A Tale of Two Communities: New Security Measures at USC Intensify Profiling of Lower-Income Youth of Color

This is what stopping teens can look like. Mikey, Jonathan and George/Jorge were frisked for weapons on Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park last spring. They were stopped while waiting for friends. Note: the photo is not from South L.A., as many of the youth I spoke with wished to remain anonymous.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“What you got on you?” the 15 year-old girl says the cops pulled up alongside her asked as she walked along Vermont one night.

Bundled up in her boyfriend’s jacket to stave off the chilly air, she didn’t realize that they were actually talking to her until she heard one grumble, “Fucking Mexican!” and repeat the question.

Now she found herself both amused and pissed — not only were they messing with her, she’s Salvadoran.

“I was like, ‘Dayum, for real??’” she laughed as she recounted the incident to me over a plate of fries at a little restaurant not too far from where she had been stopped.

She was just going to the market, she told them. She didn’t have anything on her.

“Well, you just look [like you’re] bad,” she says the cops told her before pulling away.

“Geeeez-us,” I groaned, cradling my head in my hands.

I had spent the last month and a half moving up and down the streets around USC, speaking with lower-income black and brown male youth (aged 14 – 25) about the encounters they have had with officers from the LAPD and USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS). Every single one of the approximately 50 youth I had randomly approached for an interview told me multiple stories about getting harassed, insulted, stopped, and sometimes even frisked and handcuffed by both DPS and the LAPD.

But I hadn’t expected to hear a story from her.

She’s tiny – maybe 4’10” tall on a good day – and she’s been working hard to stay out of trouble. In fact, she had recently moved up to the USC area to get away from the craziness and drama of the streets in Watts, where she had lived for the last several years. There, she was stressed from having to constantly watch her back. Her new neighborhood seemed so peaceful in contrast.

“You realize there’s a Harpys clique just up the street, right?” I laughed, pointing over my shoulder.


She had never even heard of that gang. The only trouble she had had was with the cops. But it didn’t faze her, she said, waving me off dismissively. That kind of thing is normal.

Rites of Passage in the ‘Hood


“Happens all the time.”

“It’s like a rite of passage.”

All across Los Angeles, these are ways that a lot of youth of color from lower-income communities describe being stopped, questioned, searched, or, on occasion, falsely accused of misdoing and arrested or even brutalized by the police. Such incidents are so prevalent, in fact, that I’ve had to postpone meeting up with people that wanted to tell me their stories about enduring harassment in order to finish this article. The list of friends, acquaintances, and random people I’ve encountered that regularly experience this kind of discrimination is actually that long.

Most strikingly, although all describe hating how disempowering, humiliating, and even traumatic it can be, and that it feels like the police prefer sweating them to keeping them safe, they tend not to think of getting stopped as anything out of the ordinary.

It sucks, they tell me, but it comes with growing up in the ‘hood.

Until recently, many of the residents – young and old — in the neighborhoods around USC might have felt no differently. They were used to being scrutinized by both the LAPD and DPS, monitored by some of the now 72 cameras USC has set up on and around campus (watched 20 hours a day by LAPD and round the clock by USC), and observed by the more than 30 security ambassadors positioned on campus and throughout adjacent neighborhoods.

“We know [LAPD and DPS] are going to slow down [their cars] when they see a group of us standing out here like this,” an older black gentleman said of himself and his friends as they chatted in front of his home under the watchful gaze of cameras posted up on Normandie Ave.

“They always do.”

His friends nodded solemnly.

Since the implementation of new security measures around USC following two shootings in the area last year, however, things have apparently become more intense than “normal” for some. In particular, the stepping up of DPS patrols on and around campus combined with the arrival of 30 officers to the Southwest Division to conduct high visibility patrols and “more frequent parole checks on local gang members” (the $750,000 worth of personnel costs which were paid for by USC) have put everybody on notice.

Neighbors (and, most recently USC students of color, apparently) really began to feel the shift in tone with the beginning of the fall semester, when the new measures went into full effect.

The reason? Despite DPS’ use of “video patrol” techniques and the LAPD’s use of cutting-edge computer-generated models to aid in predictive policing, the methodologies behind the identification of suspicious behavior or candidates for “parole checks” appear decidedly unsophisticated.

And aggressive.

Black and Latino youth report that officers from both the LAPD and DPS regularly pull up alongside them and verbally accost them with a barrage of questions.

Where are you going?

What are you doing here?

Are you on parole?

What you got on you?

Are you on probation?

What are you doing here?

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I repeat that last one?

It’s the one kids tell me they are often asked multiple times during a stop.

It’s also the one that frustrates youth like Fidel Delgado the most.

How many he times does he have to tell an officer what he is doing? Why does he need to justify being in a neighborhood he has lived in nearly his entire life?

Doesn’t he have a right to be there?

Apparently not, as he has had to explain his presence while standing on a corner waiting for a friend, walking down the street, and just hanging out in a friend’s yard.

Worse still, Delgado says, while working at a coffee shop across the street from USC, he found himself serving coffee to at least one of the officers that harassed him.

They must have known who he was, he thinks. Yet, they did it anyways.

Other kids report being questioned on their way to and from school. A 15 year-old Latino youth said he’s been stopped while walking to West Adams Prep (at Washington and Vermont) in the morning and asked if he had marijuana on him.

“You look like a stoner,” he says an LAPD officer told him.

Still others – especially those that have never been in trouble – take issue with being stopped and hounded about their parole status or having DPS officers call in the LAPD to run warrant checks on them. Since none of the youth I interviewed were on parole, none of them could tell me what happened when a parolee was found. They did say, however, that the LAPD is seemingly so desperate to find parolees that they have been known to stop by gatherings at private homes just to ask whomever is standing outside if anyone there is on parole or probation.

Maybe they are worried about seeing so many Latinos together, Delgado had half-suggested/half-joked when he first told me it had happened to him and people he knew. It didn’t make much sense to him as a policing strategy unless the objective was to let people know they were being watched.

“We want better relationships with the cops,” a man in his mid-twenties who lived off Portland St. said, echoing comments I had heard from several interviewees. “But they have to stop seeing us all as criminals first.”

He was fine with officers stopping people from doing things they shouldn’t be doing, like drinking or smoking up in the street. He acknowledged there was a house in the area that was a known gathering spot for that kind of thing.

But why, he wanted to know, do they have to keep questioning all the youth or telling them to stop throwing a football around on a quiet side street? Officers seemed to take pleasure in finding ways to keep kids from being able to be out and about in their own neighborhood, he felt, while ignoring when kids along fraternity row were doing the same kinds of things and worse. It didn’t seem fair.

And stop with the arbitrary searches, pleaded several interviewees, each of whom seemed to have been more than a little traumatized by their experiences.

“They touched my balls! They touched my balls!” screeched a 14 year-old African-American skateboarder hysterically, one of four interviewees who mentioned getting stopped by the “Jump Out Boys” from the LAPD. (note: the Jump Out Boys were a gang within the Sheriff’s, not the LAPD. My understanding from the interviewees was that the label was more about officers “jumping” out of their cars to intimidate them and/or conduct a very physical stop with no provocation.)

“I was just walking by myself! I wasn’t doing anything!” he said, when they piled out of their car, grabbed him and searched him as he walked along 35th St.

“And, they touched my fucking balls!” he reiterated, adjusting his pants. “For no fucking reason!”

A 17 year-old Latino skateboarder said he got stopped near campus because police said they were looking for a bike thief.

“I was like, ‘OK, if you need to do your job, I understand’…but then I had to put my hands out and spread my legs and [the officer] touched my balls…” he shuddered, laughed nervously, and looked down at the ground.

It’s not like he had a bike hidden up in there.

Sounding slightly embarrassed and still staring at his feet, he asked, “I mean, was that really necessary?”

 For Some, DPS Has an Even Poorer History in the Community than the LAPD

Unhappy as the youth were with their treatment at the hands of the LAPD, it was nothing compared to the disdain they reserved for USC’s Public Safety officers.

Where the LAPD seemed to represent a known — if not well-liked — quantity that had a specific job to do, DPS appeared to be considered another animal altogether.

After an initial eye roll of disgust, youth would often recount some overzealous interaction with DPS officers that was reminiscent of a terrible, low-budget drama where tough-guy cops shoot their way in to places and shout angry commands at evil mob bosses to put their weapons down and their hands up or face the consequences.

Given that the youth are not mob bosses, or even petty criminals, many feel that the officers are harassing them just for the hell of it.

Two 15-year-old African-Americans who were leaving campus, for example, said they didn’t understand why DPS officers would do things like chase them off a practice field when the coach had been fine with them being there all afternoon.

One shrugged and said they probably needed to get going anyways. It was nearly 6 p.m. and, in their experience, that was about the time that DPS really started cracking down on people they thought shouldn’t be there.

The days they had stuck around too late in the afternoon, both said, they would sometimes be hustled off campus only to be stopped and questioned again a few blocks away by another set of DPS officers (or sometimes LAPD).

When DPS officers make stops like that, kids report they are often not informed about why they are being held up and made to wait.

“He finally let me go,” a 17-year-old said of an officer that stopped him on campus and held him for several minutes while going back and forth with someone on a walkie-talkie.

“But, I don’t know why he stopped me in the first place – [the officer] never told me.”

In other cases, officers seem to have no real purpose for engaging kids beyond intimidation.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, a group of 5 gangly Latino and African-American boys between the ages of 13 and 16 recounted how a DPS officer had pulled up in front of the house where they were hanging out earlier and demanded to know what they were doing there.

After telling the officer that one of them lived there, one said, the conversation somehow escalated to the point that the officer told them, “If the mailman can come up into your house to deliver the mail, then I can come that far up into your house.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.

“Yeah,” another boy confirmed, explaining how the mailboxes for all the residents were just inside the front door and the DPS officer said that meant he could go that far into the house, too.

“We could film it and send you the video next time it happens!” one of the boys suggested eagerly.

“It happens that often, huh?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he and his friends nodded.

People needed to know how out of hand things were getting, they said.

It is way out of hand, agreed a 16-year-old who lived northwest of campus.

While he had been hanging out on the corner with a friend, he recounted, a DPS officer had come by and told them they couldn’t be there. When the boys responded they lived right there, things apparently escalated. The officer asked if they were getting smart with him, handcuffed them to the neighbor’s fence, and called LAPD to come do a check.

“I live on this street!” the youth told me angrily, throwing his arms wide.

They have always just taken things too far, Fidel Delgado concluded when I spoke to him recently about the stories I had heard from other interviewees. Then, he offered his own story of an encounter he and his friends had had with DPS before the new security crackdown.

During a stop by the LAPD near Mount Saint Mary’s, he said, the officers ran their names, searched them, and found a weed pipe on one of his friends. Being that it was all they had on them and they were otherwise causing no trouble, the officers said they would let them go.

“They were being pretty nice about it,” said Delgado.

Just then a DPS vehicle pulled up.

“Do you need any help?” they asked the LAPD officers.

Instead of accepting that the youths were not causing trouble, DPS forced the issue, handcuffing all of the boys and loudly commanding they not move their hands unless they wanted to get knocked out or dropped on the ground.

It didn’t make sense to Delgado – the LAPD hadn’t had a problem with just letting them go about their business. Yet, they’d somehow ended up handcuffed, threatened, and hit with a ticket for having the pipe. No weed — just the pipe.

The whole thing sucked, Delgado said, because “we couldn’t move, but the handcuffs were really tight.”

Even the LAPD officers felt bad, he said, offering he and his friends a half-hearted apology as they handed them the citation.

Things Suck. We Get It. Now What?

What do you want us to do about this? What changes would you like to see?

The questions were sincere.

They had come from Sgt. II Jonathan Pinto of the Southwest Division of the LAPD.

He, Capt. III Paul Snell (also of Southwest), Chief John Thomas (DPS), and Capt. David Carlisle (DPS) had agreed to sit down with me and hear the stories that I had gathered from the community. They had listened patiently as I listed off complaint after complaint about both DPS and the LAPD for over an hour, interrupting only to ask for clarifications and any specific information I could offer about particular incidents.

They appeared troubled by what they heard.

Snell and Thomas – both of whom are African-American – said that they were familiar with stories like these, having grown up in the area and been subjected to similar practices. Both expressed being dismayed and disheartened to hear those practices appeared to be alive and well. This wasn’t what they were about or what they wanted from their officers, they, Pinto, and Carlisle all reiterated, citing the number of youth programs and community outreach efforts each force has as being more reflective of the relationships they have worked to build with residents.

They also appeared to be frustrated by the fact that they did not have a real way to answer any of the claims made directly because they had no independent way to verify them.

Every time an officer gets out of the car for a stop, Pinto told me, it is recorded with video and audio. Going through a number of the records from recent stops prior to the meeting, he said, he was unable to find evidence that juveniles were being stopped with the frequency the youth are claiming.

According to the youth, however, much of the harassment they experience doesn’t come in the form of a formal stop. The officers engage them from their patrol cars or even in passing on a sidewalk while heading back to their vehicles after taking a break at a café or the 7-11 on Figueroa. In those cases, the recording equipment is never activated and no paperwork is filed.

There are mechanisms in place if the youth want to complain, Snell offered.

Both he and Pinto said a youth could always ask for a supervisor if they were unhappy with how they were treated or file a formal complaint after the fact.

I agreed that those mechanisms were very valuable – indeed, they are.

But, I argued, there are several very good reasons why it is unfair to put the onus on kids to speak up to an officer in a situation where they are at such a clear disadvantage.

  • “Who would believe me?”

With regard to filing reports, those youth that do consider it are often sure no one will believe them. In some cases, they are too humiliated or traumatized by their experience to want to have to relive it all again when they are convinced their claims will be rejected anyways.

Their concerns are understandable. Even when I’ve raised the issue of profiling before, a significant number of people have been quick to say that they can’t believe it is as bad as I suggest. Some allege that perhaps I haven’t gathered enough information, spoken to the right people, or trusted that the police had a good reason to stop the youth.

For me, that is disappointing and depressing. For the youth, it’s personal. And it’s painful.

The skateboarder who experienced the invasive search, for example, said it is incredibly frustrating that his white friends at the school he is bussed to refuse to believe he gets stopped all the time. He has no way to prove it to them, since it never happens when they are together. His insistence that it happens makes him look like a liar. Or, like he might be a shadier character than he lets on.

Another youth was told (and I was able to confirm with the officer), that USC and the LAPD were pressuring officers to deliberately profile anyone and everyone that was not affiliated with USC.

Despite what USC, the LAPD, and DPS have all said with regard to that being categorically untrue, the fact that many of those affected in the community perceive profiling to be accepted practice means they view pursuing complaints to be little more than an exercise in futility. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that few teens would step forward to voice their concerns.

  •  Speaking up is hard to do.

With regard to speaking up in the moment of an interaction with an officer, the odds appear stacked against the youth here, too.

Both parties are acutely aware that there is a significant power differential between them. And, if officers are coming at them aggressively, as the youth claim, it immediately puts the youth in the position of having to defend or justify themselves. For youth afraid of being labeled as troublemakers or fearing officers will find some excuse to accuse them of violating the terms of their parole or probation, a basic stop can quickly become a highly anxiety-inducing experience.

Even if a teen managed to avoid freaking out long enough to engage an officer about the legality of a stop, most are still easily shut down with one simple phrase.

“I can be nice or I can be a dick.”

It is a line youth say is commonly used by all of the forces to get them to comply with the officers’ demands.

An officer with the Sheriff’s Dept. in East L.A. used it on Fidel Delgado and a friend of his when they protested there was no probable cause for the officers to pull them out of their car and search them. They had been sitting in the vehicle, eating and killing time before their class at the community college when the officers happened upon them.

By essentially telling Delgado and his friend that they had to consent to the searches of their backpacks and the car to avoid something worse, the officers made it clear that they weren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

It worked.

Worried they might miss their class and overwhelmed by the barrage of questions flying at them, the young men gave in and consented to the searches.

In the worst case scenario, protesting a stop can result in a false arrest, as it did for a young friend of mine in Watts.

Hanging out outside his home, shirtless and in sandals at 9 a.m., officers from the LAPD pulled up, threw him against the hood of the car, and called for back-up when he started yelling for witnesses that he was being manhandled with no probable cause.

When he resisted being put in the back seat of the car by bracing himself against the door (because he still hadn’t been told why he had been stopped), the officer claimed the youth had kicked him and arrested him. When the youth asked to speak to a supervisor at the station, the supervisor said he would only speak to him in front of the arresting officer.

Too traumatized and angry to get words out, he broke down while being processed and was unable to make a written statement. At that point, he still didn’t know why the officers had approached him in the first place. They never told him directly – he only heard that he was picked up on suspicion of burglary when his cousin came in to visit him. He apparently had had the great misfortune of being the first African-American male wearing blue shorts that the officers had spotted that day. So, he sat in jail, missing classes from a training course tied to a job opportunity, only to be released five days later because the officer had never filed a report — there were never any charges against him.

“Did you tell them your father had been a police officer?” I asked.

No, he said. He wasn’t sure that it would have made any difference. And, he was in such shock from how the arrest had gone down that he had had trouble figuring out what the right things to say were. When they wouldn’t let him talk to the supervisor, he said, he kind of gave up hope that they would listen to him anyways.

“What about filing a complaint…?”

People had encouraged him to do that, he said. But he preferred putting it behind him and staying far away from law enforcement.

One major bout of humiliation was enough. He didn’t want to have to think about it anymore.

  • You better exercise that right to remain silent.

The fact that many of the stops I’ve catalogued – formal and informal – seem not to be based in any kind of probable cause makes it even more difficult for youth to speak up.

“Are you getting smart with me?” is a typical retort youth complain of hearing when questioning an officer.

From there, the door is open for a simple stop to escalate to something much more serious. The less justifiable the stop, the more aggressive the arbitrary assertion of authority seems to be, especially if the person being stopped decides to push the issue. Even Chief Thomas was able to recount moments from his own youth in which he realized it was clear that saying the wrong thing to an officer could have harsh consequences, as it had for friends of his at the time. It didn’t matter if he was in the right.

“Biased policing continues to be one of the key challenges that we face,” Police Commission President John Mack said in 2010, when the LAPD announced they would be installing cameras in 300 South L.A. cars to address racial profiling concerns.

He may have been referring to a 2008 study of 700,000 of the LAPD’s own 2003-04 data files which found that, after controlling for violent and property crime rates in neighborhoods and other variables, not only were African-Americans and Latinos “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested,” their “harsher treatment by police…[didn’t] appear to be justified by any legitimate law enforcement concerns.”

“Although stopped blacks were 127% more likely to be frisked than stopped whites,” wrote study author and Yale Law Professor Ian Ayres, “they were 42.3% less likely to be found with a weapon after they were frisked, 25% less likely to be found with drugs and 33% less likely to be found with other contraband” (emphasis mine). Researchers found similar patterns for Latinos, who were 43% more likely to be frisked than stopped whites.

While the quality of policing has, by all accounts, improved steadily since 2004, a 2009 Harvard Study acknowledges the department still has a long way to go in healing its relationship with some subsets within the African-American and Latino communities.

It’s a slow process, according to Commander Richard Webb, head of Internal Affairs.

The wider use of cameras and last year’s shift to a focus on “constitutional policing” while reviewing complaints (i.e. assessing the legitimacy of a stop, the officers’ actions, and whether people were searched, instead of just looking at questions of race) should go a long ways in helping the LAPD ferret out deeper problems. But the true test of system, Webb suggested last October, will be the willingness of command staff to take complaints of profiling seriously and discipline officers based on the results of investigations. Their continued reluctance to do so has meant that Internal Affairs still remains in charge of the investigation of complaints.

That doesn’t mean the system can’t work — an officer in West L.A. was found guilty of profiling last year. He was discovered to have gone as far as to “misidentify” Latinos as whites on some of his reports, presumably to conceal his propensity for the practice.

Still, the system relies on people coming forward make complaints for investigations to be set in motion, and that is a very tough sell in many communities.

Taking the First Steps Forward in the USC Area

Since first meeting with the senior officers from DPS and LAPD in March, I’ve tracked down some of the youth I originally interviewed for this piece. I told them the officers were unhappy to hear about their experiences and had made genuine offers to do whatever they could to help heal the relationship between their officers and the youth.

A few were eager, if a little wary, to hear what the officers had to say. Others just gave me the stink eye, fearing speaking up would lead to some form of retaliation in the future.

There’s no easy road forward, teens from the South L.A. Youth Action Council I work with decided.

I had raised the question about how to build trust when they were having a heated discussion about the Christopher Dorner case. While not condoning his actions, many pointed at his case as evidence that the LAPD doesn’t even take racism or brutality complaints from their own officers seriously. Thus, there was no way teens could be the ones to take the first steps to reach out to officers, they said. They’d just end up looking like snitches and there was no guarantee it would make things better for the community.

Until they first see deep, tangible commitments to change, they concluded, people from lower-income communities of color won’t be likely to change their minds about the trustworthiness of law enforcement any time soon.

But even the members of the youth council – all of whom are dedicated to grassroots problem-solving – couldn’t figure out what form those commitments should take. All they knew was that it had to become more evident that the police cared about protecting them from harm, too, not just USC students or other privileged members of the community.

The youths’ cynicism did not surprise Chief Thomas.

As we discussed the draft of this article in a phone conversation Monday morning, he reminded me that, as a young man growing up in the area, he had found himself sitting in the back seat of a police car for absolutely no reason on more than one occasion.

In those days, he said, it wasn’t a question of “if” he was going to get stopped, it was “when.”

These kinds of complaints were one of the primary reasons he had gone into law enforcement, he said. He believed there was a need for officers who “understood the community” and could “police our community in a humane and respectful way.”

He hoped our discussion of these complaints would serve as the first steps of a process that would heal the clearly damaged relationship that exists between lower-income youth of color and the officers.

And, while the most obvious and immediate solution was the one I offered to Sgt. Pinto, namely: “Put an end to the aggressive drive-by interrogations and try being nice.” That still only scratches the surface. For law enforcement to be seen as an ally rather than a partner in an uneasy truce, there has to be more.

To their great credit, Sgt. Pinto, Capt. Snell, and Capt. Carlisle have all offered their commitment to trying to heal relations, as well.

That’s easier said than done, however.

One activist friend suggested holding a forum where plainclothes officers were planted in the audience so as not to spook the youth. Another half-seriously suggested putting the officers in a confession booth in a church so that the parties wouldn’t see each other as they talked things out.

Precautions have to be taken, in other words, just to get the youth to the table at all.

We are still determining how to create a safe platform for youth to come forward, tell their stories, and discuss possible avenues for building trust with law enforcement. It won’t happen overnight. But at least the officers are sincere in trying to take those first steps, and that is a good place to start.

Why You Should Care

When speaking about the topic of profiling while guest lecturing at USC recently, I was asked to make an argument for why students (and their parents) should care about the issue. How would I counter the claim that students are paying a lot of money to be at the school and they have a right to expect to be safe?

Beyond the obvious human rights arguments, concerns about equal treatment of all people, and fears about incidents like the one that killed Trayvon Martin, I said I felt that the stops have deeply detrimental effects, not only on the youth that are targeted, but also on the community as a whole.

First, and perhaps most importantly, these youth and others like them are not the perpetrators of crimes against USC students, for the most part. The shooting on campus, for example, was perpetrated by a gang member from Inglewood against another gang member whose territory is south of Vernon Ave.; the guys behind the shooting of the grad students appear to have been linked to a gang that runs in Baldwin Village — 3 miles west of campus. Those bent on robbing USC students keep track of the school’s calendar. Moving-in days, spring breaks, holidays, festivals, and the like bring in criminals from as far off as Pacoima.

That is not to say that there aren’t problems in the neighborhood. Southwest is a busy division with a number of challenges. But there was only one youth I spoke with that had a criminal record, and it wasn’t for anything related to USC. Time spent harassing these kids, then, is time not spent dealing with those that pose an actual threat to the area.

But, observers of a stop have no way of knowing that.

Instead, they tend to assume that the youth must have done something to merit the attention and that the police are just doing their job. Some have even described being grateful to see that the police are actively working to keep them safe from potential danger. Even if there was no cause for the stop, the stop itself has served to confirm the stereotype that the students need to be wary of certain youth of color and, by extension, the wider community. Add to this the sheer frequency with which DPS and LAPD officers appear to be questioning youth, and it becomes clear how easy it is for policing techniques to reinforce divisions between communities.

Because of these divisions, USC students may lose out on an opportunity to be more integrated in, learn from, and contribute to the vibrant urban community that surrounds them. While many do participate in one or more of USC’s many programs that give back to the community, it still isn’t always easy for students to see the connection between the people they serve through those programs and the people they live next door to. Other students are less willing to give neighbors the benefit of the doubt at all, convinced that the need for such an intense police presence is confirmation that they live in “the ghetto” and that the neighborhood “sucks.”

While the segregation can reinforce the idea for students that maybe the communities really are too different to be very integrated, it can be even more detrimental for the self-esteem of the youth in the area. Not only are they made aware that they are treated very differently by law enforcement simply because of who they are, they can see how it affects the way students view them. Many told me they were accustomed to being ignored, feared, or given dirty looks while on or near campus. While many like the idea of going to a college like USC, the sense that they are not always a welcome presence in student-heavy areas of their own neighborhoods makes them unsure they would fit into such an environment, even if they had the grades to get there.

In darker moments, a few have confessed, they get discouraged by the idea that, regardless of how hard they work or what they accomplish, they are still going to be viewed with suspicion.

Meanwhile, these youth are just as at risk, if not more, for getting jacked, roughed up, or recruited by a gang as they go back and forth to school or try to hang out with friends. Fearing law enforcement would not protect from retaliation by the perpetrator — often someone known to them — they rarely report the crimes.

That lack of security is often behind the decision of youth to band together in crews (for more about crews, see here). They want protection and the reassurance that someone will always have their back if something should happen to them. And while many of those kids get more caught up in beefing it with each other than anything else, the crews can serve as a gateway to more criminal endeavors for those so inclined.

Which means that making neighborhood youth feel more secure — protecting them from harm instead of criminalizing them — makes everybody more secure in the long run.

We all want to be safe. That’s natural.

And, there are genuine issues of concern that pose safety threats in the area. There’s no question about that.

But true security is about more than fences, gates, and visible patrols. It is about inclusion, communication, integration, relationships, and respect. When the desire of some to be safe comes at such a high cost to others, everybody loses and everybody is worse off for it.

It really is that simple.


See the follow-up story here. It looks at the uproar over the unequal treatment black USC students received after a party was shut down for being too noisy.

I would like to thank the youth — particularly Fidel Delgado — that were so open in sharing their stories with me. I’d like to especially thank Sgt. II Jonathan Pinto of the Southwest Division of the LAPD, Capt. III Paul Snell (also of Southwest), Chief John Thomas (DPS), and Capt. David Carlisle (DPS) for taking the time to listen and committing to dealing with this issue.



  • Joe B

    Many recreational and commuter cyclists routinely carry video cameras to document driver harassment and assaults. I wonder how feasible it would be for a few kids to carry unobtrusive cameras to document police harassment. I would think that video evidence of just one or two clear-cut cases of the over-the-top harassment that you describe would go a long way towards curtailing the practice.

  • Jake Wegmann

    This is a very evenhanded, thoughtful and carefully written piece. What the author is describing is maddening to read about.

    Maybe one promising way forward is to make the case to civil libertarians and anti-government types that the REAL oppressive big government is what these youth experience on a day to day basis. No need to invoke paranoid UN black helicopter or Agenda 21 fantasies.

    If a few people who think along those lines could be persuaded — hey, Rand Paul has spoken out against the drug war — maybe something could actually change. These youth are the ones who most need the protections that the US Constitution is supposed to be providing, but somehow isn’t.

  • Kari A

    As a former USC student and someone who currently works with at risk youth in the neighborhood, I appreciate the thought and dedication that went into this article. However I’m very confused by the picture attached. Highland Park (my own former neighborhood) is not the neighborhood around USC and in fact has a whole different set of gangs and community issues. The caption seems to indicate that the author interviewed the young men for this article – but the article is specifically about USC and the increased profiling and targeting of young men and women of color around the campus and neighborhood. It distracts from an otherwise thought provoking article and makes me question the research that went into the piece.

  • sahra

    Good point. I was wondering about using this one or another one i had of these youth being frisked. The article I wrote about them was titled “Do I look suspicious to you?” And I did interview them for that piece. I’ll probably change the photo out. I wasn’t sure what photo to use, actually. Most of the youth I spoke with did not want to be identified, meaning photos were tough. But you’re right — it does present a disconnect when I actually was trying to connect it to earlier work i’d done on the issue. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    What an outstanding and important article.


    As someone currently training for a public safety career, it is infuriating to read the behavior of the LAPD and DPS officers around USC who are stopping and searching members of the community under the presumption of guilt and in full violation of their 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

    It is entirely acceptable for officers to slow/stop and observe — or to attempt to contact — anyone who might raise their concern. But it must be done correctly and legally. Without reasonable suspicion, the standard that justifies a detention (for example: someone matches the description of a reported bike thief), officers aren’t allowed to just roll up jump out and start interrogating anyone. And they certainly can’t physically search you because someone looks like they might have a weapon on them.


People have to educate themselves: you do not have to talk to a police officer who engages you in conversation (or in these cases: accusation). In the parlance it’s called a “consensual encounter” and you don’t have to consent. Not only that, but if you decline to speak to the officer there is nothing they can do about it, at least not legally. Now, if officers have a justifiable suspicion — based on articulable facts, not unspecified hunches — that a person has, was or is about to be involved in a crime, then they can detain you, frisk you for weapons, and question you in order to develop probable cause, which is the standard required for an arrest.

    Sure, it takes a certain level of courage to stand up to police intimidation, but what these people who are being treated unjustly need to do is demonstrate their knowledge of the process as a way to combat their abhorrent profiling tactics.

    When initially contacted, ask the officers politely “Am I being detained? And if so, based on what grounds? If not, am I free to leave?”

    In a perfect world the officers would say you are free to leave. But, of course it’s not a perfect world and there’s a vast chasm between a person’s rights and protections and those officers who couldn’t care less about violating them.

  • Excellent article

  • squiggle

    great article, though i’d like to add that this treatment doesn’t stop at South LA, this is the overall treatment of people of color in this country by the police.

  • ubrayj02

    Why should the folks at USC be concerned that another generation of young people in the surrounding community are being harassed?

    If we are a nation of cowards, hiding behind defensive barricades afraid of poor teenagers, then I guess there really isn’t a problem. Bring in the goons, pull out the arts education and recreational opportunities, and let’s have ourselves an old fashioned de facto apartheid state.

    Or we could try and live up to the reputation I hear so many in this country harping on about how “free” we are and how much we all honor “liberty”, etc., etc.

    I believe it is the ceiling at City Hall in Los Angeles that has the following to say:



    Oh, and this one too:


  • Andrew

    As a USC Alum, I can sympathize with the kids in this article. However, I can’t say that I agree with the tone of the article. Making the cops and DPS out to be the bad guys isn’t going to help this problem. All you’re accomplishing is to widen the “Us v Them” mentality that’s already being perpetuated by these circumstances on campus. You talk extensively about the new security measures at USC but basically brush over the very serious random acts of violence perpetrated by members of that community on USC students and around the USC area. These acts include the 2 shootings which you seem to downplay, one of which left 2 USC students dead. I understand that there are collateral consequences, but I applauded the University for really investing in student security, and I will continue to defend their right and responsibility to do so. In addition, USC has major community initiatives in place to work along side the people of the community, and is a positive influence in the area.

  • Anonymous

    The kids in this article don’t want sympathy. Empathy, maybe…. but more importantly they want fair treatment. They are entitled to it. As to making the officers out to be the “bad guys,” it’s those officers themselves who are doing that, and it MUST be reported. The goal of this article is not to dismiss the violent crimes that have been perpetrated on and around the university or to widen the chasm between the cops and the community, but to bring all factions together — campus, community and cops. But that can’t be done if a light doesn’t get shined on those who are themselves doing the widening.

    As to USC being proactive in connecting with the community overall, that may be, But reactively barricading itself from its surroundings for the first time in the university’s history doesn’t do any favors for the positive influence it seeks to have in the area — especially if an offshoot of that action is “collateral issues,” which seems to be a term that brushes over the aggressive policing now taking place in the adjacent communities.

  • Teresa Luce Spangler

    I am saddened to hear of the trouble neighborhood kids are having adjacent to campus. However, as a parent paying a small fortune to send my child to USC, I have absolutely no problem with increased security on the USC campus. That is a private facility, no different than a private high school, or even a public high school for that matter. Increased security on school property has become a necessity in recent years due to violent mass shootings. You are not allowed to walk into any school without registering.

    I don’t think that will cut off the community from USC. For example, My student is a volunteer for the schools in the surrounding neighborhood as a proud member of Troy Camp. Kids are allowed to trick or treat in the dorms, and many campus events are open to the public.

    It would be lovely if the beauty of the campus could be shared with all, but when shots were fired outside the student union this past fall during a party, it became very apparent that some of the access needs to be limited. I do not see that as racist, or elitist. It is a matter of safety.Why would Los Angeles and USC want the bad publicity of college students being hurt or killed? Not that their lives are any more important than those of people in the South Central Community, no one should live with violence. But, if you want the kids of USC to continue to go to the school, and help the surrounding community with their investment of time and money, they must be kept safe. I don’t see that as a civil rights violation.

  • sahra

    The point I was trying to make, but maybe didn’t make clearly and will edit in, thanks to your comment, is that these kids are not the perpetrators of those crimes. The kid responsible for the shooting on campus was from a gang in Inglewood (who was beefing it with another kid from Darcside — also not near USC) and the shooting of the grad students was also perpetrated by guys who lived several miles from campus. On moving-in days, criminals come from as far off as Pacoima to prey on kids who aren’t savvy enough to lock their car doors while moving their stuff in and out. It isn’t the local population (for the most part) that is doing that stuff. Even if the kids are involved in crews, they tend to focus on fighting each other to be able to up their image, and that keeps them pretty busy. it doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges in the area. Southwest is a busy division for a lot of reasons. But these kids are generally not the problem. They actually need protection, too.

  • Yossarian

    If people of “color” are committing the crimes against Whites and Asians in and around USC, they need to be profiled. Just like Muslims and Arabs.

  • sahra

    Yay. Our first troll. I wondered how long it would take. Please, future commenters, let’s not start a thread arguing with jackassery. That’s for Yahoo and the LAT message boards. Thanks!

  • calwatch

    The library is completely open to the public, yet you are not allowed to access it after curfew hours.

  • calwatch

    Good work Sahra. In addition to declining consensual conversation with the cops and filing complaints with police administration for harassment, it also helps to bring this up to elected leaders. On complaint letters to LAPD copy the local councilman and mayor’s office. During election season attend those forums and ask questions. Get involved in neighborhood council, which is the best way to access field managers who might be able to do something.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. I’m reminded of this piece from This American Life about some of the IDF’s operations in the West Bank. The point isn’t that you are going after criminals. The point is that you are constantly making your presence felt. NYPD’s stop and frisk program and their vertical patrols fall into the same category. Systematic intimidation is the result, even if it wasn’t the original intent.

    I’m also reminded a little bit of this Ta-Nehisi Coates piece which notes that in addition to the racial component, there is also a significant class component to the dynamics of policing in the US.

  • Personally, I’d be nervous videoing police during a stop, even if I’m not the one who’s being stopped. It’s a good idea, but I’d be nervous.

  • V

    Thank you so much for this excellent article – it was extremely informative and well researched. As a current USC student very much concerned with community relations in the local community, work like this is increasingly important.

    But I strongly believe that this article could benefit from interviews with DPS officers. Though you clarify that several LAPD officers are also people of color, this article implies that DPS officers are not – which is not true. Where these DPS officers are from and how they relate (or don’t relate) to the kids they’re harrassing is an extremely important aspect to this story that are simply missing from this article. Were DPS officers unwilling to speak to you? Their stories are an important aspect to the relationships being drawn up in this article, but they’re just absent even though they’re people too – just like you’ve shown the LAPD to be.

  • PC

    Well, it’s all about making people with small fortunes to spend happy, isn’t it? In that sense–ensuring that the privileged can carry their privilege wherever they go–the police and the DPS are certainly doing their jobs.

  • PC

    I can tell you from experience that the LAPD does not like being videotaped. They do not like it one little bit. Funny how a bunch of people who want to be able to pry into YOUR personal life whenever they please get openly hostile as soon as a camera is aimed at them, isn’t it?

    I’m not trying to do the cops’ dirty work for them by helping them to intimidate people who want to document police harassment, but if you’re going to do this you need to know what to expect.

    Stay calm. Stay well outside of anybody’s arm’s length–the police will use any excuse to claim that you’re “interfering” or threatening them. Resist the temptation to yell at the police or anybody else while you’re filming; all that does is make your tape less useful as evidence because you’re blotting out the dialogue. Always ask yourself whether what you’re doing could make things worse for the people being harassed, who likely have fewer resources and privileges than you do, and act with that in mind.

  • sahra

    You misread the piece. The “Chief Thomas” I refer to in the article is the head of DPS.

  • ahuddy9

    It’s not wrong to keep students safe. But profiling is a completely different matter. As a student, almost every time I see an older minority citizen alone on USC’s campus without some sort of USC apparel, there’s a DPS officer hot on their tails. Yet imagine if a white, upper-class, well-cut citizen that happened to be a non-student walked on to campus with a well-concealed gun in his bag 15 minutes before the campus begins requiring an ID for campus entry at night. Having lived on campus and observed security trends, I honestly doubt the DPS would stop them. No amount of security can prevent against all shootings and other crimes, so saying that it is necessary to increase security because of shootings is retroactive. USC’s recent changes are well-intended gestures, but in my honest opinion, the resources could better serve the less-privileged living around USC without putting students at greater risk.

    As to shutting out the community, please consider the opinions of community residents who do not have the safety net or convenience that we do as USC students. I can tell you from talking to community residents that nothing says exclusive like a massive gate. And when I’ve walked through areas of low-income residents nearby and around LA, I’ve gotten looks from people who know all too well that if they came into where we live as students (at and nearby USC), they wouldn’t have the same freedoms as us (to go and do whatever best suits their needs and desires).

    Also, I take issue with the argument that this school is totally private property. As USC students, we’re a part of the community of South Central, and that means we’re more than a mansion that can tell who to come in and when. With education and a great deal of money comes a profound social responsibility to manage it well – and as much as that means security and preservation, that also means benefitting everyone (and thinking about everyone) equally, regardless of educational and socioeconomic status. No one without criminal intentions who lives in South Central should have to worry about getting stopped (and potentially having their body and rights abused) just for the sake of an elite few’s façade of security.

    The article does present a heavy dose of the “us-versus-them” mentality, of which I admit I can be guilty of at times in thinking about this issue. I think the point of the article was not to advocate removal of all USC-centered security or to put students at risk, but rather to question the motives behind security enforcement in hopes of improving relations with the community. I appreciate your concern for your child, but as a student who’s lived at USC since August, it seems that this typical parental logic doesn’t draw enough on the present realities in South Central (which I hope I helped give a better picture of here).

  • max

    “I take issue with the argument that this school is totally private property.”

    Spoken by someone who has never faced tens of millions of dollars in liability as would be, say, a school administrator who can be shown in court to have known about a danger and not taken steps to prevent it. Nice.

  • max

    Lest this sound too abstract (or black and white), take a look at the California Supreme Court case Peterson v. San Francisco Cmty. Coll. Dist., 36 Cal. 3d 799, 685 P.2d 1193 (1984).

  • I was going to make a recommendation of a cheap camera like the helmet cams some cyclists use, but I see that Joe B beat me to it. I’ve been thinking about getting one for biking myself, but haven’t really looked into prices yet. If these are more expensive than kids in the neighborhood would be likely to afford, maybe Streetsblog can have a fundraiser to get a couple cams to lend to some of them?

  • sahra

    fyi…the comment below by “a” has technically been removed but disqus doesn’t always register changes that quickly. i apologize for the delay.

  • CityEye

    I’m shocked to read the response from Sahra below. It shows lack of ethics and professionalism. But then again reading tis bias piece doesn’t surprise me. There have been many car break ins, stolen property on campus etc and students are screaming for more police especially after the 2 were shot and killed down the street from USC. If any of these youth the article speaks of had been shot or the victim of a crime this reporter would be the first one screaming. Cops aren’t going to risk their career because of some youth. On the Eastside where there are more gangs then any other part of the City many of the youth in large organizations have good relationships with Officers. LAPD has over 50% Latino officers so its hard to believe some of the racist comments. Boston police found the suspects because of camera survillance. Black and Latinos make up the prison population. Its all about PARENTING. Everyone wants to blame the police for everything but the answer is there is no parenting in today’s society.

  • I’m not sure which response you read, but we’ve talked to the LAPD and they had no issues with anything in the piece. In fact, she’s actually helping bridge the gap between LAPD ad DPS.

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on Streetsblog, I found none of it racist, and neither did the LAPD.

  • sahra

    If you mean the racist one where the commenter called people terrible names, then you are welcome to your unfortunate opinion. As I mention in the piece, these youth being harassed are not the youth causing crimes. But constant harassment and a lack of protection can push them to make poor choices. Many, many youth tell me they got involved in crews or gangs because they needed protection or because they lost friends to gang violence, or because their families abused them. We have been reluctant to invest more in law enforcement, yet we ask so much of them. Officers do not have the time or training to do what would really serve the communities best — foot patrols and good relationships with the people in the areas they serve. In the many conversations I have had with both the LAPD and DPS I reiterated that I understand the intense challenges of Southwest. I have told them on one more than one occasion that I am more than aware of what some of the gangs in the area are capable of and would not my loved ones in law enforcement to be patrolling the area. But that doesn’t make these kids guilty and deserving of being stopped and harassed and told they are criminals every time they turn around. I applaud the commitment of the officers I spoke with to deal with the issue because it is one that has long been a thorn in the side of the LAPD. Anyone who can quote statistics about the LAPD must know that as well. Things are getting better, but they have a long way to go.

  • Phaedra

    Again, wrong photo!!!!!! You can’t put a Red Line photo on an article about the Expo Line! Again, you cant put a photo of HP on an article about USC. really?

  • A few valid points, but the bulk is just more cop-hating leftist drivel with loads of anecdotal “evidence” and trumped-up claims of police racism.

  • LetsGoLA=Hamas-supporting Islamic terrorist sympathizer.


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