The beat up black-and-white Los Angeles Police Department patrol car pulled out of the St. Lawrence of Brindisi parking lot a little before two o’clock on a November afternoon. There wasn’t much traffic on Compton Avenue.
John Coughlin, 44, behind the wheel, didn’t seem to notice the stale non-aromatic mix of sweat and other smells in his vehicle. The Boston native had 19 years with the department, 18 as a gang cop assigned to Nickerson Gardens, one of the largest public housing developments west of the Mississippi, and a haven for gangs and cocaine buys.
For the last three years, the LAPD Southeast Officer had also been part of the CSP (Community Safety Partnership) in Watts. The community policing effort came out of Chief Charlie Beck’s office and civil rights attorney Connie Rice’s plan to protect residents living in the city’s most violent developments.
Coughlin on his own started a grass-roots effort called “Operation Progress,” or OP, in 2000, at first providing seed money to send two high schoolers to college. “I called my father in Boston and said, ‘How much do you think we need?’ And he goes, ‘Well, if you come up with $5,000, I’ll come up with $5,000.’ I said, ‘Sounds great, Dad.’ We hung up the phone. I called him back and said, ‘Dad, I need to borrow $5,000.’ So he ended up giving us $10,000.”
After giving the gang officer an award, then-police commissioner and real estate developer Rick Caruso became an early supporter of the program. But the bills still started to mount, and the cop readily admits he was “just very unorganized.” Then Steve Robinson and his wife Janet Crown came on board, and a professional board was formed.
Today, OP has grown into an all-encompassing “eco system,” guiding at-risk children, teenagers and young adults from elementary school through college graduation. It’s based not only on personal LAPD mentoring — where officers actually go to the schools and even homes of kids in the program — but also partnerships with local private schools, after-school providers, college-prep programs, coping skills and ethics education, service work, athletics and arts projects, tutoring, scholarship assistance and parent involvement.
Coughlin was driving his black-and-white and talking about all this with a decidedly Boston Irish accent to me, while also giving a running commentary on what was happening around us on the gritty streets in Watts. At Imperial Courts housing development, a series of pale green buildings, a crowd was gathering.
“A young lady was killed right here about a week ago,” he explained. “That’s her memorial. Her funeral is today. So in a couple of hours all the gangsters will come out, pay tribute to her. And how they pay tribute is to drink, play music and get high.”
As if on cue, a woman’s voice rose above the static on the dashboard radio: “We’ve got a guy with a gun out there. Any unit come on southeast frequency for a male with a gun at the Imperial Courts baseball field. Looks like a male black wearing a red baseball cap and a red-and-white checkered shirt and tan pants.”
Coughlin gunned it around the front of the development — where a number of patrol cars were parked with LAPD officers already monitoring the growing crowd.
We jumped a curb and shot across the baseball field. We stopped about 30 feet from the backside of the assembly, at least 200 folks.
That’s when a young African American man in a red baseball cap and checkered shirt hanging down over his baggy pants stepped out. It was him, the young guy on the radio. For a New York second, the cop and the young man just starred at each other. Then the cop bolted out of the car door, saying “Wait here.” The guy ran along the crowd and into the cinderblock gym.
No one in the crowd moved or uttered a single word as they ran by.
Less than five minutes later, a somewhat out-of-breath police officer came out of the old structure, talking quickly into his arm receiver now. “Give me the air for just a minute,” he said. “The suspect was last seen in the gym. There are officers out front. If you can let me know if the officers in the front have him. There’s just a lot of noise, and it’s hard to hear the radio.”
Over the radio came the static-plagued voice saying that the gun was handed off to a “secondary,” now walking on the sidewalk eastbound across the street from the gym, which was locked down.
Back in the patrol car, Coughlin spoke into his arm radio again, “Sorry. I mean, I couldn’t pursue. I have a ride-along.” A few seconds later, but in an upbeat voice, he said, “OK, perfect. You have both in custody.”
“We all respect him”
When Officer John Coughlin’s name is brought up, both Theresa Gartland, executive director of Operation Progress, and Joan Sullivan, St. Lawrence of Brindisi’s eighth-grade teacher who was instrumental in OP kids coming to the parochial school, can’t contain themselves. The words “real character” fly about the room before they stop laughing. The program’s office is right across the street from the school.
But then Sullivan, who hails from Boston like Coughlin, says, “It was John’s new vision for OP. He came to me and said, ‘Let’s get these kids from the community into St. Lawrence. We know it’s working and can provide structure. It’s a great safe environment for the kids here.’”
At about the same time Rick Caruso upped his support. Robinson, chief executive officer of Reimagine, and Crown did, too. It was the married couple who insisted that OP needed to become more than an ordinary mentoring effort if it was going to radically change the lives of students living mostly in the troubled housing developments in Watts, including Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts.
And that’s how the “10 pillars of success” — academics, arts, athletics, thriving skills, ethics, long-term commitment, parental support, service work, skills training as well as LAPD mentoring — came about, along with the program’s expansion. Forty seven students at mostly St. Lawrence of Brindisi and Verbum Dei High School (all-boys) and St. Mary’s Academy (all-girls) have participated in the revised program the last three years.
“Back during the first year, we just thought it was a good idea, having no idea that it was going to blossom into something like this,” says Sullivan, turning to the program’s director. “Did you, Theresa?”
“Never,” Sullivan continues. “We just thought, ‘OK, we’ll put a couple of kids in every year. It’ll be really good for them. We’ll help them. We’ll guide them. We’ll mentor them.’ But never did we image at that time that there would be 10 pillars and two groups of big investors and more police officers wanting to get involved in the mentoring end of it.”
“Right,” Gartland agrees. “But the thing is, we target the kids in the middle. You know, that’s what we’ve also found. The kids with the 4.0 averages will always get the resources. For the most at-risk kids, there’s a lot of resources for them as well. And so we decided let’s target those kids in the middle, who are at the Bell Curve who get looked over a lot.
“I think what we’re trying to do right now is to set a national model that can be replicated to other cities. We’re already in Boston and we definitely want to expand to Chicago with all their crime and gang members right now. A national model to transform the community, you know, and do it through this comprehensive, innovative, accountable program. We’re giving the kids all the resources they need.”
That pipeline, or eco system, involves many partners. A major one is HYPE, which works with students after school and during summers to get them culturally as well as academically ready to apply to private schools and then provides full scholarships. Another is South Central Scholars, which puts on an eight-week summer academy at USC offering intense preparation for college along with scholarships.
Still, the women report that two or three students have either dropped out of the revised rigorous program or been asked to leave every year.
“The most difficult thing that we have found at the school is the transition,” explains Sullivan, the junior high teacher. “The kids are coming from a variety of public schools here in the community, and the adjustment to St. Lawrence is difficult. And that’s everything from the uniform, the behavior, the expectation to sit quietly, to completing your homework.
“That’s where the bulk of our energy needs to go the first couple years. It’s just the expectation, and it’s constant, constant, constant diligence. It’s really quite a transition academically, behaviorally.”
Gartland is nodding. “We do as much as we can,” she says. “It’s more that they don’t follow through on the guidelines.”
“It really is,” says Sullivan. “And from now on, our focus is going to be on getting just third- and fourth-graders into the program. I think if you accept them in sixth or seventh grade, they might be too far behind. They don’t have the same rigorous skills as St. Lawrence students. So we need to start young and give them all the resources we can.”
But the vast majority of students accepted into OP have stayed.
“The kids are taken care of all the way through college graduation,” Gartland notes. “There’s no other organization in this neighborhood or even L.A. that weaves that thread all the way through for these kids. That’s why I was so attracted to OP.”
St. Lawrence 7th-graders and OP students Meah Watson and Petra Avelar have both thrived at the parochial school, even though they admit the first year was really hard.
“It was different from public school,” says Meah during a sit-down interview in the faculty room. “First, the rules are more strict, and they don’t give you as many tries as you would get in public school. And then the education is more challenging. I wasn’t used to having that much homework. Every night. They don’t really just let you pass. Like, they actually take time with you and see that you get through it. Then you pass.
“When I first came here, I did have a hard time because I wasn’t used to all the rules,” she adds. “The rules that I thought were little in public school are like a big thing here. So at first I was getting in trouble a little bit. But I got used to it and so it’s normal now. It took me like the first two months.”
Petra says when she first came to St. Lawrence she was scared because she didn’t know any other students. Everyone knew the rules and procedures except them. “And the math is really hard here,” she points out.
“Really hard,” echoes Meah, her best friend.
“And we have a lot of homework and ‘deficiencies’ here.”
Meah explains that one deficiency for “conduct” brings a warning, while the second sends you straight to the principal’s office.
“But I like it better here because they actually want you to pass,” Petra says. “They’re not going to give up on you like they did at [my last public school]. Here they try to help you get a better grade and stuff. So that’s why I like it.”
This year, Petra is getting all As and one D in reading lit class. Meah reports she earned five As, two Bs and one C on her last report card. The C is in religion, which she says is because she’s not used to studying about Jesus.
Both 12-year-old girls live in infamous Nickerson Gardens and are driven to St. Lawrence by Petra’s mom. Officer Coughlin helped recruit both to OP, along with “Miss G” (Theresa Gartland), and now mentors Meah and co-mentors Petra. He often shows up at both their homes after school or on weekends and at the parochial school during recess or lunch period.
“He comes to check up on our grades, to see how we’re doing in school,” says Meah. “He asks if there’s anything going on at home or anything in the neighborhood like bullies. And he’s just like all the LAPD mentors at OP. They’re like another family --”
“To us,” Petra finishes.
“I honestly feel like if we can’t go to our parents, the first person we’re going to click on in our minds is going to be Theresa,” continues Meah. “And after Theresa, it’s going to be Officer Coughlin.
“There’s something I just want to say about OP,” she adds, pretty serious now. “I feel like it has made the biggest impact on my life so far. Everybody thinks because we’re with LAPD that we’re up to something crazy. But I know OP is going to help me get somewhere in life.”
Petra nods, saying OP has changed her life for the better, too: “Like, it was hard for me at [school before] because of the bullying and stuff. And I live in a neighborhood where it’s scary, so I didn’t go out to play that much. But now I just think that Officer Coughlin and the other officers will be there to save the neighborhood.”
During World War II, tens of thousands of African American migrants left the deep segregated South for Southern California, finding work in war-related industries. And the City of Los Angeles built a number of large housing projects to accommodate them, including Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Jordan Downs.
But life opportunities and conditions steadily lessened into the early 1960s. Resentment built in the mostly black community over discriminatory treatment by a white-occupying police force along with poor public schools and hospitals. It all exploded on Aug. 11, 1965, with the arrest of a black youth by the California Highway Patrol on drunk-driving charges near Watts. It became known as simply the “Watts Riots.”
The 1992 Los Angeles riots, also known as that year’s “civil disturbance,” happened after the acquittal of white police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King. It started in South Central Los Angeles, spreading to other areas over six days that April. Fifty three people were killed and over 2,000 injured.
Meanwhile, gangs raised the everyday violence in Watts, with more than 500 homicides taking place between 1989 and 2005. Most were disputes over who controlled the sale of drugs in given neighborhoods.
Gang crime, although somewhat abated, has continued, even as many blacks moved to places like the Antelope Valley and Hispanics moved in. Local gangsters include members of the Grape Street Crips, PJ Crips, Piru Bloods and Bounty Hunter Bloods.
Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Mo, a grand jury didn’t indict a white police officer after he shot and killed an unarmed young African American man. And in New York’s Staten Island, another grand jury failed to charge white cops who caused the death of an African American man selling cigarettes illegally on the street when he became confrontational.
The LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership and Operation Progress in Watts, however, have been a counterweight against these troubling incidents.
A couple of Meah’s and Petra’s classmates — boys in the OP program — say “hanging” with their LAPD mentors has definitely changed their minds about cops. Moreover, it’s helped them feel safer in their community.
“They really do want everything for us,” Robert Turner, 13, reports. “If we need something, like school supplies, they make sure we’re not afraid to ask.”
“And they come to school a lot to check on how we’re doing, and sometimes they’ll come check on you at home,” says Domingo Ladson, 12. “It’s not scary, but at first it was kind of weird. But I’ve gotten used to it. They tell your parents how your grades are looking, and how can you do better.”
The adolescent points out that his attitude towards cops in general is different. “I really didn’t focus on police officers that much,” he says. “But now I know they really care, and they’re really human. They’re really just people like us.”
Robert is shaking his head up and down. “They’re really serious, but they can have fun, too, taking us on field trips and stuff.” He notes how he had been to three Dodgers’ games as well as to The Grove on the Westside with his mentors.
And then there is the safety factor. “I’m protected because I know they wouldn’t let nothing happen to me,” he says.
Domingo maintains, “They don’t want nobody to get hurt.”
The executive director of OP concurs about both the safety factor as well as changing attitudes in the community concerning law enforcement officers.
“Are you kidding me, they love it,” she exclaims. “To have an officer show up at school, you know, and check in on you. I mean, they just feel like it’s their birthday every day. It’s incredible.
“You change the minds of the kids, you change the minds of the parents, you change the mind of the community,” observes Gartland.
Officers Grant Goosby and James Holliman graduated from the police academy together in 2005. They worked gangs, patrol and other assignments. For the last three years, they’ve been in CSP, mostly mentoring other mentor cops, while also mentoring eight or nine OP kids themselves.
In short, the 32-year-old LAPD officers have followed in the heady footsteps of Officer John Coughlin. And right now they’re also giving each other funny knowing looks when his name is brought up. Goosby, sitting behind Theresa Gartland’s desk, quips, “On the record or off the record?”
After breaking up, Holliman, on the other side of the desk, says, “Coughlin, he is -- ”
And Goosby completes his observation: “A great person. Outside of being a great cop, you wouldn’t know what he does because he doesn’t talk about it. But once you find out the things this guy does for the community and for others, it’s amazing. Just an amazing person. Very, very humble. Just a good guy, a good friend, good person.
“And it’s actually good to see,” he adds, “‘cause we kind of have the same mindset, you know. He is doing it on a larger scale.”
Holliman points out there are people working with Coughlin for 15 years who have no idea of his quiet stream of good deeds. “It’s just something he does,” he notes.
The LAPD officers are doing quite a bit themselves these days, working 10-hour shifts. “No, we’re not gang officers, but each of us has a gang,” says Goosby. “And those gangs usually run the housing developments. So a lot of our crimes are done by gang members, you know, robbery, drugs and the rest. A lot of arrests we make are gang members.”
Imperial Courts, where Coughlin chased the armed young man wearing a red baseball cap is controlled by PJ Crips. Nickerson Gardens, where Meah and Petra both live, is all Bloods. And they struggle every shift to keep the kids they’re mentoring out of those gangs and others in Watts.
“The most difficult part of it, you know, is we have families of our own,” says Holliman. “I have two kids, he has three kids. And it’s very difficult to balance. Cause for me, personally, every kid I mentor, they’re like an extension of my family, and I get really involved with their lives and the same thing with him.”
His partner is nodding. “When you take a kid, you adopt a whole family, because they’re going to come to me with problems and issues,” he says. “So trying to find that balance. Because a lot of it is our own time, too. We’re on the phone, text messaging. We going to their soccer games, while missing our own kids’ soccer games.”
For a moment they’re silent, until Holliman says, “The joys are really being able to help the kids. I mean, I’m mentoring eight kids right now, and to be able to see them grow. Like he said, we’re in their lives like every day. We’re going to their birthday parties. We’re hanging out with them and taking them to events. We’re going to their family’s house and doing stuff.”
On the way back to St. Lawrence of Brindisi School, Officer John Coughlin was telling me he had to cut the ride-along short because he had to go back to the crime scene, Imperial Courts. “So did you notice nobody came forward to say ‘that’s so-and-so’ or ‘he ran and the gun’s in there’?” he asked “The people inside, like our families and our students, are always in fear of them. And when they’re in fear, they don’t want to talk to you.
“They don’t want to corroborate anything. If somebody cooperates and we leave that area, the gang’s going to go to them and say, ‘You’re a snitch.’ And they’re either going to put harm to them or at the very least tell them to get out of the project.”
There was no bitterness in the matter-of-fact voice of the veteran police officer — the cop who founded Operation Progress on money “borrowed” from his dad in 2000 and who’s mentored more kids in Watts than he can put a number to.
“Remember,” he said. “They’re carrying the gun because one of their own was just murdered. They buried her today and had a big funeral party for her called a ‘repath.’
When you have a repath, experienced officers know that there’s going to be guns at that party. Because they’ve got to defend.
“So the camera unit did a great job of identifying who had the gun. When he put it out, it was you and I who picked him up. And that’s when he ran inside.”
After a pause, Coughlin — who has three kids, ages 11, 9 and 7, going to Holy Trinity School in San Pedro — asked with more Boston Irish passion, “You see what our kids are against? One reason we created the pillars is that we believe that most children here suffer from post-traumatic stress. Because they hear shooting. They see bodies. They see parents who beat each other, and family members who beat each other. Just the neighborhood is so violent and loud.
“And we believe OP and St. Lawrence and the [program’s] pillars treat that.”