J. Michael Kennedy and Lisa Richardson, Times Staff Writers
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
In the toughest part of Los Angeles, that stretch of neighborhoods that fan out from the southern border of the USC campus, more homicides are committed than in any other area of the city. Gangs still roam the streets. And yet there is reason for hope, a sense that things have gotten better.
Swaths of South Los Angeles communities are posting improving crime statistics. In the southwest area of Los Angeles, for instance, police say homicides are down by 21% from 2004 and aggravated assaults have been reduced by almost half, from 2,208 in 2004 to 1,277 as 2005 came to an end. Even shootings are down, by 31%.
And it is not just there.
Take Pacoima, nestled at the base of the mountains in the northern reaches of the city. This once was serious gang country. Its streets remain grimy and most of the buildings could use fresh paint. But here in this working-class suburb, life is looking up, if only by degrees.
"It's not Beverly Hills, but it's a lot nicer," said Edwin Ramirez, the president of Pacoima's neighborhood council.
Yards are being cleaned up. Parents, even those only recently arrived in this country, are doing more in the schools to help their children. There is a palpable sense of progress in the effort to eradicate Pacoima's old criminal image.
For Fabiola Cruz, owner of In Style Beauty Salon & Supply, it's a matter of feeling safer in a nearby Pacoima park and seeing fewer groups of intimidating young men.
"When I came, there were lots of groups of persons who did many bad things," she said. "But over the years, things got better. The park is OK now, but some areas are still so-so. I think parents have become more careful with their kids. They put them in programs to learn baseball and basketball.
"I think before it was really difficult. When I came to Pacoima, I saw a lot of cruising by a lot of young boys. They drank and did drugs."
These days, police make regular runs in front of her shop and the most visible evidence of gang activity is the tagging that goes on around town when any blank wall presents itself.
Police Chief William J. Bratton credits the Los Angeles Police Department's assertive policing for reducing crime by about 10% citywide for the third year in a row. Among other factors, he cites the increased use of computers, extra detectives and patrol officers in high-crime areas and an emphasis on closely monitoring repeat offenders as reasons for the drop-off.
Crime reports always ignite disputes over whether tougher policing or a generally aging population coupled with improving economic conditions explain decreasing crime, and last year has been no different.
But Bratton and his subordinates say the effect of a more rational, uniform approach to policing can't be ignored.
"We study crime daily in an aggressive way. We don't just hope we're lucky," said Capt. James E. Craig, the commander of the LAPD's Southwest Division. "We have a methodology, a surgical way of looking at crime trends and patterns. We work in a very collective way."
In Craig's division, as in other neighborhoods, the emphasis among residents and activists is more about what needs to be done than what has been accomplished.
In Leimert Park, the cultural heart of the Crenshaw district, where African art galleries, cafes, and shops line the streets, merchants say crime has not dropped enough to celebrate.
Although the area has never looked so good, or had so much art and music or so many restaurants and clothing stores, patrons vanish by nightfall. Then the soaring sounds of a saxophone and floating aroma of coffee waft over lonely sidewalks.
Twins Richard and Ron Harris, who opened the popular Lucy Florence Coffee House in 2000, say they measure success by foot traffic, not statistics.
"I don't believe crime is down in this area because there are not enough people walking," Richard Harris said.
While praising the individual officers who work the neighborhood, merchants said the overall relationship with police still needs improvement if crime is to drop in a way that creates a broader sense of security.
"It is our hope that people begin to work more closely with the police, cooperating more with them because there is crime here," Ron Harris said. "I think the community needs to stop looking at LAPD as the enemy."
And the police, he said, need to create the impression they are patrolling to prevent crime, not seeking it out.
Up the street at Gallery Plus, Laura Hendrix, outgoing president of the Leimert Park Merchants' Assn., said she was recently robbed by a customer who gave her a $100 bill, then grabbed both the bill and the change and fled. She used the incident to underline her positive experience with LAPD and pulled a sheaf of business cards with the names and cellphone numbers of police officers from her wallet.
"They were excellent in responding, and I think the relationship with the police is better now than it has been in the past," Hendrix said. What happened to her, however, illustrates the petty crimes that require constant vigilance.
"It's not people breaking in and taking things; it's that you have to always be cautious. You can't slip," Hendrix said.
At the nearby Gwen Bolden Youth Foundation, founder Bolden said a recent breakthrough came when parents of the 150 youths who receive tutoring and other services at the center spent an evening meeting with police.
"The parents could actually see some of the officers and know their names instead of saying 'Who is that cop?' Now it's 'Oh, that's Officer Morales.'
"We've had officers in to talk to the kids about their own children and our kids found out that some of their children had difficulties too," she said. "It made them more a part of the community."
Farther north, in Pacoima, meanwhile, Albert Hernandez, who owns Mission Auto Electric Co. on Van Nuys Boulevard, said the community had seen darker days.
"People were always breaking into the cars and my building," he said. "If it got dark here and you didn't have to come, you wouldn't come. Today you see some strange people on the street, but it's not the same."
These days, the Los Angeles police are paying attention to Pacoima and other communities, including adjacent Sylmar, where it is sufficiently safe that one of the major issues among homeowners is whether a new set of baseball fields should be built north of the 210 Freeway. In the northeast Valley, homicides were down 17%, burglaries down 19% and robberies down 30%, according to last year's report.
Capt. Jerry Szymanski, whose division takes in Pacoima, said a police presence was key to success. Szymanski's Foothill area is now ranked last in crime within the city and he said his officers' jobs are vastly different from those working the inner city. Still, he said, nothing would have been possible without changing attitudes on both sides.
"Relations between Foothill and the community have never been better; it's a matter of respect," he said. "The key for us is staying on top of things."
January 3, 2006
Crime is easing its grip on L.A.