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Can police gain the trust of the community?

Improved relations between law enforcers and their communities start at the top, panelists at USC agree

Community leaders discuss LAPD
Panelists Matthew Whitaker, John Mack, Ange-Marie Hancock, Jorge Villegas, John Thomas, Robert Denhardt, from left (Photo/Tom Queally)

A diverse panel of high-ranking law enforcement professionals, community leaders and faculty experts took part in a timely discussion on race and police at an Executive Master of Leadership (EML) class at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

A viewpoint shared by the panelists is that improved relations between police and the communities they serve start at the top.

Two EML students appeared on the panel: Jorge Villegas, who has 27 years of experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, is assistant chief of its Office of Operations; John Thomas spent 21 years with the LAPD prior to taking his current position as chief for the USC Department of Public Safety.

Joining them on the panel were John Mack, who brought the historical perspective from his 55 years as a civic leader, and USC Associate Professor Ange-Marie Hancock, a renowned scholar on the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality politics and their impact on public policy.

“We are very fortunate to get together such an incredible group of people to be a part of this panel, including our two class members who at the same time are important leaders in the community in the area of police management,” said USC Price Professor and EML Director Robert Denhardt, who moderated the discussion.

Shift in police mentality

Thomas explained that when he came up through the ranks in the mid-1980s, his generation of officers was taught a warrior mentality of officer survival.

“It took the current reality of cellphone technology that is now capable to capture in real time the actions of law enforcement and make them public to the world for us to move away from that mentality,” Thomas said. “It’s a shame it took that because the community had been saying for years that it wasn’t working for them.”

Though the warrior mentality has changed, Thomas expressed his concern that police departments still recruit toward a sense of adventure, rather than service.

As law enforcement leaders, we have a responsibility to demand and change recruitment advertisements.

John Thomas

“As law enforcement leaders, we have a responsibility to demand and change recruitment advertisements and that we consistently train over the course of officers’ careers those values that the communities we serve demand of us,” Thomas said. “We don’t talk enough about law enforcement ethics. We don’t talk enough about those things that may be culturally insensitive that officers need to be consistently reminded of and trained on.”

Villegas proposed a hypothetical scenario in which five officers attempt to detain a suspect who pulls out a gun. Those officers can legally fire their weapon to stop the suspect, but should they?

“That’s a very tough issue to address internally within any law enforcement organization,” Villegas said. “As we move forward and address issues of policy and force, ‘the could’ versus ‘the should’ is what’s really going to help us in terms of gaining trust, developing legitimacy and instilling confidence in what law enforcement does and how we serve.”

Reflecting the community

Mack recounted that, for more than 20 years as president of the Los Angeles Urban League, he was at odds with the LAPD, perceiving it to be a racist, oppressive institution that he didn’t believe was capable of change. He saw a dramatic transformation after being appointed as president of the Board of Police Commissioners for the LAPD in 2005.

Part of that transformation was a change in personnel to better reflect the community they serve. Of the nearly 10,000 officers in the LAPD, minorities now constitute the majority.

“Today and over the past decade, I’m confident that the LAPD is no longer a racist institution or one that engages in excessive force all over the place,” Mack said. “However, that doesn’t mean that there are not individuals who may hold these prejudices. In law enforcement, no matter how much progress you make, all you need is one incident to set things back.”

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Can police gain the trust of the community?

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