Crime in America may be on the rise again. It's too early to talk about a national trend, but there have been troubling spikes in shootings and murders in big cities such as New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles.
Until recently, crime decreased steadily for two decades, and the national murder rate is half what it was in the early 1990s — so police departments are under pressure to crack down. But at the same time, their tactics are under more scrutiny from the public, and they have to be careful not to appear too heavy-handed.
Big police departments are responding with more specialized units. In New York City, Commissioner William Bratton is expanding the use of "Renaissance cops," a kind of hybrid officer who combines the duties of a detective, a patrol officer and intelligence investigator. The idea is to have officers who don't have to chase service calls and can concentrate on a neighborhood's trouble spots.
The nation's second-largest police department, the LAPD, is doing something similar with the expansion of its Metropolitan Division. These are elite officers who are deployed as platoons to trouble spots anywhere in the city. They also don't have to respond to routine calls; instead, they spend their time trying to head off violence before it happens.
That's what they were doing on a recent summer evening in South Los Angeles, an area once known as South Central. The neighborhood has seen a recent spike in shootings, so the Metro Division's B Platoon has been on the lookout for potential troublemakers. They focus on people who are on probation or parole. They had one of them, a paroled armed robbery convict and gang member, handcuffed outside his apartment while they searched inside for weapons or gang paraphernalia. Because he's on parole, they don't need a warrant.
They call this kind of search a rollback. But the platoon's boss, Lt. Roger Murphy, says this isn't about sending people back to jail so much as it is about warning potential troublemakers to keep their heads down.
"[We] let him know, 'Hey, we're looking,'" Murphy says. And he points to the gang symbol spray-painted on the sidewalk outside the apartment. He says the man's gang is in a feud, and the Metro Division is trying to avoid violence. "So, [we tell him] you want to hang out here, you're making yourself a target, you're making yourself a victim."
For the same reason, Murphy says Metro Division officers will ticket young men for drinking in public. The purpose of that, he says, is to get them off the corner, so somebody else isn't tempted to attack them.
But for some in L.A., the question becomes, at what point does this kind of policing become too much?
The LAPD has gone through 20 years of difficult reforms, pressured by the Justice Department and community groups to behave less like an occupying army in high-crime neighborhoods. Ronald Noblet of the Urban Peace Institute says there's been a lot of progress, but he's worried about back-sliding.
"I believe the LAPD is at a tipping point," he says. "They could go back to what they were in a minute."
Noblet has spent more than four decades as a gang interventionist. He's a pioneer of LA's movement to get police and gang leaders to communicate, in the interest of heading off violence. Now that crime is rising in the city, he wonders whether the LAPD will turn away from what he calls "anti-insurgency" tactics — which means making common cause with a neighborhood against the criminals — and back to what he calls the "anti-terrorism" model.
"Which is kicking in doors, proning out people, arresting everybody and suppressing," Noblet says. "And what that does is make more enemies, create more gang members, make more people hate you and ensure that people will not share information with you."
Noblet doesn't think the LAPD has reached that point, yet, but he's troubled by what he sees as the department's fading interest in some of its community policing programs.
There's also the case of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man killed in a struggle with police last summer in South LA. Police Chief Charlie Beck found the shooting to be justified, but the Police Commission recently ruled the police didn't have a good reason to confront Ford to begin with.
Lt. Murphy says he understands the worries about overly aggressive policing, and he says that's why the Metropolitan Division's more targeted approach makes sense. He calls it a "surgical" approach.
"We're looking to focus on those specific crime problems, those specific crime locations, specific chronic offenders," Murphy says, "rather than just come in and blanket a community."
South LA resident and community activist Gwendolyn Wood is willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt.
"I'm not going to say they're all good. And I'm not going say that everything they do is perfect," she says. "But! We really have to start looking at the community, also."
She commends the LAPD for learning to listen to the community, and for being more sensitive about how its operations affect neighborhoods. Despite the doubts raised by the protests in Ferguson, and the Ezell Ford case, she thinks people are willing to work with the cops. She says that's because people still have fresh memories of how bad things were in her neighborhood, back in the early '90s.
"They were afraid to sleep at night! They would hear a gunshot and everybody would jump into the bathtub. People do not want live in that fear."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There have been troubling spikes in violent crime in cities including New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles. It's too early to talk about a national trend, but already, this uptick is putting police in a tough spot. They're under pressure to push crime back down without appearing too heavy-handed given recent protests over police brutality. NPR's Martin Kaste went to LA to see how police there are trying to strike that balance.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's almost fascinating to ask veteran cops why they think violent crime fell so much since the early '90s. Some talk about changing demographics or better police tactics.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All units - code four.
KASTE: But as he drives around LA in his unmarked car, Lieutenant Roger Murphy offers a simpler theory.
LIEUTENANT ROGER MURPHY: People don't walk around with a lot of cash in their pockets.
KASTE: It's tough for muggers now that it's all debit cards and direct deposit. Also, why rob a bank when it's safer to stay home and commit identity theft? And look what technology is doing to the drug business.
MURPHY: Narcotics sales are done a little bit more covertly. They're done through text messaging, through the Internet. It's a little bit more discreet.
KASTE: He thinks it's changes like this that have helped to turn around this neighborhood. This is South LA. It used to be called South-Central before it was rebranded. When he started out 25 years ago, he'd hear random gunfire at all hours, but now the murder rate is about a third of what it used to be. Still, that doesn't mean things are great here. Murphy points to the California sun sinking behind the 110 freeway.
MURPHY: You'll see as we go through dusk and it starts to get darker, you'll see - you'll even see now a dramatic change in the neighborhood. You know, a lot of the families start to go inside, and it starts to become a little bit different element.
KASTE: Some of these neighborhoods are now getting more dangerous again. This spring, LAPD said shootings had jumped 31 percent over the same time last year, and a lot of that was here in South LA. That's why Murphy's here. He's with the elite Metropolitan Division. They're the cops the LAPD sends in to trouble spots.
And suddenly, Murphy hits the gas. He's the boss of this particular Metro Division platoon, and a couple of his officers have just called for backup.
MURPHY: They're asking for another unit up there at four-one and Broadway. They don't normally do that unless it's something a little bit...
KASTE: A little bit dicey. He doesn't finish his sentence, but when he gets there, the scene is under control. There's a guy in handcuffs. He's burly, with a shaved head and handlebar mustache. The Metro Division officers talking to him are big too. They get time on the job to work out, and it's pretty clear they use it. Murphy checks with them, then comes back with the story.
MURPHY: They know him. They know that he's on parole, and he's a Hangout Boy gang member on parole for armed robbery.
KASTE: And here, you see the LAPD's strategy for holding down crime. These Metro Division officers have time to seek out potential troublemakers. Often, that means looking for people who are on parole or probation. They chat them up. They search them, and they search their homes for guns. That's what they're doing in this man's apartment right now. Because he's on parole, they don't need a warrant. They call these operations rollbacks. Murphy says the point is to encourage problematic people to keep their heads down.
MURPHY: Let them know, hey, we're here; we're looking. If you're not doing anything wrong, then you got nothing to worry about. If you are, then you know what? Also, you guys are involved in an active gang feud - his gang is. So if you want to hang out here, you're making yourself a target. You're making yourself a victim.
KASTE: And LA's going to see a lot more of this kind of targeted trouble spot policing. With the recent uptick in crime, the mayor now wants to double the size of the Metro Division. So at what point does this kind of policing become too much? LAPD has gone through 20 years of difficult reforms. Even the feds were involved for a while, pushing the department to become less arrogant, to act less like an occupying army. Ronald Noblet worries that all that progress might slip away.
RONALD NOBLET: Oh, I believe the LAPD is at a tipping point. They could go back to what they were in a minute.
KASTE: Noblet is a gang interventionist with the Urban Peace Institute. He gets a lot of credit for the decades that he spent getting cops to talk to gang members to avert violence. Now, if crime keeps rising, he wonders if LAPD will fall back into what he calls anti-terrorism mode.
NOBLET: Which is kicking in doors, proning out people, arresting everybody and suppressing. And what that does is make more enemies, create more gang members, make more people hate you and ensure that people will not share information with you.
KASTE: To be clear, Noblet doesn't think the LAPD is there yet, but he's troubled by what he sees as the department's fading interest in community policing programs. There's also the case of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man killed by police last summer in South LA. The police chief found the shooting justified, but the police commission recently ruled that there wasn't a good reason to confront Ford. In short, it was a case of police being a little too proactive.
But back at the 77th Street police station, Lieutenant Murphy sees things the other way around. He says the whole point of Metro Division's tactics is to suppress crime without making a neighborhood feel like it's under siege.
MURPHY: We're looking, then, to focus on those specific crime problems of specific crime locations, specific chronic offenders. Rather than just come in and blanket a community, we're going to come in and focus on those specific spots, specific areas where crime is spiking and make that area a little bit safer and better for the people that live there.
KASTE: And so far, residents of South LA seem to be giving this strategy a chance. Gwendolyn Wood grew up here, and she's a neighborhood activist deeply involved in monitoring the police. She thinks the cops have less of that us-versus-them attitude.
GWENDOLYN WOOD: I'm not going to say they're all good, and I'm not going to say everything they do is perfect. But we have to really start looking at the community also.
KASTE: She commends the LAPD for learning to listen to the community, for being more sensitive about how operations affect neighborhoods. Despite the doubts raised by Ferguson and Ezell Ford, she thinks people are still willing to work with the cops because those people still have fresh memories of the bad, old days.
WOOD: They were afraid to sleep at night. They would hear a gunshot, and everybody would jump into the bathtub. People do not want to live in that fear, and that's what's going to keep this community from going back to that stage 'cause no one wants to live in fear.
KASTE: Yes, Wood says, things have become a little more dangerous lately, but it's still nothing like the mayhem of the early '90s. And she thinks both the community and the police are still mindful of the lessons learned back then. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.