SOUTH LOS ANGELES — On a balmy spring evening last May, a hail of rapid gunfire rang out in Vermont Square Park. In the wake of the sudden burst of violence, four people were wounded, including a 5-year-old girl who was shot in the back and a 30-year old man was critically injured.
It wasn’t an isolated incident for the community of Vermont Square, located southwest of Exposition Park. According to police records, over the previous three months, the neighborhood averaged 15.5 violent crimes, and eight people have been killed there in the past 12 months.
“Now they’re shooting babies,” said an unidentified woman at a vigil that was held in the park the following evening. “This has got to stop.”
Since that time, there has been a marked decrease in violence in Vermont Square Park and other parks throughout South Los Angeles, thanks in part to the implementation of a creative community-based program that is staffed by local residents who know the community and its issues.
The South L.A. Community Safety Initiative is a million-dollar comprehensive summer pilot program spearheaded by Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, with input from Community Coalition, Community Build, the Baron Jay Foundation and other community activists. The goal is to reduce and disrupt the tide of violence in and around South L.A. parks. Instead of relying on a heavy police presence to prevent negative activities, the initiative’s strategy relies on community-based interventions.
Harris-Dawson funded the initiative from public and private sources, including the Ballmer Foundation, the Weingart Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation.
The program encompasses not only Harris-Dawson’s 8th City Council District, but Council Districts 9, 10 and 15 as well.
The initiative focused on four intervention strategies: Adding safe passages and community intervention workers to parks across South L.A., mental health services and healing circles, youth entrepreneurship workshops and the deployment of community intervention workers to intervene, disrupt and de-escalate gun-related conflicts.
Nonprofit organization Community Build Inc. was selected to oversee the safe passage component of the initiative. According to Harris-Dawson’s District Director Fernando Montes-Rodriguez, Community Build checked all the boxes when it came to a partner that could execute and run the program.
“They have the capacity, they have the credibility and what’s more important to the council member, the street cred,” Montes-Rodriguez said. “Even though the gang intervention workers are in the work of keeping the peace, you still have to bring in different folks from different communities to work together. That’s why Community Build was brought to the table.”
Leon Gullet, Community Build’s vice president of intervention services, is in charge of administering the safe passages component. He has worked with youth outreach programs for more than two decades and operates the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program and two Project Save Programs in Council Districts 9 and 10. A major focus of the program is to ensure students’ safety to and from school.
Gullet created a program called Project Save after noticing the high dropout rate of students in areas where gangs and bullying were prevalent.
He came up with the idea of recruiting residents from the community that were well known and respected and could pass a background check and place them on routes that students take to and from school.
“These are folks that could tell other folks from within that community to back up, and they’ll back up,” Gullet said.
He views the Safe Passages Initiative as an extension of Project Save. However, instead of school routes, Safe Passage ensures the safety of families, residents and visitors around the park’s perimeters and adjacent neighborhoods.
Gullet said that hiring in time for the onset of the city’s Summer Night Lights in 12 South L.A. parks required him to recruit, hire and train 40 community intervention workers in less than two weeks. Referrals from the community and his staff made recruitment easier.
William Azru, a former participant of Community Build’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program as a teen, was one of the first residents hired as a community intervention worker. A resident of Vermont Square, Azru is a recognizable figure as he patrols the park.
He says that community patrols work better than police presence.
“People feel safer when they see us,” he said. “When they see a bunch of police cars, they think something’s happening in the park, and it’s not safe.”
According to Harris-Dawson, the results from the Safe Passage initiative are still being evaluated. However, the number of people successfully engaged is promising.
“We see the Community Safety Initiative as an ongoing investment in the health and safety of South L.A. communities. I hope that collectively we can ensure this program lives on and that its goals are met,” Harris-Dawson said.
Juan Rodriguez, a food vendor who has worked in Vermont Square Park for five years and has witnessed a lot of the violence in the park including the May shooting, confirmed that things in the park have gotten better.
“There used to be a lot of gun shots,” he said. “But now I feel safer. I hope it stays this way.”