LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith does something unexpected in the minutes before the tape starts rolling and a formal interview begins. He talks about bathroom tile.
And he's really, really into it.
It's not unprovoked. Before we start discussing his time in Downtown - which comes to an end this week, when he will take an assignment in South Los Angeles - as well as the things he achieved and the areas where he fell short, I ask Smith how he spent his weekend. After talking about the blind kid pointlessly murdered in South L.A. (more on that later), he pulls out a magazine with a picture of a bathroom featuring an old-style bathtub. He talks about the 1909 Craftsman home in Redondo Beach he bought and the renovations he is undertaking. He is excited about the hexagonal floor tile (I offer a suggestion on where to get it cheaply; he already knows) and the wall tile.
Holy smokes, as Smith might say, this is not what you expect from the guy in crisp police blues who has spent the last three years overseeing hundreds of officers and busting drug dealers in the effort to clean up Skid Row. Smith, it is clear, is not your stereotypical gruff, macho cop.
Of course, that's something much of Downtown Los Angeles already knows. From the time Smith arrived in 2005 as LAPD Chief William Bratton's choice to usher the area into the future, he has consistently bucked the status quo and surprised jaded observers.
Smith's effect was felt in numerous instances and neighborhoods, from the participation he requested from the community to the time he challenged the Sheriff's Department, a step that, had things gone wrong, could have torpedoed his ascendant career. While the LAPD's Central Division has had a line of leaders who were praised by the community, you don't have to shake a lot of branches to get someone to talk enthusiastically about what Smith did differently.
"I don't think we had [a commander] who embraced the issues of what happens on the streets with the same level of enthusiasm and open-mindedness as Commander Smith," said Orlando Ward, public affairs director for the Midnight Mission.
"The guy never tried to dodge a bullet. Whatever was going down, if there was a complaint or dialogue, Andy was the guy," said developer Tom Gilmore. "He would show up at any meeting, anytime, anywhere, and he would make commitments and he would follow up on them."
In early 2005 Smith was a captain in the LAPD's Communications Division, overseeing two 911 centers. In a department whose raison d'être is catching bad guys, the task of helming a couple dark call centers with a batch of disgruntled staff members - "the working conditions were really horrible," Smith recalled - is a decidedly unsexy task.
Still, Smith had success in lessening attrition and boosting morale. That caught the attention of Bratton, the former New York Police Commissioner. Bratton wanted to make a change in Central Division, and chose Smith as much for his personality as his track record.
"He is a caring, compassionate person," Bratton said last week, "and in that command in particular, Central, with all of the deprivation and so many lives that are so severely impacted in a negative way, Andy just seemed to be the right fit."
It was no simple assignment. At the time, nearly 2,000 people were sleeping on Downtown's streets each night. The blocks around the Central Division station, in the heart of Skid Row, were rife with crime, drug use and prostitution.
Looking back, Smith, 45, knew he had his hands full. His first task, he realized, wasn't going after the streets, but rather looking at his own division.
"Obviously there needed to be some changes," he said. "And looking around - there's a quote by Churchill and I'll paraphrase it, it's about waking up a slumbering bureaucracy, because the police department has a job to do down here, and our guys were scrambling around trying to do that job, and maybe doing it a little disjointed, maybe not as focused as we should have been when I got there."
The comment reveals a lot about Smith - he's a master of tact, keen on sharing credit and avoiding public criticism of his troops. The words may have implied "we can do a little bit better," but the underlying message was "the entire atmosphere needs to change, and quickly."
It did. Smith acknowledges that as he made changes, some of the approximately 400 officers in Central Division transferred and others retired. He also brought in people like a new leader for Central Division detectives, Tom Brascia. "He was a hard-charging, no-nonsense, I-hate-crooks guy," Smith said.
Smith and Capt. Jodi Wakefield, who came to Central Disivion at the same time, quickly began walking the streets, establishing a visual presence in the neighborhood.
One early focal point was Main Street in the Historic Core. Shortly after arriving, Smith sent a lieutenant out at 2 a.m. to inspect the area. The lieutenant counted 138 people camping out between Third and Seventh streets. Fifth and Main, just one block south of the apartment buildings in Gilmore's Old Bank District, was the nexus. It was, the developer recalled, "nothing but the worst of humanity all concentrated in one place."
What followed was a swift, potent crackdown. Working with City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's office and others, Smith led a blistering charge to clean up the area. The dealers were chased out and, in one famous incident, a battering ram was used to break down the door of a business where drug sales were occurring. While the street will never be confused with Rodeo Drive, in a short period of time there was a relatively safe pedestrian path between the Old Bank District and a couple housing complexes a few blocks south.
"Fast forward two and a half years later, the idea of someone putting a tent up on Main Street?" said Smith. "I'd get calls from 30 different people if someone pitched a tent on Main Street right now."
Smith grew up in Iron Mountain, Mich., a small-town kid who migrated to the West Coast, where he attended the University of California San Diego. He joined the LAPD in 1988 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in 1993 and getting his first captain's post in 2001.
Along the way, he developed a skill that he would share with his future boss Bratton - an ability to court media and generate positive press for the LAPD. He exercised the skill while in South Bureau and perfected it during his years Downtown; he may be the first police officer to appear on the cover of the community weekly (Los Angeles Downtown News), the city's main alternative weekly (L.A. Weekly) and the city's Catholic weekly (The Tidings).
Despite his penchant for building relationships, his defining moment came from the luck of being in the right place at the right time. In September 2005, Smith was on the streets of Skid Row when he witnessed two Sheriff's Department deputies pull up to a curb and take a handcuffed man out of a car. Smith confronted the deputies and learned that the man had been picked up in Lakewood, 20 miles away, and that there was no legitimate reason to bring him to Downtown.
Smith blew the whistle on the deputies, and described what he had seen to numerous media outlets. It unleashed a fury and threw back the curtain on homeless "dumping," an ugly practice that had been going on for years. Other reported instances of dumping, generally when indigent people were sent from hospitals to Skid Row, followed.
Only now have more details become clear, and it was not as simple as Smith seeing something bad and speaking up. Rather, he had to go up the chain of command. Ultimately he got the green light from Bratton.
Still, there was the risk of repercussions - Smith was harshly criticizing a major law enforcement operation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and generating heat for powerful Sheriff Lee Baca.
"Even some of the folks in the department said that was a big risk," said Smith. "When you do something like that, there is the potential that everyone takes one step backwards and you're out standing by yourself. But the chief and everyone else was extremely supportive."
One person who knew what Smith saw was Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association. As she watched the back and forth over what he could say and when, she was struck by Smith's stance.
"Captain Smith not once wavered, not once said, 'I'm really not sure,'" Lopez recalled. "He said, 'I can't believe this happened, we can't allow this.' You could tell it wasn't just a job for him. He felt violated as much as we in the community felt violated."
The dumping incident raised Smith's profile in Downtown and strengthened his ties with the community. Soon, he had buy-in from entities including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the state Parole Board. He was able to secure city services as simple as tree trimming and street repaving.
"You start thinking, holy smokes, look at all the things that are happening here," he said. "So we kind of tried to wake up that slumbering bureaucracy."
He was also able to secure the help of the business community. Members of Lopez's CCEA put up about $200,000 to pay for security cameras to be installed in Skid Row. These were monitored by officers in the Central Division station. Smith noted that a similar effort took place in the Historic Core.
"A huge part of our success on Main Street was because suddenly we had cameras mounted up there," Smith said, noting that the cameras would record drug deals and police would swoop in. "When you've got a DVD that shows the narcotics transaction taking place, and you have the officers saying this guy sold dope, those guys stay in jail."
The advancements helped Downtown prepare for the Safer Cities Initiative, the effort championed by Bratton that sent 50 additional police officers to patrol Skid Row. The program, despite drawing sharp criticism from some homeless rights advocates, has generally been lauded by the Downtown business community and homeless services providers.
Ward of the Midnight Mission observed that Smith has had to walk a fine line in dealing with the varied interests of the business community, the service providers and the homeless themselves.
"It's kind of a dangerous little intersection to be in, and I thought he did an admirable job of hearing the concerns of everybody there and working to forge relationships and working to implement change," he said.
Last June, Bratton promoted Smith from captain of Central Division to a commander in Central Bureau (earning him the nickname Commandy from some Downtowners). On April 1, he'll move again, taking charge of the South Bureau Criminal Gang Homicide Group. In layman's terms, said Smith, "that means all the gang crime and the homicides that are occurring in the south part of Los Angeles."
It's a deliberate choice on Bratton's part, one that indicates Smith is being groomed for greater things. "Andy is somebody that has a very bright potential future in the department, and the idea is to broaden his experiences," said Bratton. "The detective command of gang homicides in South Bureau will be a significant expansion of his opportunities."
More than a week before he started the job, Smith was already speaking to the outgoing commander and detectives working the area. He rolled with a team when a murder occurred at 1 a.m. on a Saturday. He arrived at the scene to find that a young, blind man, with a colostomy bag, had been shot to death with no apparent provocation.
"Not because of any racial reason or not because they even knew the guy, but because the guy lived in a different neighborhood," Smith recounted, still visibly affected. "That kind of thing, to me, even after 20 years in this department, that kind of thing is still shocking."
That kind of thing is also about to become part of his daily routine as he attempts to gain purchase on a hot-button issue at a time when various elected officials wrestle publicly over who should control gang programs.
Smith knows the job will be challenging, and already has a philosophy that will shape what he asks of those working for him, as well as those in the community. "I think we need to really look at what we can do to prevent these things from happening in the first place," he said. "I'm all about catching bad guys and all about bringing people to justice. I live for that. But in this particular case, I think we need to prevent those gang crimes and those murders from happening in the first place."
As he leaves Downtown, Smith appears pleased with what he has accomplished. Sure, he notes, he would like to have seen even more progress on getting people off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. But in general, he appears satisfied with the changes the community has undergone in the last three years.
In fact, if Smith has a success that will endure beyond his time, it may transcend the number of people taken off the streets or the removal of the main drug gangs. Andy Smith's chief legacy may have been helping adjust the atmosphere, and reminding Los Angeles that certain things should not be allowed on Skid Row just because it is Skid Row.
"If we've had a success, maybe it's changing what is acceptable behavior down here," he said.
Contact Jon Regardie at email@example.com.
page 1, 3/31/2008
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