Leap Weighs In on COVID, Crime in Watts

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the rise in homicides during the pandemic and the way that it has affected neighborhoods like Watts in South Los Angeles. Of the 22 men and women killed in Watts in the first 11 months of 2021, 64% of the victims were Black. “Young Black men and families are the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Leap said. “If you’re starving and you feel out of control, you’re more likely to be the victim or the perpetrator of violence.” She pointed out that the COVID case rate in Watts is nearly 30% higher than the overall rate for Los Angeles, and 117 residents have died. After spending over 40 years working in Watts, Leap hopes to see more economic investment to support the community. “We have plenty of investment in social programs in Watts,” Leap said. “Where is the economic structure to give people jobs?”


Growing Influence L.A.'s new curb on plastic utensils is one example of how UCLA Luskin research impacts policy

By Mary Braswell

Los Angeles County is restricting use of the plastic tableware that clogs our landfills and waterways.

The L.A. City Council launched a coordinated effort to deter harassment on the city’s streets and transit systems.

And the LAPD created a new bureau to elevate the community’s voice in places where law enforcement has a rocky history.

Each of these actions, taken with the intention of improving the lives of Angelenos, relied on research produced by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. And they are just three recent examples that underscore the School’s growing influence as it turns incisive scholarship into real policies aimed at building a more just and equitable world.

This calling is not new. The work done by UCLA Luskin’s public policy, social welfare and urban planning programs and more than a dozen affiliated centers and institutes has long been a source of data-driven guidance for decision-makers in the public and private sectors. The School’s impact has been felt across the region, nation and world.

“We must always ask ourselves, ‘What’s the benefit of this work?’’’ said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, the School’s associate dean of academic affairs. “Our research is meant to be applied, not just read by other academics, or what, really, is the use?”

CHALLENGING THE THROWAWAY CULTURE

L.A. County had identified a problem. In search of solutions, it looked to the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. 

The problem was the harmful environmental impact of disposable forks, knives, spoons and other plasticware, used once then tossed in the trash by 10 million county residents. 

The county had pledged to phase out these single-use plastics, and needed a strong base of knowledge to craft an effective ordinance. The Center for Innovation was contracted to study what the products are made of, how they impact the environment and economy, why they cannot be easily recycled, what alternatives are available, and more.

Momentum grew in January 2020, when the Center for Innovation delivered a high-profile report identifying prime targets for policy action. Then, COVID-19 struck.

“The county had decided that it really wanted to take firm action,” said Daniel Coffee MPP ’20, a Center for Innovation project manager who has worked on each phase of the plastics study.

“But the pandemic created a really significant resource crunch for the county, as it did for many municipal governments, and understandably they prioritized public health and services.”

In 2021, the legislative effort to curb plastic waste got back on track. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to eliminate single-use plastics in county-run facilities, though it stopped short of broadening the new rules to restaurants still affected by the pandemic. Other local governments also stepped up, including the L.A. City Council, which unanimously voted to make disposable foodware at restaurants available only if requested by customers.

“Only upon request” rules are relatively simple to implement, Coffee said. “Those sorts of policies don’t require the business to retool work areas or install new equipment or secure new types of products. They can take effect almost immediately.”

Crafting longer-term strategies is more complex. One significant reason is that alternatives to plastic — paper, bamboo and bioplastic, for example — have hidden carbon footprints of their own. 

“Replacing a plastic item with a non-plastic version that is still disposable and single-use is not always the better move,” Coffee said, saying the real game-changer comes “the moment you stop throwing something away right after you’re done with it.”

“That’s why we can so confidently say that reusable products are the way to go, wherever possible, in any context. It’s really important to get this right.”

Coffee’s research into the most effective ways to tackle plastic waste began during an internship with the L.A. County Chief Sustainability Office. He later joined the Center for Innovation staff, which recently produced an addendum to the county report. This time, the focus was on the impacts of the COVID-19 era on the plastic waste stream.

“Long story short, it’s not good. You have a massive, massive uptick in medical waste,” including packaging for sterile products as well as disposable masks that degrade into harmful microplastics, he said. Consumer behavior has also shifted during the pandemic, with more goods, groceries and take-out food encased in plastic.

“It just adds to the need for prompt action. And it underscores the importance for institutions like the Luskin Center to have these strong relationships with both municipal and state-level government institutions,” Coffee said. “They know they can reach out to us to stay apprised of things that are dynamically changing.”

SAFEGUARDING L.A.S PUBLIC SPACES

When members of the L.A. City Council decided it was time to deal head-on with an increase in harassment on the streets of Los Angeles, they knew where to turn.

Loukaitou-Sideris, a distinguished professor of urban planning as well as the Luskin School’s associate dean, had shared her extensive research into harassing behavior many times, in high-level government and academic settings and through a book published
in 2020.

She had also lived it.

As a young university student in Athens, Greece, Loukaitou-Sideris chose to walk half an hour to attend class rather than risk being groped on the bus — an experience familiar to women around the world and across generations.

“It is, sadly, a global phenomenon,” she said. “And I am sorry to say, it is very prominent in Los Angeles.”

Loukaitou-Sideris’ statement is backed up by numbers, collected through an extensive survey of transit riders from local campuses. The survey asked 400 students from UCLA, 650 from Cal State Los Angeles and 250 from Cal State Northridge whether they had experienced any of 16 types of harassment in the previous three years in a public transit environment. Of the women who responded, more than 80% said yes.

“These are very, very high numbers,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, whose research was published by the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA.

In the fall of 2020, her work came to the attention of a legislative deputy in the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino. The aide had personally witnessed street harassment and reached out to Loukaitou-Sideris for help in crafting a motion urging city leaders to act.

“I was more than happy to be approached by Councilman Buscaino’s office, and I was even more thrilled that this motion first passed the committee unanimously and then the City Council,” she said. 

The motion, adopted in March 2021, mobilized several city departments to work together to respond to street harassment, which disproportionately affects not just women but people of color, people with disabilities, those in the LGBTQ community, older adults and adolescents. 

“As the second most populous city in the nation,” the motion stated, “the City of Los Angeles has a responsibility to protect its most vulnerable residents from harassment in public spaces.”

In addition to measuring the scope of the problem, Loukaitou-Sideris’ study recommended strategies for increasing safety in public spaces. Smart urban design, such as providing adequate lighting, is critical. New technologies can provide real-time arrival information at transit stops, as well as apps and hotlines that make it easier to report harassment. Educational campaigns can embolden bystanders to intervene to protect one another.

Loukaitou-Sideris stressed that restoring confidence in the safety of public spaces is likely to encourage the use of transit — key to the sustainability goals of many urban centers.

 

VISION FOR COMMUNITY-ENGAGED POLICING

Researchers do acknowledge one frustrating reality: Compelling evidence does not always lead to decisive action. 

“Oftentimes, research is exploited as a way to avoid doing something,” said Jorja Leap, adjunct professor of social welfare and an expert on criminal justice and community empowerment.

“To be blunt, that is what happens with a lot of research and evaluation. It’s carefully designed, it’s rigorously carried out, everybody says, ‘Thank you very much,’ and it goes onto a shelf, usually with several other reports.”

So Leap was stunned and heartened when the Los Angeles Police Department created a new bureau for community-engaged policing, led by a person of color who reports directly to the police chief — recommendations her team had put forward in a report commissioned by outside interests.

Leap and her colleagues spent more than a year studying the effectiveness of the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership (CSP), a strategy instituted years earlier to build trust between police and residents of the city’s most troubled public housing developments. 

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice was the driving force behind the evaluation. For decades, Rice had sparred with the LAPD before deciding to join forces with the department to work for change. 

It was she who steered the vision for community policing, and who brought in Leap to guide the way with authentic academic research. The UCLA team was given a budget, access to CSP sites, and assurances of independence from both Rice and the LAPD.

“We were the rigorous scientific vessel for the thoughts and feelings and beliefs and experiences of the residents,” Leap said.

Working with Social Welfare Professor Todd Franke and a team of field researchers and analysts from across UCLA, Leap launched a study that involved 425 hours of observation, 110 interviews, 28 focus groups, and nearly 800 surveys to capture the views of police officers and residents in Watts and Boyle Heights.

“It is not a lovely report,” Leap said. “Many of the residents had a horrendous history with police.” 

Distrust of police rightfully persists, but most survey respondents reported feeling decidedly safer under the CSP program, which assigned specially trained officers to work side-by-side with residents to understand the community’s assets as well as its dangers.

The final report endorsed the Community Safety Partnership as a model to be integrated throughout the city, offering 45 recommendations to make it work, including the establishment of a full-scale LAPD bureau.

“I was shocked by the response on the part of the LAPD. We made some major, major recommendations, and some of the most difficult have been or are in the process of being carried out,” Leap said.

In this case, the grave events of 2020 may have served as an accelerator instead of a brake. The CSP report was unveiled in March of that year. Two months later, the killing of George Floyd sparked a worldwide uprising against police brutality. And in July 2020, the LAPD unveiled its new Community Safety Partnership Bureau, led by Emada Tingirides, the department’s second Black female deputy chief.

Leap’s work with the program continues. With the input of community residents, she is designing new tools to ensure that CSP officers are fully trained, that residents continue to have a seat at the table and that the dozens of recommendations her team put forward are heeded.

“As researchers,” she said, “we’ve got to hold public agencies and institutions accountable and say, ‘Don’t pass the buck.’ ”

Leap on Factors Fueling Spike in Violent Crime in L.A.

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to KPCC’s AirTalk about factors fueling a rise in violent crime in Los Angeles. In the wake of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and economic uncertainty that has put food and shelter at risk for many, “the bottom line is people feel out of control,” Leap said. “And some people who feel out of control act out of control.” A sense of hopelessness, combined with the proliferation of lethal weapons in the United States, has led to a high death count that has had a devastating impact on women and children in particular, with trauma reverberating through years, if not decades, she said. Leap said she hopes the upcoming Los Angeles mayor’s race puts pressure on leaders to come up with innovative approaches to public safety, such as expanding gang intervention and community outreach. “This is really an all-hands-on-deck problem,” she said. 

Leap on Supporting Survivors of Domestic Violence

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap was featured in a PBS NewsHour report on the importance of programs that support female survivors of domestic violence. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence estimates that 70% to 80% of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence. Yet very few programs exist to ease trauma for these women in prison or after they are released. A New Way of Life is a program that offers subsidized housing, legal help and therapy to formerly incarcerated women who are survivors of domestic violence. “Reentry programs like this are the exception, and more are needed,” Leap said. “The best programs give women a sense of community, that they’re not alone, that there are others who have been victims of sexual abuse, victims of domestic violence, that other women know and understand what they have gone through, and they support one another.”


Leap Highlights Paths to Upward Mobility for Youth

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap joined the 30 for 30 podcast “The King of Crenshaw” to discuss the role that gangs play in Los Angeles. “If our culture in L.A. is a tapestry, [gangs] are several threads that run through that tapestry — the good, the bad, the ugly and the understandable,” she said.  The podcast focused on how the life and death of rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle deeply impacted the sports world, particularly NBA players. Leap noted that many Black youth in South Los Angeles pursue basketball and rap as paths to opportunity and hope. While not the only options for upward mobility, they don’t require any special equipment but do depend on raw ability and talent. “The minute you’re busy playing sports, you’re less busy with the hood, pure and simple,” Leap said. “You can’t take the hood away without putting something in its place.”


Leap on Complicated Origins of Gang Activity

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap was featured in an ABC 7 News segment about the complicated history of gang activity in Los Angeles. “People think that gangs are about criminal activity, but they’re really about economics,” Leap said. She explained that when factories in South L.A. began to close down in the 1970s, job opportunities and income narrowed and created a vacuum for gang activity. “Thousands of people lost their jobs, and the area never recovered,” she said. “You don’t see the pain that goes into gang membership and the reasons why people join gangs.” Leap said the Crips, one of the oldest gangs in the South Los Angeles area, have been involved in significant social services in addition to gang activity and criminal behavior. “To understand the Crips is to understand a very lengthy, very complex picture of a street organization that began in the Southern California area,” she said.


Leap Sees Violence Exacerbated by Pandemic

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap was featured in a Los Angeles Times article about the disproportionate rise in homicides targeting Latino and Black victims. “It speaks to the two Los Angeleses,” said Leap, pointing to the significant disparities in public safety across the city. Communities of color have been disproportionately burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to an increase in drug disputes and violence, she said. “Drug dealing is not a peaceful endeavor,” Leap said, and the violence it spawns has been “exacerbated literally by hunger, by worse poverty, by people not having enough money, by people being desperate.” Furthermore, many programs aimed at reducing gang activity and violence were put on hold during the pandemic. Leap explained that people who had relied on such programs were driven into a spiral of despair by their collapse, and she predicted that the increased violence will only stop once those programs are back in place.


A Spotlight on Community Policing Research

A USA Today opinion piece written by former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and prominent civil rights lawyer Connie Rice highlighted research on community policing led by Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap. Beck and Rice were part of a team that launched Los Angeles’ Community Safety Partnership (CSP), which they described as a “ ‘whole of community’ alternative to paramilitary enforcement that changes neighborhood conditions to boost safety, build trust, cut police use of force and drop violent crime with fewer arrests.” After conducting an extensive independent review of the program, Leap’s team concluded that with CSP,  “the community feels protected and strengthened.” Beck and Rice wrote that Americans want policing that is holistic, racially fair and effective, but that true criminal justice reform is blocked by a lack of political will to dismantle the “labyrinth of exclusion” created by pervasive inequalities in the nation’s systems of employment, health, wealth, education, housing and justice.


 

Leap on Public Safety After L.A.’s Leadership Transition

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to the Los Angeles Times about how to address rising rates of gun violence, one of several issues that the next L.A. mayor will face. While some city leaders have expressed a desire to reform the duties of the Los Angeles Police Department, including moving away from armed responses to certain calls, the city is facing a surge in homicides and gun violence. As of July 3, homicides had increased by nearly 41% compared to the same period in 2019 and the number of shooting victims increased by nearly 40% in the same period. Leap expressed concern that the gun violence could spark a public backlash against community policing programs and partnerships with gang intervention workers. “What terrifies me is that people will say, ‘Crime is increasing, we’ve got to stop this,’” Leap said. “And they’ll go back to the bad old days of command-and-control policing.”


Trust Is Easily Shattered, Leap Says

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap appeared on a Fox11 News panel discussion about the growing fight for social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality. Watching the cell phone video of Floyd’s final moments was like “watching a home movie that I was sorry to see,” Leap said. “Why are we watching this again and again?” Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder, but the fight against systemic racism continues. “What was so upsetting about recent events and what happened in Minneapolis that had affected people here is that trust is so easily shattered,” Leap said. “We need real change … so that people can feel safe.” The panel discussion took place after an episode of the documentary series “Rising Up” that focused on parallels between the Floyd case and the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police.