In case you missed it, Downtown LA has a new commander overseeing the Central Division. Captain Howard Leslie, a 29-year police department veteran, joins the Central Division (he started on March 20, 2016) at a challenging time for DTLA, and with almost 60,000 residents (and growing) calling the Central City home, the stakes have never been higher. In the last 12 months, crime has risen across most major categories in downtown along with homelessness. Captain Leslie brings a practical approach to law enforcement by embracing transparency and community-based policing. And as a strong pedestrian advocate, I am elated that he recognizes the growing pedestrian culture here in Downtown LA, which can be seen by his planned focus on educating about safety instead of penalizing with hefty fines.
Learn more about DTLA’s new LAPD Captain and his plans to address downtown’s most pressing issues in our interview below.
First off, when did you realize that Downtown LA was experiencing an amazing revitalization with now almost 60,000 residents and growing?
I realized around 2008 after the economic crash, people were still moving downtown. Bottega Louie was really one of the core restaurants that helped with the restaurant resurgence and once you saw all the new lofts and condos still selling, you knew something was happening.
What do you think of the economic resurgence Downtown LA is going through?
It’s fantastic. LA needed to have a center. Now there’s people walking, ubering, bicycling everywhere in downtown. It’s exactly what we need as a city.
What made you decide to transfer to the Central Division from your previous position overseeing the Wilshire Division?
Command Officers don’t choose assignments. When the Chief of the Police Department [Charlie Beck] tells you where you’re working, you go. [laughs] He has a master plan and appoints positions based on different strengths that may be more effective in different areas of the city. All Command Officers have the same philosophy regarding relationship-building with the community and using our smart policing (statistical analysis) crime strategies to reduce crime.
An increase in crime has been reported lately in Downtown LA, especially in the Historic Core, that negatively affects the quality of life for all downtown residents. How can we stop the trend?
Footbeats. We’re doing footbeats every day in Skid Row, the Historic Core, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, El Pueblo, Fashion District, Jewelry Mart and of course LA Live. Overall, we’re now the 5th best out of 21 divisions in the city. But I am seeing more violence from the mentally ill homeless. We tend to want to look at the homeless as one group, but they’re not one group. There are those who are addicted to illegal drugs or alcohol. There are the mentally ill. Also, the mentally ill who are self-medicating. Then there are the criminals, who hide amongst the needy, the gangs that prey on the needy. And there are those who are legitimately homeless from economic reasons and these are generally the easiest to help because they want help immediately. For the mentally ill, it usually takes a longer time to build the trust so they accept help. For the addicted we need them to want to stop their addiction before we can achieve long-term success. For the criminals, many go home at night and come back the next day and do it all over again, and many times they do it in tents, dealing drugs, etc.
What is the most effective way to reduce crime in your experience in law enforcement, and how can that be applied to Downtown LA?
Getting out of the car! Talk to people. Meet people. You can’t reduce crime by just being in the car. I’m a big proponent of footbeats. It’s also important to get to know the owners of businesses who see a lot of things. We’re now putting footbeats in Chinatown, El Pueblo, Historic Core, Little Tokyo, Fashion District, Pershing Square. And it’s important to have the same officers to get to know the community. We now have at least 35 officers and 3 sergeants. I want the criminals to see that we’re here on the streets patrolling in cars, on bikes and on foot.
There’s been an increase in homelessness in Downtown LA and an uptick in the associated crime that comes with it, such as drug dealing, tents harboring other criminal activity, etc. How can this be addressed effectively?
Homelessness is not an issue that can be solved by the police, not by simply arresting people. It’s a societal issue. People call us because we’re here open and available 24 hours a day. Consequently, the police officer is many times the one trying to solve the issue in the middle of the night without any other tools available except enforcing the laws. We may place someone in jail, many times for a misdemeanor crime, but they will be released in a relatively short period of time and back to the same location doing the same activity. We need to invest in people when they are at the worst in their lives, to help them before they fall too hard. We need to work together, both public organizations and private organizations to provide for the people in society who are in desperate need.
Do you think decentralizing Skid Row services is the answer?
That’s an interesting question. A lot of people are talking about it. I think that’s one of the things the mayor’s office is researching. I think we need a lot of analysis to determine that. Let’s do more research into other cities to find what might be the best practices and solutions, like are San Francisco’s wet houses working or not? But the truth is homelessness is not just a Skid Row issue anymore, we are seeing homeless encampments all over the City and many of our transient community don’t want to leave areas that they have grown to call home for downtown services.
Is Prop 47 a contributing factor to the increase in crime?
That answer depends on who you talk to. Early indications are that, yes, Prop 47, AB 109 (Jail Realignment) and the lack of funding for services as promised from Prop 47 are all contributing factors to our crime increase. I would like more studies to be conducted, I need to see hard data before I can make that determination definitively.
There is still aggressive panhandling and loitering in many areas of Downtown LA, like Ralph’s Fresh Fare and Metro stations, that make both residents and visitors, including myself, feel unsafe at times. What’s the best way for the community to handle this issue?
A lot of times it’s about making it harder for crime to establish itself. An example is the intersection of 5th and Broadway. We noticed an increase in crime so we dedicated several resources to the area, my Senior Lead Officers, Footbeat Officers, Undercover Narcotics Officers, and Undercover VICE Officers. We reached out to our local Councilmember office to help remove some structures we believed facilitated some criminal conduct. We seek the assistance of store security and provide them with additional training to help reduce their store criminal occurrences. All of this leading to an overall reduction in crime over the last few weeks in that area.
However, we need to communicate to the public more effectively. We use social media, such as Twitter [@], to educate on at-risk behavior or behavior to avoid but we aren’t as effective as I would like. We still have citizens leaving items on tables and walking away, leaving items in plain view in their vehicles and walking away, walking alone in a dark alley speaking on a cell phone after leaving a local restaurant or bar. We have officers available to meet and greet with our community to give basic advice on how to not be a victim but we are having trouble getting to our target audience. That is one of the reasons I was more than happy to do this interview.
For the actual Metro stations, that is not our jurisdiction. The sheriffs handle them.
As a pedestrian advocate who lives downtown, it’s been super frustrating to see the LAPD target pedestrians for jaywalking tickets when other cities around the country don’t focus on this particular issue. The community in Downtown LA has really spoken out unfavorably toward such strict enforcement, especially the countdown timer issue. Is this something the LAPD can work with the community on?
Here’s my message. I personally would prefer that we spend some time on educating our downtown community on traffic enforcement, when we can, that we write a warning ticket rather than a traditional traffic citation. I want my officers to understand there are people who live downtown who just don’t understand the need to adhere to traffic signs. Many people downtown are from cities that don’t enforce many pedestrian violations, such as jaywalking. However, the truth is our drivers aren’t looking for that pedestrian who walks out onto the street between cars. The number one reason people die in traffic accidents in Central Division is due to jaywalking. Since I became the Commanding Officer of Central Division, we haven’t done a traffic enforcement task force. However, we will have a task force soon but my focus will be educating people rather than trying to obtain a large amount of traditional traffic citations. We have to keep a person safe. That is our job.