May 5, 2014 - From the May, 2014 issue

Soboroff on the Nexus of LAPD, Great Neighborhoods, and Great Streets

Steve Soboroff, currently the president of Los Angeles’ Police Commission, has an extensive track record in LA public life. TPR sat down with Soboroff to view the municipality through his new lens, discussing parks, great streets, and community pride as it relates to LAPD. In light of the recent Promise Zone grant and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s priorities, Soboroff reveals why he still feels optimistic about the city he has long served.


Steve Soboroff

"The reason that I’m energized now instead of being cynical, critical, or burned out is because I had a chance to lead a team that had a goal to implement great public policy in Playa Vista, which became a public policy petri dish!" —Steve Soboroff

Steve, is serving as president of the City of Los Angeles Police Commission just one more civic leadership responsibility for you? Or is it civically special?

Steve Soboroff: Being involved with the Los Angeles Police Commission is far and away the most interesting position that I’ve held. I wouldn’t trade it for any other position in the city, and I mean that.

Even better than serving as President of the LA Recreation and Parks Commission? More challenging than acting as the senior advisor to Mayor Riordan, point person for Staples Center, the Alameda Corridor, LAUSD BB Bond Oversight Committee, and CEO of Playa Vista?

Yes, and I say that very carefully because I love our park system and the great folks at Recreation and Parks, and Playa Vista is a very special place. What has been so reinforcing to me is that community policing is recreation and parks, and community policing leads to better neighborhoods. LAPD is not as different as you may think. Being the president of the Police Commission involves a lot of the things I was involved in at Recreation and Parks, Playa Vista, and City Hall.

Saying that, what you have here post-Consent Decree is a police department dedicated to community policing. That culture, via Chiefs Beck and Bratton, goes through the whole department, not just from the media perspective or from the commanding officers’ perspective. It goes all the way through to those officers on the streets. LAPD is America’s finest police department. That is critical to Los Angeles in relation to better neighborhoods, better parks, better quality of life, and more jobs—all of the cornerstones of Mayor Garcetti’s efforts.

I am proud of the strides in CompStat, which is a statistical analysis of crime, and PredPol, which is predictive policing of where things will happen based on what’s happened in the past, and where it’s appropriate to make deployments every day. With the community helping us, the tools available to this department are making neighborhoods more livable. 

You obviously are a believer in the City of LA.  From the perch of the Police Commission presidency, elaborate on why you’re so bullish today on Los Angeles. Why do you think it’s a good place to live and getting better?

I think there are hundreds of great neighborhoods now—where people are talking up their neighborhoods and talking up Los Angeles—versus very few just a decade ago. I believe that is a result of a number of things: Having a safer city and community policing in these neighborhoods—policing with the community, not at the community—is a part of it. So are farmers’ markets and greening of neighborhood commercial areas, which the mayor began when he was on the council.

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Don’t ask this question to my generation—ask our kids what they like about LA from their daily perspective. They talk about their own neighborhoods with community self-esteem. That’s rare in LA, but it is a part of being from Boston, Chicago, or New York. I think that’s wonderful. Making LA proud and livable is doable for this mayor and council.  That’s why I think he’s tomorrow’s mayor, today. 

Steve, TPR carried an interview with Deputy Mayor Rick Cole addressing, “Can LA Streets Be Great?” The Deputy Mayor said, “The first ingredient is embracing the holistic challenge of making Great Streets… You have to focus on the cultural, economic, civic, and even spiritual dimensions,” and they have to be safe. Could you address how community policing fits into the mayor’s Great Streets agenda for LA?

First of all, if I were to pick one thing that has created community and centered neighborhoods in Los Angeles over the past 15 years, it’s neighborhood farmers’ markets. I think they are categorically wonderful in every part of the city.

The reason that I’m energized now instead of being cynical, critical, or burned out is because I had a chance to lead a team that had a goal to implement great public policy in Playa Vista, which became a public policy petri dish! A few years ago, we took as our major goals: making traffic work; creating housing architecturally and economically for everyone; helping public education; creating a great park system; protecting the environment; and providing jobs.

That was in 2001. Now, fast forward to 2014. Certainly safety was the primary issue for us, and as we come to today, people who live in Playa Vista are positive about where they’re living. They want to get involved and help. It’s the same thing with Silverlake, Echo Park, a whole bunch of communities out in the Valley, in South LA, in East LA, on the Westside, and especially in San Pedro—the neighborhood self-esteem is palpable.

It all starts with safety. If people can’t walk in their neighborhoods in the day or night, or if their kids can’t walk to school or into the village, it doesn’t happen. Our police officers now know more people in the community than they ever have. If there’s someone that’s in trouble in the community—somebody who’s in a gang or going the wrong way—our police officers know their families and go talk to their families. They engage. The result has been much safer neighborhoods with the edge off. It’s not, “We’ve got to watch this kid tonight” or, “This is going to be a problem.” The feeling is, “Let’s celebrate our neighborhoods.” Now, that’s happening in so many more places than it was before. I think that community policing is a big part of it. 

Steve, as has been noted, you are a past president of the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission, and you are a persistent proponent of our parks, schools, libraries, and communities collaborating to make greater neighborhoods. How important is the nexus of parks and police? Note that 10 years ago the City of Redlands placed Recreation under the management of the police chief for precisely the reasons you just articulated. 

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I had not heard that about Redlands. Mazel Tov to them! I’d certainly rather consider that proposal than the idea of merging our two ports, frankly. There is no great city that has a poor park system. There’s no great city in America that isn’t safe. These are two of the hallmarks of jobs, economic vitality, tourism, and everything else.

At the same time, both departments have major budgetary problems. They’re surviving, and that’s because they are turning to the community for help. The positive response has been great, and it is the solution. 

Is present understaffing and underfunding of both parks and police making it more difficult to have neighborhoods with great streets? 

Yes! The people who work in both of those departments—and many others, I think—are doing it for far more than the money, that’s for sure. The amount of money that they’re being paid, even in relation to what is paid for similar jobs at DWP, is hardly enough to raise a family on, if it is.   

In the Police Department, we have 9,902 sworn officers. Almost 90 percent of them don’t live in Los Angeles. That is a missed opportunity. In Playa Vista, we did something about it by taking the affordable housing component and offering it to cops, firemen, teachers, and nurses who work in Los Angeles. We allowed them to have priority for over 300 units. Who doesn’t want to live next to a police officer, first responder, or fireman?

I’m going to come out publicly very soon, probably right after your article, and call on builders and developers who are enjoying good times right now to set aside units that are affordable either to purchase (because we have the police and firemen credit unions that can finance) or rent all over Los Angeles, to bring them back to LA. It would be an incentive in jobs that don’t offer incentives because of budget realities.

We are losing police officers to other communities because we no longer offer overtime possibilities. The development and landlord community needs to reach out and help communities by helping our police officers and our city employees live closer to where they work.

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You mention your chairmanship and CEO position at Playa Vista—clearly that development is a petri dish for community building and fashioning great neighborhoods. How, in your mind, does Playa Vista inform your current civic responsibilities?

It has energized me. As we approach some of these issues, I say, “Well, we did it at Playa Vista on a smaller scale, and now the mayor and councilmembers are doing it in all these neighborhoods.” I think it’s terrific. I want to be supportive of that. I want our department to be supportive of that, and we are. 

Steve, you’ve been in the “belly of the beast” often. How challenging is it for someone in City Hall to think holistically the way you were able to at Playa Vista? 

It’s much harder. At Playa Vista, we didn’t have a democracy—we had benevolent dictatorship. Democracy is exhausting. What the city did at Playa Vista is turn over a lot of this decision making to the local activists.

On the other hand, when we went to a town hall meeting in San Pedro, the people didn’t come to the meeting and say, “We’re upset that the city isn’t doing this. We’re upset because you’re not responding to this.” They said, “We’re a great community down here. We know you have your issues. What can we do to help? Do you need us to lobby? Do you need us to be more vigilant? What do we need to do?” I think that’s a great attitude.

The other thread that you weave into your civic work is your board position and now chairmanship of the Weingart Foundation. Address how the philanthropic community and those you serve can better be included in enhancing an already great city.

When I started with the Police Commission, I thought, “This is going to be a big learning curve for me.” But then I found that it really paralleled a lot of the things that I had been doing before, because in community policing we’re dealing with the underserved, and that’s what the Weingart Foundation does beautifully.  

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Fred Ali, the president of the Weingart Foundation, and my co-board members are in touch with using our dollars to affect the underserved. Foundations in Los Angeles now realize that the service providers they pick have to be much more efficient than ever before. You’re seeing dollars go into training people in non-profits and service providers, or asking service providers to merge. At the end of the day, what we’re looking for is efficiency and helping them achieve that by training their development officers, by doing collaborations, etc. The idea that philanthropy is leading the charge to help the service providers, in addition to funding them, is really refreshing and brings terrific results.

Lastly, the City of Los Angeles via YPI was just one of three cities to receive Promise Zone Grants from the Obama Administration—an initiative to bring education and poverty program transformation to schools and communities in Los Angeles. What’s the significance of this Promise Grant? 

This reminds me very much of the school bond, Prop BB, because there are other neighborhoods that need to be involved in receiving funds. The initial grant that was awarded to Los Angeles was restricted to go into specific communities. Future Promise Grants will be available for other communities if it rolls out really well.  

Just like our school bond measure, where BB was the first one, the mantra of the oversight committee was, “If we don’t do this correctly then the voters aren’t going to vote for another one.” They did—two or three other school bond measures. So in this case, the Promise Grant funds need to be leveraged and implemented efficiently, and they must stand the test of transparency.

We need this, and the sooner the better, because we need to qualify for more. We need to get South LA in the next batch.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.