By Jim Dresbach
10 August, 2016
Recent police shootings in the United States have raised tensions between police and African Americans in places like Los Angeles, California.
Los Angeles is no stranger to racial tensions. Many Americans still remember the riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King more than 20 years ago.
The beating was videotaped and broadcast on television. Four police officers were charged with use of excessive force in arresting King, an African American. The four were found not guilty during the trial. The court ruling incited the rioting.
Police Captain Andrew Neiman remembers the unrest. "I didn't even want to be a police officer in L.A. following the riots," he said. "I felt that we had let our community down. It really touched me personally. That was not the Los Angeles that I grew up with. But I'm glad I stayed. We took our lessons learned and we have really expanded that."
Today, when there is a shooting in the city, it often takes place in South Los Angeles. South L.A. is home to nearly one million people, many of them with low-paying jobs. The area covers more than 130 square kilometers. It has also been known for violence among competing gangs.
The Los Angeles Police Department, or L.A.P.D., has a gang prevention program called Summer Night Lights. Its officers take part in community policing. They are sent to a certain neighborhood and talk to the residents - mainly black or Latino - and play with young people.
While the children play basketball happily with police officers, many African Americans are worried that there have been too many cases of police brutality against people of color.
Activists see 'severe problem'
Melina Abdullah is an organizer for the Black Lives Matter Movement.
She says "Los Angeles, like pretty much every other police department in the nation, has a severe problem in the way in which officers treat all people, especially black people, poor people and people with mental-health challenges."
Members of the movement have recently taken part in a sit-in protest in Los Angeles. They are demanding the removal of police chief Charlie Beck following the decision of a commission of inquiry.
Commission members ruled that the police did not violate rules during a shooting last year. During the incident, a black woman was killed. Police said they acted because the woman had a knife.
Abdullah said "It's about the system, so we have a systemic problem. We have a problem with policing in that they are actually trained to view us as enemy combatants. We need to transform that system."
History of racial tensions
Police Captain Neiman noted "We're at a point right now where we've reached another crossroads in recognizing that we need to do more." He said smartphones and social media are fueling the current racial tension.
"Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine. All of these social apps allow the public, general citizens, to take out their smartphones and capture video of a very dynamic situation," Neiman said. "Then they instantly post it to the world without any context, without any understanding."
Others say the new technology helps to hold police responsible for their actions.
However, people on both sides of this argument say perceptions need to change.
Skipp Townsend is a former gang member who is now an intervention worker. He says, "We have to address the pain in the community."
He also wants outsiders to stop labeling the community as violent.
Townsend teaches life skills to former prisoners and people who are at risk. He says contacts between police and members of the black community are necessary. He also says there should be more community policing.
"There's no way to build a relationship at the time of a crisis or incident, so the police should be proactive," Townsend said.
Neiman agrees that officers need to do more community policing. But he said there are limits to the number of officers available.
Police resources limited
The L.A.P.D. employs close to 10,000 officers. Yet the department has trouble covering every community, Neiman said.
Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter says the community policing problem also needs to be considered as a social issue.
"We want our funds to be used for things like living-wage jobs, like mental health resources, like after-school programs, like intervention and prevention work," she said.
In South Los Angeles, many residents do not mind seeing more police at gang prevention events such as Summer Night Lights.
Bobby Johnson is a local resident. "We have good cops and we have our bad cops," he said. "We only see our good cops come around the community where we have events like this."
I'm Ashley Thompson.
Words in This Story
gang – n. a group of young people who do illegal things together and who often fight against other gangs
Latino – n. a person who was born or lives in South America, Central America or Mexico or a person in the U.S. whose family is originally from South America, Central America or Mexico
police brutality – n. the use of too much force by a police officer
combatants – n. people, groups or countries that fight in a war or battle
verdicts – n. decisions made by a jury in a trial
smartphone – n. a mobile telephone that can be used to send and receive e-mails, connect to the Internet and take photographs
crossroads – n. often used to refer to a place or time at which a decision must be made
apps – n. computer programs that perform special functions
cops – n. police officers