Watts: Policing South LA 50 years after the riots

South LA Bureau Deputy Chief William Scott.
South LA Bureau Deputy Chief William Scott.

This week on Press Play, we’re using the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots to talk about what has changed in the South L.A. community, and what has stayed the same.

When William Scott joined the LAPD in 1989, the crack epidemic had consumed South Los Angeles. “AK-47s were everywhere. The murder rates had started to get to levels we had never seen before. A few days out of the academy, I went to my first homicide scene,” Deputy Chief Scott says of his first days patrolling Watts. “Going from the academy to actually seeing someone on the ground with bullet holes in them was a different experience.”

South L.A. had turned anarchic. And the police responded as they’d been responding since the 50s; swift, often-brutal suppression that clamped down on criminals and regular citizens alike. That kind of environment would help cause the Watts Riots in 1965, and also led directly to the Rodney King Riots in 1992.

But Scott, who now helps run the South Bureau of the LAPD, says a lot has changed since those days. He says that now the mandate from the very top of the LAPD is to listen to the community, to go to neighborhood meetings and to respect people even when they’re under arrest. “We really focus on people maintaining their dignity. You can arrest someone – the worst of the worst – but you still have to let them have their dignity.”

Gang interventionist Skipp Townsend has seen the LAPD change over the years as well. Townsend was a gang member in South L.A. during the “bad days” of the late ’80s and early ’90s. He went to prison on drug charges, got out and now brokers peace deals between rival gangs.

“Police officers from the LAPD actually listen to the community,” Townsend says. During the era of LAPD chief Daryl Gates (1978 – 1992), there was no open forum for the community to react to police abuses, he says. “It was us against them pretty much.”

Relations are much better now between the LAPD and the residents of South L.A. But Townsend says not every officer in the LAPD has gotten the memo about community relations; that some officers who patrol Watts and South L.A. treat every black teenager and young man like a potential threat.

And police shootings of civilians is putting a lot of stress on relations with the LAPD as well. For instance, when police shot Ezell Ford last August, Chief Charlie Beck released a video expressing unequivocal support for the police officers involved. And this was after the Police Commission board ruled that officers had gone against department policy when stopping Ford on the street.

“For people like myself, who actually like Chief Beck, it was like he knocked one of my teeth out,” he says.

And he says that those missteps by the LAPD leadership add up. “How many times are we going to wait for an apology that we don’t get? Somehow we’re blamed. How many times can we hear this before the community says, ‘You know what? There’s nothing to talk about. We don’t want to sit at a table.’ It’s like gasoline and a liter. When’s it going to ignite?”

One or two more incidents like the killing of Ezell Ford, the young mentally ill black man, who was shot LAPD officers last year, Townsend says, could spark a new uprising in Watts and in South Los Angeles.