• U.S.

We Have to Start Talking to Each Other

5 minute read
Daniel S. Levy and Willie L. Williams

Q. What is the impact of crime on the black community?

A. The impact is devastating. The black community has a larger proportion of crime within major metropolitan areas than any other community. The majority of that crime is black offender, black victim.

The African-American community wants strong, tough, honest, fair policing. There is no African-American community in America that does not want to see police there. The people want to be treated fairly. They want to be treated honestly and with dignity. I think that even in the city of Los Angeles, with all its strife, the people say, “Hey, wait a minute. These people are robbing and stealing and looting. They are not our community; they are not our friends. They are gang members, or they are hoodlums, and they are bums, and they belong in jail.”

Crime also has a long-term effect on the community because it drives out the mom-and-pop businesses, the corner stores, where a lot of shopping is done. It drives out the source of income for the teenagers and the young adults who don’t have a lot of skills or are just going to school to learn skills. It often drives out the source of income for the one or two parents who may be living and working at home and working in the area. The cost of crime in the African-American community cannot be underestimated.

Q. You have been Philadelphia’s police commissioner for the past four years and plan to replace Daryl Gates in Los Angeles in July. What would you have done differently to prepare for the riots in L.A.?

A. Clearly, I cannot discuss the preparations for Los Angeles. I was not involved, and I had not had any communication out there.

But very important in terms of planning are your contacts with community people. These people are your best front line of communication. I don’t care whether it is the poorest, the most crime-ridden and downtrodden neighborhood or the most successful neighborhood. The contacts can be church leaders, they can be businesspeople or a neighbor who is out there every day washing off the steps and sidewalk. Part of a commander’s job is to be able to pick up the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning and say, “Bob, Mary, I need you out here,” and know that they will come. Or if these community leaders need the police commander, they can call him and say, “Chief, we need you here.” That is a relationship that gets built up over time. You can’t wait until the fires are burning to decide, “I got to do this.”

Q. It seems that a siege mentality exists between the police and some communities.

A. When you are dealing with a riot, a police officer’s role really gets reduced to command, control and contain. Over the course of a career, a police officer gets involved in command and control maybe 10% of the time. The rest of the time you are responding to calls for service, whether you are dealing with disturbances, abandoned vehicles, sanitation violations or traffic control.

A lot of young men and women come into police work thinking that what they see on Miami Vice is what they are going to be doing. When it is not, a level of frustration sets in, a level of boredom, a level of miscommunication.

Q. I understand that you used the Rodney King video as a teaching tool. How did you use it, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

A. We started using it the second week after it occurred. We used it to point out how an incident, a traffic violation, led to the events that we saw on television. The man had been stopped. We would have given him a ticket for speeding or reckless driving. We ask, “What are the officers doing that they shouldn’t be doing? Are there other alternatives?”

Q. Do you have any plans for L.A.?

A. Well, I want to examine training. The officers have said they need training in many areas. The Christopher Commission ((named for a panel that called for the creation of a new police commission with increased authority to control a discipline-lax organization with racist tendencies)) clearly indicates that there needs to be a real examination of internal affairs and the process of making complaints against police.

We need to examine the relationship between the department and the community. We have to start talking to each other, not talking at each other.

Q. You have to rebuild the bridges.

A. I don’t know if there are any bridges left standing. It is going to be a very, very slow process. We also have got to examine the resources available to the department. The city is facing a $150 million deficit. There was an initial budget request that would have reduced the department by 700 people by this time next year. I certainly hope that doesn’t occur. If the demands for service and the demands for change go up — and they are clearly going to go up — and your resources to deliver those services go down, there is going to be further distrust and disbelief in the community.

Q. Are you nervous?

A. No, not nervous. But I understand that there is going to be a very short break-in period. There will probably be higher expectations than I will be able to deliver in all quarters at all times. But I am still looking forward to the job. In one sense, there will be a greater level of initial support for me.

I just hope the disturbances of this past week subside very quickly. I hope the community realizes what has occurred, and we have learned a lesson from that, and we never have to look back and mention Watts, and then mention Rodney King and the riots after Rodney King, and worry about what will spark the next one.

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