LOS ANGELES — At Lawrence Tolliver's barber shop, the air buzzes with the sound of electric hair trimmers and voices of vexation.
"Parolees are back on the street, reclaiming their turf," is the explanation given by Eddie Ford, the elder statesman of opinion in this hair emporium, for a frightening murder surge here in South Central Los Angeles.
Tolliver's is a place where people can check the community pulse and get lathered up over the latest lowdown.
Today the topic is a morbid one: slaughter in area streets. As they debate reasons and remedies, virtually all the patrons on this day - ranging in age from 24 to 80 - admit to "packing heat" or keeping a firearm close for safety.
In recent days, five killings have occurred along Western Ave., which cuts by this shop. The problem is so bad - with Los Angeles nearing 600 murders in 2002 - that the mayor and chief of police this week announced a major new initiative and a plea for federal help to combat gangs.
As officials crack down, the concerns of residents here provide a window on the mood of a city that has surpassed New York as America's murder capital.
"Even I am uncomfortable out on the streets," says 24-year-old Kevin Hooks, getting a sideburn trim. "It's getting really dangerous out there."
Los Angeles has unique problems. Among them are: being home to 1 of every 8 gang members in the US (about 120,000); a police department with low morale operating well below the staffing of other large cities; and the recent loss of gang-specific crime units amid corruption charges and budget cuts.
From behind magazines such as Ebony and Vibe, patrons willingly offer up larger reasons for youth attraction to gangs and violence. They range from the glorification of death in gangsta rap songs, videos, and movies, to a breakdown of families and social responsibility.
Nationally, major crimes are up just over 2 percent from a year ago, according to FBI statistics, and Los Angeles is in line with that. But homicides here have jumped 19 percent - police say 75 percent are gang related - causing both consternation and conjecture from City Hall to neighborhood hangouts.
"We are taking a hard look at the entertainment community which is glorifying drugs and gangsters," says Gwyane Collins, a 31-year law-enforcement veteran and father of two, now Inspector General of the Inglewood Unified School District. "Listen to the records, look at the videos ... they have guys holding wads of money and drugs and women who are scantily clothed. They say that it has no relationship to the violence."
At a community breakfast roundtable at Coley's Restaurant just blocks away, author Anthony Asadullah Samad singles out another reason for escalating crime in these tough neighborhoods. He decries a crisis of black leadership in Los Angeles and nationally, compared with decades past. Once-powerful organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Southern Leadership Conference don't hold the sway over young people they way they used to, he says, because they don't court them as aggressively as in the past.
One by one, concerned citizens step to the microphone to concur.
"Are we doing anything to get our youth interested in anything else but gangs?" asks Willie Mitchell, executive director of a group called "Anti- Self Destruction."
In part because of the lack of role models, some say youths are more prone to adopt drug trafficking and violence as a legitimate calling card in the world.
Now, another generation of "wannabe" gangsters emulate the behavior of established, older gang members, many of whom are returning to the 'hood after years of incarceration. According to national crime stats, there are 600,000 people coming out of prison annually, including four times as many parolees as 20 years ago. The LAPD estimates 1,000 per year return to streets here after prison - a spike caused by get-tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s.
Police say there are more weapons on the streets, higher-caliber ones, and gang members are being more brazen about how they use them.
"Many of the recent shootings have been directly traced to busted drug deals, and competition over markets and disputes over turf," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." "Gang members use their arsenals to fend off attacks, protect their profits from hostile predators and to settle scores with rivals."
Caught in the crossfire are residents who have been showing up en masse at neighborhood meetings held by the city's new police chief, William Bratton. He in turn, has been asking for partnerships between community groups, parents, and churches, in attacking the gang problem from all sides.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles officials launched a major new assault on gang violence. They plan to use federal racketeering statutes to crack down on gang leaders and members, similar to what was done with the Mafia in New York. Mr. Bratton is also naming a special gang czar, and the department has redeployed 300 officers to gang-populated neighborhoods. Still, experts cautions that the city has launched major gang initiatives in the past - with limited effect.
From a purely law enforcement perspective, Bratton is advocating a multi-agency approach broader than any tried here before. That means combining the staff and resources of federal, state, county and local organizations - from the FBI to the sheriff's department to parole and probation departments.
"When a gang killing has occurred, there is a small window of opportunity to alert those who might be retaliated against that they could be potential victims and to be ready to prevent it," Lt. Horace Frank, an LAPD spokesman. "If you wait three days, it's often too late."
Bratton is also calling for far better crime analysis - including computer-crunched stats on where and when most crimes occur. This can better focus limited personnel and resources. Bratton has a track record of success with this technique as head of police in Boston and New York.
But analysts also say he and Los Angeles have their work cut out. That's because the city sprawls more than New York (466 sq. miles here vs. 309 for the five boroughs). And the city's four million residents have only 9,000 police officers, far fewer than New York's 39,000 (for 8 million residents).
Because of such understaffing - and the LAPD's recent history of troubles with previous chiefs from Daryl Gates to Willie Williams to Bernard Parks - morale is at an all-time low, say police union sources. An exodus of about 1,000 officers has left the force short-staffed.
But if all of the above is bad news, the arrival of Bratton in general is good news, many analysts say. More so than any time in a decade, the community and police have a good chance to start fresh with new ideas, new techniques, and new partnerships. But they also warn that mere crackdowns on crime are never enough. Unless communities recognize corrosive social and economic forces that lead to crime - from drug addiction to lack of employment skills, the long term is likely to see no lowering in crime rates.
"The new chief will only be part of the solution," says Joe Reed, head coach of Huntington Park High School. "We need better schools, parents, and programs for kids to make sure they are going in the right direction in the beginning as opposed to fighting this after things have gone wrong."