBaron is aware of the challenges that remain, including the bad press that comes with police interactions gone awry.
“We can take ten steps forward, but one negative interaction will cause us to go 100 steps back,” LeBaron said.
Long Beach City College student Corleone Ham, 20, says youth of color are most often the targets of profiling, and that if anything, LBPD officers need more training on how to interact with youth.
“If [an officer has] a problem with me, they shouldn’t approach me in a way that makes me feel defensive. I think that’s basic communication skills,” Ham said.
He added that he knows a number of students on gang injunction lists even if they’re not affiliated with a gang. “Being placed on the [list] is detrimental to them trying to get a job,” Ham explained.
The Black Guy with a Hoodie
Robert Howard, 34, says in his younger days he was often pulled over, at least once a week. These days it happens less often, though the 6-foot-4-inch Howard – with tattoos down both arms and dressed in Jordans and a hoodie – says it’s still an unnerving experience.
“As they approach the car, I see that they’re uncomfortable. I see that they have their hand over their holster. They seem fearful of me, and I’m naturally uneased by their presence,” Howard said.
Howard believes implementing a “restorative justice” approach to community-police relations could help lower tensions, but says part of the work has to come from the community.
“Police officers are human beings with families, with personal lives and personal traumas. We need to break down some of these biases against police. That starts on both sides.”
“Let’s face it. The police-community relationship is forever a work in progress. It’s the nature of the beast,” said Grant Boyer, a professor of Administration of Justice at Long Beach City College.
Boyer served as a street cop with the LBPD for 20 years. He also served on the Citizen’s Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) and recalled the controversial event that led to the creation of the CPCC.
In 1989, Don Jackson, a former police sergeant from Hawthorne, went driving in Long Beach with an undercover NBC camera crew to document incidences of profiling targeting African Americans.
When an LBPD officer pulled Jackson over, a scuffle ensued with the officer later slamming Jackson’s head through a plate glass window. The camera crew caught the whole thing.
“That image went … on the front page of every newspaper in California. The reputation of this law enforcement agency was lower than pond scum,” Boyer said.
The CPCC came soon after, allowing citizens to issue complaints and have commissioners conduct subsequent investigations. It was the first step in opening up channels of communication that Boyer says is central to building trust.
As an example, he points to Academy training, where cadets are put face-to-face with local residents “with an axe to grind” who then unleash on the would-be officers with complaints about policing.
“Academy training has come a long way but, you know, there’s always room for improvement,” Boyer said.
It was a cold, rainy day in 2012 when Yusnei Garcia, 25, was driving her son home from the doctor. She heard about a local sheriff’s deputy who allegedly had gone rouge, profiling and pulling over undocumented Latina mothers by Roosevelt elementary school.
Turns out she herself would be pulled over by that same deputy. “I was really nervous. He asked why I didn’t have a driver’s license. I told him I’m not from here,” Garcia recalled.
“Well, your loss is someone else’s win,” the deputy allegedly said. (Similar statements involving the same officer were compiled in a report prepared by the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles).
Garcia’s car was impounded, and she later lost her job at a Los Angeles catering business. She had no way to make the trek out there anymore.
Garcia says being undocumented makes relying on the police difficult.
“I don’t like the police being at my house because my husband’s also undocumented. We are scared something might happen … What if they come pick us up?” said Garcia. “I try not to call them.”
This past Wednesday was the first time Garcia had ever called 911. Her son was having asthma problems.
Garcia doesn’t believe all police officers or sheriff deputies are bad apples. But she does have a request for those who cause trouble. “Just because we look Latino, don’t stop us,” she said. “We drive because we need to. To go to work or to take our kids to school.”