For Capt. Peter Whittingham of the Los Angeles Police Department’s North Hollywood Division, the improved community relations he has seen between cops and citizens since the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago can best be summed up in one little finger — the one he rarely sees waved at him anymore.
“In those days, you walk around as police officers, and community members in certain areas, especially in South Los Angeles, they would wave at you, but there was just one finger — the bird,” Whittingham told Patch. “But now, I’m happy to say as you walk around you can see all five fingers waving, which shows the change in terms of the appreciation and the relationship that has developed.”
During a 45-minute interview at his office, Whittingham reflected on the positive community relations the LAPD is now experiencing, as well as the massive reduction in crime and gang violence over the last two decades. Crime has fallen since the early 90s, when there were often more than 1,000 homicides a year. In 2011, there were 298.
“It was a violent time in the history of the city. Indeed, it was a dark day in the history of Los Angeles and it polarized not only the Los Angeles community but I daresay it also polarized this police department,” Whittingham said of the riots, which started 20 years ago today on April 29, 1992. Fifty five people were killed in the riots.
When asked what is most responsible for the crime reduction, Whittingham, like most officers, credits the LAPD’s adoption of community-oriented policing — something that was not stressed during the years leading up to riots — above all other reasons.
“In the past there was a notoriety for the LAPD as apprehension focused, until we realized that no matter now many arrests we made, we are still going to have certain problems,” said Whittingham, who has been on the force since 1988. “As (former LAPD Chief William) Bratton liked to say, ‘We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.’ So we started to put community-based policing into motion, as opposed to just talking about it. And so you start to see more collaboration with people we otherwise would not have — gang members, gang interventionists — a real, true partnership with the community.”
Whittingham immigrated to America from Jamaica in 1983, and was a young sergeant in the San Fernando Valley’s Foothill Division during the time of the riots. While his patrol area was a long way from where the majority of the rioting took place, the alleged beating of motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers, which ignited the riots after a jury acquitted all four officers of assault charges and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force, had occurred in the Foothill Division, and Whittingham was transferred to Foothill and promoted to sergeant not long after the King incident.
Today, the King incident is recognized by the LAPD as unjustified, Whittingham said.
“It was an unfortunate incident, clearly. There is little in my view that can justify what we saw there. I think that has since been acknowledged by all that it is not the way we do business,” Whittingham said.
However, the acknowledgment was not universal in the department back when he was at the Foothill Division, he recalled, and he found himself supervising officers who were friends and co-workers of the officers involved in the King incident, and some who were peripherally involved.
“Because of the environment at the time it was very challenging as a supervisor, as a young black going into Foothill, where the sense was, ‘OK, well, what side are you on?’” Whittingham said. “And it took some time to convince them that I was on the side of right, wherever that falls. We talk about integrity in all we do and in some cases some people may interpret integrity where it’s convenient or circumstantial.”
As dark and difficult as those days were, Whittingham said he now looks back on them with satisfaction. In many ways, the leadership challenges he had to overcome back then is representative of the challenges that the LAPD as a whole had to overcome.
“In my case, I was determined to practice integrity, take-it-to-the-bank type of integrity regardless of where it falls. If you are uncomfortable that, then it is your problem, not mine,” he said. “I think it was because of that consistency that I was able to be effective as a supervisor, and when my peers and subordinate officers realized that this guy is consistent and he deals with issues on the basis of principal, not relationships, or race for that matter, that is how I was able to be effective in my role as a supervisor in Foothill and it turned out to be a very rewarding experience for me.”
Whittingham also said he feels strongly that the force officers used during the Rodney King arrest, and the toxic environment that led to the riots, would not happen today.
“What has happened over the years, we have built a trust-based relationship with the community. It has reached a point where it can withstand differences,” he said. “There was a time when we were moving forward and bridging the gap and creating a positive relationship, but it was tenuous. You think you are there but you’re not. Little things happen and you revert back to where you were — acrimony, antagonism, whatever — that may come between both groups working together.”
Whittingham pointed to the recent shooting of a man on the Ventura Freeway in Woodland Hills by LAPD officers, and the protests by the man’s family and friends, as an example of the improved relations and trust that has been built with the community. After leading officers on a chase, Abdul Arian was shot by officers dozens of times after he got out of his car and went into what appeared to be a shooting stance. According to the LAPD, Arian called 911 during the pursuit and told a dispatcher he was armed and was prepared to shoot officers.
“(The protesting) was to my view and to some extent emotionally driven and confined to family members and immediate supporters, as opposed to the wider community. Why? Because people are not willing to immediately jump on the bandwagon without facts supporting the allegations against the police,” Whittingham said. “You can see the transparency that followed. The police came out and provided information, ‘Here are the facts.’ I have been in situations where there was concern about police activity. So I would say, ‘OK, let’s talk about it. Here is the situation. Be patient, as we are.’ Because clearly we find that if there is a concern we will take appropriate action, and the trust is there that we will. There was a time where, ‘No, we don’t trust the police.’”
Here in the North Hollywood area and the San Fernando Valley, Whittingham pointed to the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs as an example of a community organization that the LAPD’s cooperation with has helped reduce crime and violence.
“An organization like San Fernando Valley Gang Coalition, where you have representatives of the different communities and organizations come together once a month and talk about issues in our respective communities and what we can do, and the level of involvement from members of GRID and gang interventionists, you can see how much that effort has resulted in the reduction in gang violence,” he said. “Those are the types of relationships I think that is credited more than anything in the reduction in crime and gang-related crime.
As the reduced crime rates over the last few years have been celebrated and analyzed, Patch has asked many LAPD officers what they think is responsible for the falling crime rates, and the answer almost always points to community-oriented policing policies.
"I think the biggest thing is the relationship that we have with the community as well as the business owners around here," LAPD Senior Lead Officer John Catalano said when in the NoHo Arts District. "Around here, the majority of the business owners know me by first name, and I know them by first name. That kind of friendship and relationship helps us retain the information that we need to reduce the crime or prosecute the crime."
The idea of what community-oriented policing means also continues to evolve, as was evidenced last week by the North Hollywood Division's new Roll Call in the Street, where a shift change meeting that typically takes place at the station was moved out onto a public street near the North Hollywood Metro Red Line Station.
"After the roll call, the officers that patrol the area stay in the area with two or three officers," said Sgt. Aaron Ponce, who came up with the idea. "Because what I find is that citizens will come up and talk to us. When we are static in the area, and it doesn't look like we are running an operation per say, or a police operation, people come up and that's when we open the lines of communication and we talk to them about hiding their stuff, locking their stuff up."
The LAPD’s increase in numbers overall and increase in minorities on the force have also been credited by many with helping reduce crime and improve the LAPD’s standing in the community, but Whittingham was quick to say that those increases would have been meaningless without an overall change in philosophy of the LAPD.“I don’t know if the increase in minorities on the force, we can attribute the change in the way we do business to the increase in the number. The pure numerical increase in my view doesn’t change much,” Whittingham said. “What has changed is the mindset and culture of how we do business. In those days, no matter now many minorities you have, if the culture was so indelible and so ingrained, it would perhaps capture those who may choose to resist. So it was a change in culture projected by the leadership of the department at every level, every incremental level, from top down, that we are going to do the right thing for the right reason.”