A day with the LAPD
By Lucy Nicholson
I held on to my cameras in the passenger seat of an LAPD cruiser as Sergeant Rosendo Gomez sped around the corner to back up officers on a car chase.
Several police stood in the street behind their car doors with their guns pointed at a white minivan.
“Put your hands up where we can see them,” an officer commanded. “Get out of the car. Put your hands behind your head. On your knees. Lie down.”
I edged tentatively towards the scene, not wanting to startle officers whose fingers were on their triggers.
In seconds, they moved in and handcuffed the man, suspected of stealing his girlfriend’s car.
I was accompanying police on the streets of the 77th Division, one of the most dangerous in Los Angeles, where the LA Riots erupted twenty years ago after four white cops were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King.
On April 29, 1992, at the corner of Florence and Normandie, a mostly black mob beat white truck driver Reginald Denny almost to death, heralding six days of destruction that left 53 dead.
Today, the crossroads remains a scrubby intersection of gas stations and liquor stores, but much has changed around it, including a police force that took a brunt of criticism at the time for racial prejudice, hardball tactics and for abandoning the neighborhood as it burned.
The LAPD has become more racially mixed – in 1992 59% of officers were white, today only 37% are. They’ve also gone from what some complained was an occupying force to getting to know the people and developing relationships.
There are fewer gang shootings in the 77th Division than there were in 1992, when 162 people were murdered. Last year there were 33. Still an incredibly high number for an area of 11.2 square miles.
Signs of crime and the 34 gangs – many now Hispanic — that plague the area abound: street memorials to shooting victims, graffiti-smeared walls and fast-food restaurant cashiers protected by bullet-proof glass.
“It’s a very tough area to work,” says Gomez, 42. “We respond to a lot of assaults, domestic violence, and shootings – it’s a very violent division.”
Problems extend beyond crime. Unemployment is around 20% in the neighborhood. More than a quarter of high school students drop out.
There’s a dearth of supermarkets, restaurants, stores and parks. Businesses shy away from investing there and creating jobs for local young people.
“If only people would realize they’re sitting on prime Los Angeles real estate,” Senior Lead Officer Martin Martinez said.
I went to a rally the following day for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and other young black men killed by violence. The pastor asked people to stand up if they knew someone who had been shot. Around two thirds rose in the packed church. Then he asked if anyone knew someone who was in prison. Nearly everyone was on their feet.
Many of the speakers referred to a common experience of being stopped by police because of the color of their skin.
I followed Martinez as he went door to door chatting to store owners. Meeting with community leaders, to head off problems before they escalate, has become part of policing strategy.
Later we came across two officers who had lined some men up against a wall after finding them drinking on the street.
One swore under his breath, and the officer quickly ushered him into the squad car. A crowd gathered, and the officers kept telling them to keep their distance. They searched the men and lifted the shirt of one to look for gang tattoos. An officer asked him why his belt and shoes were in gang colors.
One of the residents asked me why I was taking photos, and why the media didn’t ever focus on the good things in his community. I explained I was doing a story about policing, but I didn’t feel that adequately answered his question.
The police let the men go, and a woman ran up to one of them. “Get your ass on home,” she said as he smiled sheepishly.
My LAPD photos were part of a package of Reuters photo, television, and text coverage for the anniversary of the LA Riots coordinated by photo editor Sam Mircovich.
At the time of the riots, Reuters’ Hyungwon Kang was the only Korean-speaking photographer on staff at the LA Times. He revisited Koreatown 20 years on here and here.
Jill Kitchener put together a multimedia piece about his experience here.
Jonathan Alcorn took a look at the community around the intersection where the Riots began here.
And LA Bureau Chief Ron Grover looked at changes since the riots here.