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The Watts neighborhood of South L.A. has long been synonymous with gang violence, racial tension and bad relations between the community and police. One image that comes to mind: the riots that erupted in Watts in 1965. Thirty-four people were killed. It's a place that, for decades, has seemed in a permanent state of struggle. But today, some signs of optimism.
In three large housing projects, violent crime has dropped by almost 50 percent. In fact, there's been only a single homicide in these projects in the past two years.
NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ready.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: If you want to find LAPD Officer Keith Mott on a Thursday night, there's a good chance he'll be working his beat on foot, in a black T-shirt and shorts, in a park.
OFFICER KEITH MOTT: You know, the association in this community, whenever they see the police, is always something bad.
SIEGLER: So Mott is doing something good: football. He spends a couple hours of his nightly shift coaching these seven and eight-year-old boys.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's going deep.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh.
MOTT: Oh, good kick.
SIEGLER: They come from three nearby housing projects. Practice is in this small park, because it's a neutral site between local gangs. There's a lot more going on here than team sports.
MOTT: Even some of the parents who've come out here, and they've talked to us and they've told us, you know, the idea of me standing next to a police officer, all those years I've hated the police. And they realize, we're just here trying to make a difference in the community, in the community that they live in.
SIEGLER: Mott is one of 30 officers in the Community Safety Partnership that targets three of the most notorious housing projects in Watts. A lot of the time, they patrol the sprawling, two-story developments on foot. They try to be on a first-name basis with residents. Mott says the idea is to engage more than arrest.
MOTT: Now we have a communication. When there's a problem in the neighborhood, instead of the no-snitch rule, people are telling us: Hey, so-and-so is the one that's over here during the shooting. Hey, the gun you guys are looking for, they hid it over here.
SIEGLER: Mott says there have been a lot of early successes, and he's right. The program is not even two years old, and just look at homicides. From 2005 to August of 2011, there were 43 within the three projects. The CSP began in August 2011, and since then, there's been just one homicide - one.
MOTT: People look around, they're always seeing the officers. So that means that the gangsters and the knuckleheads and the dope dealers, they look around their corners, there's a police officer on the corner. They're moving their activities elsewhere.
SIEGLER: Elsewhere, like the streets just outside the three projects, where the CSP isn't patrolling. Hang around for a few days, and it's clear the CSP isn't the only reason the projects are getting safer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's been a lifelong resident. He's been around here forever. He (unintelligible) of all the sport programs...
SIEGLER: A gray, cinder block rec center sits at the heart of the World War II-era apartment buildings that make up the Imperial Courts housing project. It's one of the largest west of the Mississippi. Kids are drinking Kool-Aid, munching on chili dogs, getting their faces painted. The older ones are in the gym, playing in a basketball league.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BASKETBALL BOUNCING)
SIEGLER: One of the organizers is Perry Crouch. He says residents and some former gang members here simply got fed up with all the violence, and they demanded change.
PERRY CROUCH: OK. So you're not going to come up in here and fight and cuss and do all that and gang bang. That ain't the lip.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: That ain't it.
CROUCH: But if you want to go on field trips and do positive things, they all in. They all in. But if you think you're going to come around here and terrorize this gym, no, you're not going to do all that.
SIEGLER: Crouch wins a lot of praise here for brokering several treaties recently between warring gangs, and for helping create safe zones like this one.
CROUCH: You know, we can only do so much. We can't, you know, we can't whoop their ass. We can't. What we have to do is lead through example.
SIEGLER: Crouch has also made some of the loudest calls for police reforms over the years, reforms that have come slowly.
CROUCH: Having officers be more in touch with the community, instead of just hooking and booking.
SIEGLER: But this is still Watts. The race riots of the '60s, police brutality and Rodney King still haunt every corner. And even with the improved police relations, there's still tension.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
SIEGLER: One afternoon in Imperial Courts, two CSP officers get out of their cars and walk briskly up to three teenagers parked legally across from the rec center. Their music was up loud, but they were just hanging out and talking sports. The cops tell them to leave.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No. See, you can't park here. I'm telling you. I'm just trying to educate you. That's part of our job. Obviously, you didn't understand, OK. Well...
SIEGLER: Joe Evans, who lives and works in Imperial Courts as a mentor, sees this type of thing happen every day.
JOE EVANS: They weren't here causing any problems. They weren't doing anything. These guys are always here. These guys show up to play basketball, and then you just come and just - those little things right there are the type of things that you try to work out. You feel what I'm saying?
SIEGLER: The two cops are keenly aware of a growing crowd of onlookers across the street. But the officers end up leaving, and the crowd eventually starts to disperse. Evans says a crowd like that can quickly turn on the police.
EVANS: Because you have a lot of people who's looking from the outside, they don't know what's being said, and they automatically assume, OK, the police is harassing this person or the police is harassing that person.
SIEGLER: Evans says the police harassment still happens, and there are a couple of CSP officers even who still don't get it. But like a lot of people, Evans says these projects are getting safer overall. Even just a few years ago, he says, we couldn't have stood out in the open like this to do an interview.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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