'I've Never Seen This Before': Police-Community Relations Are At A Low Point

Police aggressively push back protestors near Fairfax and 3rd during a May 30 protest. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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In recent months, the relationship between law enforcement and some of the communities it serves has sharply deteriorated.

Just ask L.A. Sheriff's Capt. Duane Allen, Jr. For 32 years, he's worked for the Sheriff's Department in various assignments around the county.

Today, Allen commands the South L.A. Station, which has been the scene of angry protests over the fatal shooting of Dijon Kizzee by two deputies supervised by Allen. The demonstrations were only the latest in a series of protests over police conduct in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Allen has seen people angry about policing before, but never like the last few months.

Sheriff's Capt. Duane Allen, Jr. (Courtesy L.A. Sheriff's Dept.)

"People are chanting that they want to know where my kids go to school and where my parents go to church," he told us. "I've never seen this before ... it's hostile."

Demonstrators, watchdog groups and civil rights organizations say law enforcement's reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests also exacerbated the mistrust. Separate lawsuits against the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department claim widespread instances of excessive force and other misconduct.

The lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department claims deputies hit demonstrators with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas, often without warning, and failed to issue a dispersal order prior to using force or arresting people.

The complaint also says deputies deprived detainees of basic human rights, refusing them access to food or water and holding them for long periods of time in small, poorly ventilated spaces while not wearing masks.

'HE OBVIOUSLY HATES POLICEMEN AND HE WANTS THEM DEAD'

Adding to the tension: the ambush attack on two deputies sitting in their car in Compton last month. The deputies were critically injured. Deonte Lee Murray, 36, has been charged with attempted murder.

Officials don't yet have information about a possible motive for the ambush, "other than the fact that he obviously hates policemen and he wants them dead," Sheriff's Capt. Kent Wegener said Wednesday.

The ambush wasn't the only recent attack against law enforcement. Twenty-nine-year-old Jose Cerpa Guzman is facing an attempted murder charge after he attacked an LAPD officer at the Harbor Station in San Pedro last Saturday, taking the officer's gun, pistol whipping him and pointing the weapon at the officer's chest.

On Tuesday, LAPD Chief Michael Moore reported 282 alleged felony assaults on officers so far this year — up 156% from the same period last year. He said most occurred during protests, which also drew accusations of widespread police brutality — and lawsuits against the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department.

'WE WERE UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT THINGS...WERE GETTING BETTER'

Michael Fisher condemns attacks on law enforcement officers. He also feels betrayed by law enforcement.

Fisher is the pastor at Greater Zion Church in Compton. His congregation has worked hard to build a relationship with the Sheriff's Department — even bringing food to the night shift.

Pastor Michael Fisher (Courtesy of Tyré Mills)

"We were under the impression that things were in fact getting better," he said, "until the videos started coming all the time."

It's not just video from around the country that worries Fisher. It's deputy shootings like that of Andres Guardado, who was shot five times in the back not too far from Fisher's church (the lawyer for the deputy who shot Guardado said he opened fire when Guardado, while lying face down on the ground, reached for a gun he had dropped), and reports of a deputy gang dominating the Compton station and using excessive force.

"It's as if the masks have come off, that this entire time, we were working with racists," Fisher said.

The pastor is quick to say he doesn't believe all sheriff's deputies are racist. After all, two of his nieces work for the department.

'VERY INTENSE' CONVERSATIONS

Across law enforcement agencies, cops are feeling the heat.

LAPD Deputy Chief Emada Tingirides oversees the agency's Community Safety Partnership, which places officers in specific neighborhoods — mostly South L.A. housing projects — for five years. The nationally recognized program has officers focus on solving problems rather than making arrests, said Tingirides.

They talk regularly to residents — more than the average officer chasing the next radio call. Lately, the conversations have been about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns about heavy-handed policing.

"Some of those conversations are very intense right now," Tingirides said. "Can they feel the tension in some areas and some communities? Absolutely."

LAPD Deputy Chief Emada Tingirides (Courtesy LAPD)

Past surveys have found people in poorer, Black, and Latino communities tend to be less happy with the policing they receive than people in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found 84% of Black adults said they're treated less fairly by police than whites.

But dissatisfaction with law enforcement has grown, according to a recent Gallup poll that found just 48% of Americans have confidence in the police — the lowest number since Gallup started asking the question nearly three decades ago.

The Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University is currently polling L.A. residents about their attitudes toward police, Director Fernando Guerra told us. (Guerra is an Honorary Life Trustee of our parent company, Southern California Public Radio.)

THIS IS NOT A NEW PROBLEM

The breakdown in trust occurred long before this year, said Patricia Guerra (no relation), director of organizing at the Community Coalition. For years, she's worried whenever her brothers come see her.

"When they visit me here in South Central L.A., I prefer to be the driver instead of them because in our neighborhoods, Black and brown men are specifically targeted," she said.

A 2019 Los Angeles Times investigation found LAPD officers with one elite unit stopped Blacks at a rate more than five times their share of the city's population. Chief Moore later said he would reduce the number of random car stops by the unit to address the problem.

"This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. It's beyond, like, the individual police officer," Patricia Guerra said. That's why many activists call for defunding the police — or at least shifting large amounts of money from law enforcement to social and other services to help homeless and mentally ill people (who are often arrested for quality of life crimes or behavior considered anti-social).

Patricia Guerra (Courtesy of Community Coalition)

Guerra called out the Sheriff's Department in particular, because of Sheriff Alex Villanueva's refusal to cooperate with the Civilian Oversight Commission.

"When we have a sheriff that is not being held accountable," she said, "it's really hard to believe and trust what's being put out from the department."

Villanueva said recently that those who don't trust his department represent "a very narrow segment of the community." The "average person on the street" appreciates law enforcement, he added.

AT NIGHT, 'THIS OTHER REGIME' COMES OUT

Measuring support for law enforcement can be complicated.

When asked whether they want the police to spend more time, the same amount of time, or less time than they currently do in their neighborhoods, 61% of Black Americans want the police presence to remain the same, according to the Gallup poll. That's not far from the 67% of all adult Americans who gave the same answer.

But what matters is where police are and how they behave there, said Fisher of Greater Zion Church.

"By day, we're having cops who are trying to get to know the community and then by night — and I am speaking figuratively — you have this other regime that take their power and abuse it," he said.

The problem lies less with deputies and more with people's perceptions, according to Sheriff's Capt. Allen.

"People right now are very quick to make judgments on things. Nobody has any patience anymore," he said. "Everybody feels like they know exactly what happened right now — and your judgements are based on preconceived notions."

For example, some protesters don't distinguish between when police shoot somebody who is armed and somebody who is unarmed.

For many, judgments are based on the explosion in videos of law enforcement interactions with people. George Floyd may be the most compelling example, but there are hundreds of others.

Allen hopes turning the cameras around will help build trust. The Sheriff's Department begins outfitting deputies with body worn cameras this month.

"It will give a very big boost to transparency in the community," he said.

The LAPD has had body-worn cameras for five years. Deputy Chief Tingirides says it will take more than outward-facing video to win hearts and minds.

"I think the biggest challenge right now is law enforcement understanding the history and the culture," she said, "and why people are feeling the way that they feel."

Without that understanding, cops may never gain the trust they need to make the transition recommended by President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing: from warriors to guardians.