Lead Story West Edition

Residents confront leaders about rise in gang violence

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — A woman stood at the microphone in the sanctuary of Hamilton United Methodist Church Sept. 13 and pleaded with a panel of gang interventionists and law enforcement personnel on behalf of her remaining son.

She was speaking at an emergency meeting called by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson to address the recent rise in gang-related homicides.

Two days earlier, the woman, who didn’t identify herself, had buried one son. She had buried another son in June 2005. Both, she said, were “lost to the streets of South Los Angeles.”

“Help me help him,” she said of her final son. “So I don’t have to bury him.”

She was not alone in her grief. Other residents shared stories of losing more than one family member to gang violence, of living in neighborhoods where children cannot play outdoors and wives are heart-broken, trying to cope with the unexpected loss of their husbands

Harris-Dawson said 39 people died on the streets of Los Angeles during August, with nearly half of those lives lost South L.A.

“Forty-three murders have occurred in my district alone in 2015, the highest in the city,” Harris-Dawson added. “We were losing people day by day with nine homicides over nine days. We have to come together to confront this situation.”

Harris-Dawson called the meeting for residents of Council Districts 8, 9 and 10 to allow them a chance to air their concerns and suggest ways to stop the killings and prevent future incidents of violence.

“We’re hoping to create a more beautiful, peaceful and serene place for children to grow up and become the best they can be,” the Rev. Gary Bernard Williams, Hamilton’s pastor said. “We love South L.A.”

City Councilman Curren Price of District 9 called the homicides “an epidemic of gang violence. … We’re going to take back our communities.”

The meeting was called the day after the Sept. 10 deaths of Juan, Luis and Alex Fuentes, pre-teen brothers who were apparently stabbed to death by their father, who tried to take his own life.

The death of the three brothers “characterize the tragedy and the crisis that we face,” Price saidd.

Residents crowded into the pews at Hamilton United Methodist Church Sept. 13 for a meeting called by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson about the rise in gang-related homicides in South L.A. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)
Residents crowded into the pews at Hamilton United Methodist Church Sept. 13 for a meeting called by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson about the rise in gang-related homicides in South L.A. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)

Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief William Scott said, “the time for change is now.” That statement seemed to resonate with the audience, which called for community-based solutions.

“We realize the problem won’t be solved unless the leadership and the people work together, communicate and coordinate a strategy,” Scott said.

He emphasized the opportunities the Los Angeles Police Department provided through the police orientation and preparation program at Westchester Academy High School, where cadets earn a two-year associate’s degree, free of charge, and the community safety partnership program, the non-traditional policing initiative created by LAPD and civil rights attorney Connie Rice.

That program built trust and good police-community relations in several gang-ridden public housing projects in Watts, cut arrest rates and dramatically decreased violence, Scott said.

Fernando Rajon, director of the Urban Peace Institute, said the community safety partnership policing approach “helps to prevent the spread of violence and transmission of trauma throughout the community.”

Aqeela Sherrills, a longtime gang interventionist in South L.A., likened the killing spree in August to a “war” and urged the inclusion of interventionists in the conversation as first responders and more strategic investment in intervention-prevention programs.

“In 10 consecutive years of decreases in violent crime in the city, intervention always gets credit for supporting the effort, but the workers have not had a cost of living increase in 10 years and they do not receive overtime,” he said.

The recent increase in homicides was accompanied by gang threats of “100 deaths in 100 days,” posted on social media.

Harris-Dawson said he did not know if the increase in homicides is correlated with the threats, but supported social media — except for its use to spread rumors and posting images of crime victims and scenes, sometimes before police have had a chance to respond.

“Councilmember Price and I have sponsored a motion asking the city attorney to identify ways to hold social networks accountable for putting up pictures and messages that promote mayhem,” Harris-Dawson said.

Price said he would allocate some of his council discretionary funds to gang prevention programs and “pull a page from the Watts Gang Task Force,” which was created 10 years ago to combat a surge in gang-related shootings and homicides in Watts.

Audience members suggested: up-to-date policing and more than just suppression tactics; tackling the root causes of violence; mental health services, especially for the immigrant communities; more resources, and coordinated funding from Proposition 109 for community-based strategies; therapy, training and accountability for police officers; a return to the country’s founding principles; truth and honesty in public discourse; engaging L.A.’s neighborhood councils; and donations to a ‘1 percent fund’ to pay for a children’s acting and dance studios.

Harris–Dawson said he would ask each city department to review the suggestions and develop solutions to be voted on by the City Council and then signed by the mayor.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass said she and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard had talked and “Roybal-Allard had identified three or four programs to see what can be done. I’ll find out about money that’s already allocated to see that it is hitting the ground where it belongs.”

Harris-Dawson asked the audience “to hold us accountable and our feet to the fire.”

Then, led by the clergy of several local churches, the residents in attendance lifted their voices to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and bowed their heads in prayer, calling on the Lord to help them restore the peace.