YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Caught in the Cross Fire

February 04, 1988

An innocent bystander, Karen Toshima, has been caught in the cross fire of rival gangs and killed. She died not in a gang-dominated neighborhood but on a stroll through lively Westwood Village near the UCLA campus. Her death is a reminder that gang terror knows no boundaries. The problem, once more growing worse in recent years, demands extra effort everywhere.

As many as 70,000 young toughs belong to gangs in Los Angeles County, according to the Sheriff's Department. The Los Angeles Police Department says that membership is up threefold since 1984. Gang battles are a daily threat to bystanders in areas of South-Central Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. Roving gangs take their graffiti, turf battles, assaults, robberies, drugs, drive-by shootings and murders to other areas.

Before the Westwood shooting, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn had called for a law-enforcement summit. Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block has agreed to organize a meeting next week of police chiefs whose jurisdictions include gang-infested areas. Meanwhile, the LAPD has tripled weekend police patrols near the theaters, restaurants and shops in Westwood.

Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who pushed for the increased patrols, is also planning to seek a $25,000 reward from the council. Councilmen Robert Farrell, Nate Holden and Richard Alatorre also want beefed-up patrols and similar rewards in the dozens of gang-related murders in their predominantly minority and less affluent districts. Fair enough.

The problem cannot be handled entirely by local authorities; there is a role for state government, too. In Sacramento, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) continues to find a formula for her AB 2013, which could make it easier to prosecute gang members for major crimes without treading on the constitutional right to free association. But of more immediate help may be her attempt to provide state money for larger anti-gang law-enforcement units. That sort of aid is not without precedent. During the freeway shooting spree, the state Legislature approved emergency funds to enlarge the California Highway Patrol.

State aid would relieve some of the stiff competition for scarce dollars. In Los Angeles the Sheriff's Department must juggle the monumental task of staffing chronically overcrowded jails with other budget priorities. In response to the Westwood tragedy, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has instructed county officials to try to find the money to double the number of deputies assigned to gang work and drug details, but even more personnel are needed. The Los Angeles City Council may have to follow suit for the LAPD.

Special gang units have been effective. Gang killings declined in the early 1980s after the formation, for example, of the Sheriff's Department's Operation Safe Streets and the expansion of recreation and athletic programs aimed at prevention. Then flush with drug money, gang members bought cars and more guns, including sophisticated weapons. Gang shootings killed 387 people in Los Angeles County last year. Most were innocent bystanders, like Karen Toshima.

Local authorities will need help in dealing with better-armed youths who no longer travel by foot or bike. More money, more police, tougher laws and harsher penalties belong in every community arsenal to cut down on the cross fire.

Los Angeles Times Articles