LAPD revolutionized this community. Here's how they turned it around.

The LAPD will receive the American Heart Association's 2020 Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award.
The Los Angeles Police Department will receive the American Heart Association's 2020 Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award.

For years, Jackie Tatum Harvard Park in South Los Angeles was desolate. Drug dealing, shootings and other crimes scattered fearful residents.

But it's a refuge today, with a sparkling swimming pool, upgraded tennis courts, updated auditorium and other alluring amenities.

The turnaround began in 2017, when the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street division added a community safety partnership site at Harvard Park with the Department of Recreation and Parks, Council District #8 and others in the community.

For outstanding service to minority and underserved populations, the LAPD will receive the American Heart Association's 2020 Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award on Oct. 27 in a livestreamed ceremony. The award's namesake, a Black man who was the 34th person to undergo a heart transplant, survived more than six years – a world record in the 1970s. Russell was an active AHA volunteer who spread the word about heart disease prevention in minority communities before his death in 1974.

When the 77th Street division started the program, officers did more than enforce the law. They increased their presence, introducing themselves to kids, parents and local business owners. They provided safe passages to and from school. And they created youth programs, essentially becoming one with the community.

Slowly and steadily, they earned the skeptical community's trust. Folks started saying hello. Kids asked them to help with homework. Some even invited them to their birthday parties.

"We take a present or a cake," said Clement Toscano, police sergeant and team leader of the program. "The officers were hand-selected, because they are compassionate and caring people. When we have extra clothes that our kids grew out of, we give them to the kids, and they love them. Having the right people there makes a huge difference."

Later that year, the 77th Street division teamed up with the AHA and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks to start Community S.T.E.P.S. – Strategic Dialogue That's Empowered by Public Safety.

One of 110 submissions for AHA CEO Nancy Brown's "Culture of Health Community Innovation Challenge," S.T.E.P.S. won $100,000 to implement a replicable initiative to improve health in local communities.

"Working all together, we were able to drop crime, violence and gang activity significantly by 80% to 90%," Toscano said.

As a part of S.T.E.P.S., the officers and AHA supporters lead a bi-weekly community walk through the park. The kickoff event attracted more than 700 people and included activities such as a 40-yard race, tennis clinic, blood pressure screenings and an "Adopt a Cop" tent where residents asked officers questions.

A year later, nearly twice as many people attended a follow-up event.

"The same people who came to the park for the first time for the walks came back with their kids and grandkids," Toscano said.

Subsequent S.T.E.P.S. events have included group bike rides, a nighttime walk illuminated by glow sticks, holiday celebrations, skate jams, produce giveaways, cooking demonstrations and free health screenings.

"It's great for the community to get that information out there," said Officer V. De La Torre. "We try to be very active and teach people about eating healthy food."

With the help of the AHA and the Girl Scouts, De La Torre started a local chapter for girls in the neighborhood. The troop has passed out veggies and fruit to the community, participated in recreational sports and gone on field trips such as a professional soccer game.

"That was very eye-opening for them, because most of them have never gone to a professional sports game," De La Torre said. "You could see it in their faces how excited and happy they were to be there."

Toscano and his team have also treated children to camping, hiking, movies and more. Some coach sports teams.

"It gives us time to bond with them," Toscano said. "We can never take away the negative things they have seen, but we allow them to vent and learn."

Enrollment in park programming has increased dramatically, with a waiting list for the most popular ones. And they've helped change the way people feel about the park.

"The whole dynamic of the park has completely changed," Toscano said. "People come up to us crying and tell us that we're doing God's work."

Indeed, by creating a safe place to exercise, play and learn about health, S.T.E.P.S. makes a big impact on the social determinants of health, which just may result in less heart disease in the future.

While most of the park's amenities are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the track and tennis courts remain open. And the 77th Street division is still on the scene.

"It's hard for the kids, because they aren't able to be as active or do team sports, but we walk with them, pass out water and make sure they are safe," Toscano said.

Building bridges with the community has taken on even greater importance in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis earlier this year and the subsequent nationwide protests.

To support what we started in Harvard Park and help expand the program to other Los Angeles neighborhoods, contact stephanie.macdougall@heart.org.