The LAPD's 77th Street Division isn't the only one with a new captain.
To the north, Captain Paul Snell is getting his feet wet in leading the department's Southwest Division, although he's hardly a newbie. An LAPD veteran of 28 years, Snell headed Van Nuys Division for 18 months before being assigned to Southwest, effective Sept. 9. But it's not his first time working in South Central.
"This is not foreign to me," he said. "I did my probation here." In other words, Southwest was his first division, where he had his inaugural field assignment in 1985.
Snell replaces Captain Melissa Zak, who now heads the LAPD's Office of Operations. Zak has pointed to gangs and property crimes as problems that are particularly pronounced in Southwest, and Snell echoed that.
"There's a lot more violent crime here than I had at Van Nuys," said Snell. "Van Nuys had a great deal of property crime." Southwest has that too – theft and burglaries and thefts of motor vehicles account for about 40 percent of crime in the division.
But Snell credits Zak and the rest of Southwest Division with accomplishing "a significant 20-point reduction in violent crime this year," as well as doing "a tremendous job in addressing the gang crime." He didn't have an exact number on how many gangs the division has, but said they are what drives a lot of the area's violent crime: robberies, aggravated assaults and murders.
Southwest has seen 13 murders this year so far, compared to 2011's 16. That's a few more than neighboring Newton Division's 14, but far less than 77th Street's 43.
"We feel if we get a handle on the violent crime, we can get a handle on the other crimes associated with it," said Snell. Even the perception that crime is being reduced is beneficial, he said – because that "allows [people] to come out more."
"You might get your laptop stolen and your car broken into, but you won't go outside and get hit by a stray bullet or be the victim of a gang feud," said Snell. Not that that's ideal – and not that Snell doesn't plan on addressing that. He knows two major problem areas for property crimes are the Baldwin Hills mall and USC, and he's deployed extra resources there to curtail that problem.
Places like USC, which is an open campus, and the mall are what Snell calls "target-rich" environments. One advantage with USC is that Southwest has cultivated a strong relationship with the campus' Department of Public Safety, which Snell says has done a "tremendous job" of collaborating with the LAPD.
Sex crimes, too, are a major problem in Southwest, in particular because of prostitution, which is prevalent in the division. A john may not pay a prostitute, for example, so she may say he raped her as a form of retaliation.
"We try to address as many of those problems as we can as well, because we feel if we attack the prostitution problem, we can curtail some of those other crimes: the thefts, the assault," he said.
Before implementing any major changes of his own, Snell wants to get a feel for Southwest. He more than once gave credit to his officers and staffers for the work they do, and said he's hoping to simply build off former Captain Zak's successes, particularly her "significant reduction in crime."
"You have to remember that the percentage [of people] that are involved in the violence is minimal," he said. "And yes, you have a percentage here that are involved in violence."
And that percentage, Snell acknowledges, is "absolutely" higher than it is in other places – but that doesn't mean progress isn't being made.
"We are definitely having an impact on the violent crime here," he said.