Spike in gang murders prods L.A. toward action
At Lucy Florence Coffeehouse in the city's South Central district, neighborhood residents gather for a grief-and-anger ritual that has become as common as the growing wave of gang violence that spawned it. In a small gallery space, parents of gang-related murder victims step to the microphones to express outrage, sorrow and calls-to-action to assembled civic leaders and reporters.Skip to next paragraph
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"This wicked evil has to stop," says Charlene Lovett, mother of 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Green, killed in December. Cheryl, a black girl, was playing with friends on the wrong side of town when she was shot by a Latino gang member, according to police. It was one of 269 gang-related murders citywide in 2006. Overall, crime is down but black leaders say a new level of Hispanic versus black hate crimes has erupted – a claim that police say is not showing up in statistics.
Neither side disputes that violent gang battles have spiraled out of control in recent months – from prisons to schools to the streets – producing a "climate of fear higher than any time in the history of this world capital of gangs," in the words of Najee Ali, a local black activist. That happened as Hispanics numbers have grown, pushing into neighborhoods that were predominately black.
If any city in the US has the know-how to attack the plague of gang violence, it would be L.A., which tried many approaches during the urban warfare that rocked this city in the 1980s. There is hope that it will not have to reinvent the wheel, but rather that key players – city leaders, the schools, the police, the courts, churches, and community activists – are poised to spring into collective action to try to defuse the tensions underlying the violence.
Some call it an antigang "Marshall Plan," a reference to the US tactic after World War II of a massive investment in what was formerly enemy terrain. A shocking 14 percent jump of violent gang crime in 2006 – even as the city as a whole has seen overall crime drop for five straight years – is what is spurring all to act now.
Recent killings of blacks by Hispanics is a new category of hate crime, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author of several books on the black image in America. Riots fanned by tensions between blacks and Hispanics in L.A. jails last year and in inner city high schools reflect a new competitiveness for jobs, services, parks, and other public spaces, he says.
"There is a spiral of violence over turf, drugs, guns, crime," Mr. Hutchinson says. "Now there is another element of fear for lives and safety that multiplies the tension and the resentment."
Gang violence is contained in pockets of the city, and has been somewhat hidden by the fact that violent-crime rates citywide have, in general, been dropping.
"I never knew [the gang violence] was as strong as it is until this happened," said Ms. Lovett, speaking of her daughter's murder.
Los Angeles police are ratcheting up enforcement with tactics such as "Top Ten" lists – one of "worst gangs" and one of "worst leaders" – to target the most egregious suspected offenders of the city's 720 street gangs and their 40,000 members. They are increasing the use of injunctions to prevent public gathering of gangs and nuisance-abatement lawsuits that target their permanent hangouts.
New collaborations with federal, state, and local agencies will pool money and resources. Among new ideas: better tracking of gang members who reenter neighborhoods after release from prison.
But officials say they have come to realize that the gang epidemic here is largely immune to increased crime crackdowns.
"We have been stuck on 'stupid' in fighting gangs," says Constance Rice, author of a new study and 100 recommendations presented to the L.A. City Council Wednesday.
Police see they "cannot arrest their way out of the gang violence crisis," and are moving to a "comprehensive, neighborhood-based, schools-centered" approach, in the words of the study.