Cop and ex-con turned activist score seats next to First Lady for their work together

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Together, they’ve worked to improve one of Los Angeles’ toughest communities, and tonight, they’ll be among the special guests seated in first lady Michelle Obama’s box for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

Capt. Phillip Tingirides, a 35-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, and Prophet Walker, a community activist who turned his life around after spending six years in prison, have been working together to improve the notoriously tough Watts neighborhood.

Their partnership is a shining example of police and local leaders coming together to curb violence and heal the community distrust of law enforcement. It’s a theme that Obama will surely touch on during tonight’s State of the Union address.

For Tingirides and Walker, they can hardly believe their work in the community has scored them, along with 20 other invitees, exclusive seats for the president’s speech.

“This is truly an amazing honor. When I was 16 being sentenced, I had no idea how I’d survive,” said Walker, referring to his six-year prison bid for his role in a vicious beating during a robbery. “So, to be selected for such an amazing honor I was truly overwhelmed. The call was very surprising and frankly when I got off the phone I thought it was a prank.”

Walker, now 27 and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, is the co-founder of Watts United Weekend, which brings together young residents of housing projects in Watts for weekend camp retreats.

“We want the kids to see there is more to offer than gangs,” said Walker, who grew up in the rough Nickerson Gardens housing project. “Our goal is to create a unified community. We support the efforts to hold officers and everyone else accountable in the community, but believe such accountability only comes from true partnership.”

Tingirides agrees, and that’s why since 2011 he’s been overseeing the LAPD’s involvement in the Community Safety Partnership, which facilitates cooperation and meetings between the police and residents in the Watts neighborhood.

“You really can’t have community policing without first having relationship-based policing,” he said, noting the importance of hosting weekly meetings with the police and the community members. “It takes a long time to get through that hurt. It definitely takes time.”

Tingirides said crime, specifically homicides, in the Watts neighborhood has begun to decrease, and he credits his wife, Sgt. Emada Tingirides, who is the LAPD coordinator of the CSP, with leading the charge.

“She’s really the one who came in with a lot of the vision,” he said. “She’s doing most of the heavy lifting.”

The police captain also sang the praises of Walker, who he has developed a relationship with through the community partnership.

“I have all the admiration in the world for Prophet,” Tingirides said. “He’s the perfect example of someone who really changed his life and worked through his own demons to get to where he is today.”

Walker, who while in prison created an education program to help his fellow inmates obtain two-year college degrees, shared his admiration for Tingirides as well.

“He’s a true champion and understands what it means to partner with the community,” said Walker, who last year unsuccessfully ran for a California State Assembly seat. “It’s not often that many people can say they can call the captain of a major police department like LAPD, but Capt. T is the type of guy that gives his cell and house number to all community members that ask… The nation can learn from the creative ways Capt. T has helped transform the police department.”

Tingirides hesitated to say that the work being done in Los Angeles is a model for other police departments to follow.

“I don’t believe there is any one answer,” he said, adding that every police department faces different challenges.

“I really appreciate that [Obama’s] acknowledging what we’re doing in Watts,” Tingirides said. “We have all really made a difference here, so much so that it made it to the White House… It’s just the highest honor that I could ever achieve.”

Michael J. Feeney is an award-winning journalist; public speaker and former New York Daily News reporter. Follow him on Twitter @mfeeney