Sometime between his first winning NFL season in Seattle and returning for training camp in the summer of 2013, Pete Carroll added the title executive producer to his résumé. The head coach of the Seahawks helped make License to Operate, a James Lipetzky-directed documentary that follows reformed gang members working to break the cycle of violence in South L.A. The film’s stars are outreach workers for Carroll’s nonprofit, A Better LA, and they’re known within their community as “LTOs.” “They are, to me, the most valuable players of the neighborhood,” said Carroll over the phone this month. “They lived the life, had a change of heart, and turned their worlds around by giving back and helping young people find a better way. Those workers are so valuable that I agreed to ask them if we could highlight them and show the world what’s going on.” Here’s what else the former coach of USC’s football program told us about making the film—and a difference—in the heart of Los Angeles.
What sparked your interest in helping the community of South L.A.?
I held a meeting at ’SC. It was a call to the community, like, “Come on in, let’s talk about it.” I didn’t go through the right channels to set that meeting up and I got in all kinds of trouble for it on campus, but what happened is, we had representatives from all across [the city]—the sheriff’s department, the LAPD. I think Maxine Waters showed up. The mayor showed up. Dialogues started, and a couple kids from the community stood up and said, “I’m either gonna die or I’m going to jail, I don’t have a chance.” That led to an understanding and a vision.
Meeting [A Better LA cofounder Darren] “Bo” Taylor and [A Better LA executive director] Aquil Basheer got me going, because those were the guys who threw me in the backseat of a car and took me around. Bo’s since passed away, but he was a real hero. He was like Robin Hood in the community. Aquil was his sidekick.
When J.R. Moehringer profiled you for the magazine in 2007, you let him join you—reluctantly—on a late-night visit through South L.A. with Bo. There you walked around, introduced yourself to residents, and gave out your cell phone number to people you met on the street.
Bo felt that the only way to introduce me to the neighborhood was to show me what was going on, to introduce me to people so I could hang out and talk and listen. So that’s what we did.
I was always reluctant to take anybody with me because I didn’t want to grandstand. I was trying to find ways to help the community. After A Better LA had been involved for a dozen years or so, then it made sense to promote its ideas and concepts that have been finding success. That’s where the idea for the documentary came from. We’re trying to raise money and convince people on the outside that there is a way to fortify this community, and that’s through people who really know what’s going on—not necessarily law enforcement. Law enforcement plays a different role.
Speaking of the LAPD, what gave you the idea to connect your outreach workers to the police department? And how did the LAPD react?
We found out that there was a crucial disconnect between those guys—because law enforcement had been chasing [our workers] in the early days. So they didn’t necessarily think they had value. They were skeptical.
I can recall so vividly sitting with our guys across the table from law officers and they were just at odds. I remember saying, “If you don’t believe in what we’re doing, just shut up and listen for a while. Give us a chance. There is an opportunity for us to collaborate.”
When was that?
That was ten years ago, probably. But it was a breakthrough. They created a common dialogue. They started to talk and realized they could work with one another. There was a time when the officers said, “Give me the gun and we’ll chase the guy down and we’ll put him in jail.” And [the outreach worker] said, “I can’t do that. I won’t be of any value in my community.” The officers said, “Well, we’ll put you in the witness protection program,” and [the outreach workers] said, “Then I’d have no value again.” They were at odds.
Fortunately Charlie Beck was a great friend and helped us with the LAPD right from the start. He was always a tremendous advocate for the work.
What we attempted to do in the community isn’t any different from what you do when you build a team: You seek out the leaders and start to deliver a message, a philosophy, and an approach. The leaders carry the message for you and communicate it where you can’t go yourself.
How long did it take for that dialogue to lead to results?
It’s ongoing, and it’s a solution for one of the problems we’re seeing all over the country and all over the world. There needs to be dialogue so people can share their concerns and their issues and their needs.
When you moved to Seattle in 2010, some people worried about the future of A Better LA. Have you found it hard to stay as involved with the organization from afar?
Yes, it has been difficult. When I was in the middle of the University of Southern California right off Figueroa, I was always there. It continues to be really challenging.
How do you stay in touch with what’s happening in the area?
Through all the people who have been dedicated to the work. Through Aquil Basheer and the workers and the relationships that we’ve built. But it’s difficult, and I need help because I’m so far away now. It was easier for me to keep connected in the ways that we did, [even though] I got in trouble for doing it on campus.
Has being all those miles away changed your perspective on the city?
It’s much more difficult to manage [South Los Angeles] than the communities around Seattle. It’s just a monstrous challenge down there because there are so many people and so many different communities—the networking of that is really overwhelming. What we need is the state of California and the federal government to support us. We need a broader ability to do outreach. We need to put more people to work.
South L.A. has changed a lot in the past five years. What developments excite you the most, and what still needs to be done?
There has been a big swing. The fact that things have quieted down allows more people to step forward and create and be involved and want to do good things and bring business to the area.
We’ve created a mentality that could help in any community we go to. We can go to Chicago and we can go to Baltimore and we can go to St. Louis and Ferguson and those places and help them. So I think that’s the big positive.
I hope to draw the attention of the state, which is so steeped in money issues. Our work could save the state millions of dollars every year. Gang-related homicides cost the state over $1 million.
Are you lobbying the state for funding?
No, we’re not. Not the way we need to. All of our focus stays on the work itself. We need to turn our focus because it’s necessary. I always thought they’d just pick up on it and they’d just get it because it would seem so obvious.
Tell me about being an executive producer. How involved were you in the making of License to Operate?
I supported [the production company] Omelet. They did a great job of connecting with the effort and turned out a great pilot. We saw the feature up here in Seattle at the Seattle International Film Festival. The response was extraordinary. It made us all real glad. It’s so timely right now. Law enforcement is under siege. I think we have some stuff here that’s really important, and we have some experience that’s extraordinarily valuable.
How did the people in the documentary, who are dealing with many complicated issues, initially feel about being filmed?
I wasn’t there for all of the filming, so I don’t know that. But I understand that it went very well. When you’re doing the right stuff for the right reasons, people respond properly. There is a trust that’s been established with the great work that these [LTOs] have done.
License to Operate will hold its Los Angeles premiere in Grand Park on August 13. Admission is free.