Less than a decade ago in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, residents were unlikely to interact with police in a positive way and rarely ventured outside of their homes due to lack of safety.

But today we hear stories about neighborhood children chasing police officers to hug them, and grandmothers, who are finally enjoying their front steps for the first time, waving and blowing kisses at police officers like they are part of their family.

For residents of Watts’ public housing developments, this ongoing transformation towards a safer community has been successful in large part due to the unique and historic collaboration known as the Community Safety Partnership (CSP). Using the expertise of Advancement Project’s Urban Peace program and our unique comprehensive violence reduction model rooted in a public health approach, this cross-sector effort addresses the intractable root issues such as gang violence, public sector inattention, shifting racial demographics and strained community relationships with law enforcement in Watts. 

What began as an experiment to transform this violence-ridden community, the Community Safety Partnership is now a sustainable and widely successful program that uplifts community voices in the often-overlooked neighborhood of Watts.

The CSP has been used as a model for how relationship-based policing can be used on a national level by the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Founding Co-Director Connie Rice and Susan Lee created a report called Relationship-Based Policing: Achieving Safety in Watts, which gives an overview of the reasons for the CSP, the public health model that is its foundation, and the process of implementing the program.

Residents in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. experience high levels of gang activity as multi-generational gangs operate openly in its three housing developments. In 2010 alone, residents reported 1,604 property crimes, 288 gang crimes and over 800 violent crimes in Watts housing developments.

We were commissioned by the Housing Authority of the City of L.A. (HACLA) to conduct an assessment and recommend violence reduction solutions for three housing developments in Watts. After engaging over 900 residents through interviews, surveys and focus groups, the community’s lack of safety was clear:

  • 71 percent of all interviewees report gang activity as “often a problem” or “always a problem” in their neighborhood
  • Despite being the numerical majority,  Latino residents’ voices were not present in shaping community safety initiatives and they felt unable to exercise leadership
  • Residents did not trust  HACLA staff and law enforcement
  • According to our Community Safety Scorecard, Watts ranked as one of the top 10 most dangerous zip codes in all of Los Angeles

The Watts community of Los Angeles has struggled for many decades with high levels of violence. While significant strides have been made to reach a level of public safety that is allowing more positive changes to take root over the last five years, most recent community assessments reveal that safety is still a concern.

Over the past four years, we have conducted several comprehensive assessments of the health and safety needs of the community. Community violence and the fear of violence serve as barriers for Watts residents to engage in safe physical activity. Parents and children reported feeling unsafe walking or biking in their neighborhood. Children and youth in the Watts neighborhood were continually harassed, bullied, and recruited by gangs as they walked the few blocks from home to school, crossing largely invisible‚ but rigidly enforced‚ gang-controlled boundaries. Local parks and recreational facilities were deemed unsafe and often claimed by local gangs, leaving the few recreational spaces for low-income families to engage in physical activity unused. In addition, the community infrastructure, such as high vehicle speeds, broken sidewalks, and lack of crosswalks, posed a safety challenge to children and families. The addition of these barriers add up to poor health outcomes that disproportionally affect low-income residents in Watts.

The Vision Plan for a Safe and Healthy Watts developed by the Watts Regional School Safety Collaborative (WRSSC) seeks to bring greater alignment across sectors to adopt a collective set of priorities to achieve safety and safe routes. Safety strategies aim to improve school attendance, reduce crime committed by and against young people, and increase physical activity, improving the lives of approximately 7,000 school-age children and youth living in Watts.

The innovative element of this Vision Plan is that it expands beyond the traditional Safe Routes to School model to include an intentional focus on violence reduction and prevention. The plan adopts a more holistic, public health approach that includes both the goals of community safety and active living. Traditionally, physical activity advocates do not think about or know how to address issues of violence. Community safety practitioners do not think about physical activity, and public health experts have only recently begun intentional work around violence prevention. The Vision Plan urges sectors to break out of their silos to promote integration of environmental design, safety, and the promotion of healthy behavior. Not only do stakeholders have to learn a new way of thinking about the problem, but they have to develop the cultural competency to work with the residents and youth who are impacted by violence Not only do stakeholders have to learn a new way of thinking about the problem, but they have to develop the cultural competency to work with the residents and youth who are impacted by violence and poor health outcomes.

Our findings from Watts residents signaled a need for large-scale, systemic changes in order to promote community safety, which led to the 2011 agreement between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and HACLA.  As a convener and resource provider, the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) was created.

Through this partnership, we have helped to implement its unique community-based violence reduction model with LAPD, HACLA and community-based residents and other stakeholders, which has resulted in:

  • Selecting 35 police officers out of 400 applicants to serve the Watts community for five years instead of short-term deployment, which helps strengthen lasting relationships between law enforcement and residents
  • Training all Watts police officers and 25 community stakeholders through the Urban Peace Academy, an innovative training platform for violence reduction practitioners, law enforcement and community stakeholders
  • Leadership and civic engagement training for 15 Latino residents in Watts to ensure inclusive participation in the Community Safety Partnership
  • Creating safer routes to local schools so youth are safe to walk to and from school and are able to enjoy public spaces

As a result of our guidance of the CSP partnership with LAPD, HACLA and Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction & Youth Development,  Watts is quickly progressing to a place that is safe for children to play outside and families to fully participate in their community.

While many of these gains are detailed in our 2012 report, A Call to Action: Los Angeles’ Quest Toward Community Safety, the CSP has been instrumental in:

  • Reducing violent crime by more than 50% in the three Watts housing developments
  • Notable decreases in youth gang membership and activity
  • Residents reporting improved sense of safety and well-being when traveling to stores and parks
  • Plummeting homicide rates within Watts housing developments
  • A newfound confidence in Watts’ future is ushering in necessary revitalization efforts for one of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods. Notable decreases in crime serves as the first step in a $1 billion effort to redevelop housing developments, through which HACLA will create 1,800 new mixed-income homes, stores and parks. This investment in Watts’ fragile economy will help support new construction jobs and ultimately employ local residents in newly-created small businesses.

For more information, contact Fernando Rejon,