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THE POLITICS OF MURDERS : An inident of gang violence in Westwood has fueled a growing debate that is caught up in the delicate matters of race, economics and politics. The issue: In the rich neighborhoods and the poor, how does L.A. respond to the killing of its residents?

February 04, 1988|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

Before the Los Angeles City Council adjourned its long day of official business Tuesday afternoon, its members paused briefly to remember Karen Toshima, who became yet another innocent victim of gang violence last weekend when she was shot on a Westwood sidewalk.

It was a fleeting moment of unity in a case that, has divided council members and city residents, raising fundamental questions about how Los Angeles' government, police force, community groups, merchants and news media respond to gang violence.

At issue in the growing debate are delicate matters of race, economics and politics, and how Los Angeles' richest and poorest residents see themselves and each other.

In the aftermath of Miss Toshima's death, the affluent community of Westwood reacted swiftly to protect itself and heal its trauma.

More than 30 Los Angeles police detectives were assigned to pursue leads in the case, while Capt. Maurice R. Moore, commander of the LAPD's West Los Angeles station, announced plans to temporarily bolster his foot patrols with 14 additional officers. Merchants pledged more than $10,000 for a reward to find the killer, and Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky proposed that the city offer another $25,000. Westwood's police, store owners and community leaders kept in close, almost-hourly contact with Yaroslavsky to ensure that the village would not suffer any further psychological and financial harm.

Compared to Machine

"It was like a well-oiled machine," marveled Scott Regberg, executive director of the Westwood Village Merchants Assn.

But in South-Central Los Angeles, where 114 people were killed in gang violence last year, some residents, community leaders and politicians were outraged by what appeared to them to be a disproportionate response to Miss Toshima's murder. They insist that their dead have not been accorded the same intensive police and governmental reaction.

Some have also cast blame on the city's news organizations for concentrating too much on one senseless killing in affluent Westwood, while underplaying the tragedy of similar killings that occur much more frequently in Los Angeles's poorest neighborhoods.

"The more exclusive areas of this city get a more responsive treatment," said Anthony Essex, first vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "That's not a perception. That's the reality."

At first, Miss Toshima's death was almost exclusively a police matter. Patrol officers secured the stretch of sidewalk where she lay. Detectives from the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) bureau, experienced in gang shootings, began questioning witnesses. "We did what we have to do whenever there's a suspected gang-related slaying," said Moore, who before taking over command of the West Los Angeles station worked in the LAPD's South Bureau, which patrols a vast stretch of gang-controlled territory.

Lt. Gabriel E. Ornelas, who heads the West Bureau CRASH unit, said that all 30 of his investigators were drawn into the hunt for Miss Toshima's killer because they were needed to explore dozens of tips offered since the killing.

Ornelas said his entire unit is often assigned to a single case if the number of leads in that case require such expansive attention. As the number of leads dwindle, so does the number of officers assigned to the investigation, he said.

The strategy, which Ornelas described as a "swarm effect," was used in several of the 20 gang-related homicides last year on the Westside, the lieutenant noted. Of those 20 murders, 12 were solved, he said.

At 1 a.m. on Sunday, about two hours after Miss Toshima was shot, Moore telephoned Yaroslavsky at his home and informed him about the incident. "It was fairly brief and factual," Yaroslavsky said. "We didn't get into any follow-up."

The councilman said he has encouraged police to make such late-night calls to inform him of important cases, and police say they make similar calls in other council districts. The need in Westwood grew out of similar circumstances in the past, Yaroslavsky said, such as when a deranged motorist drove his car down a Westwood sidewalk the night before the opening of the 1984 Olympics.

'Appropriate Response'

The councilman did not deal with the case again until Monday morning. "The Police Department already had its analysis of the situation," Yaroslavsky said. "What I was doing was trying to come up with the appropriate response. Situations like these call for a high degree of reassurance. Eventually, time can heal the fears that can arise in a community from something like this. But in the short term it can have a devastating effect."

On Monday morning, before answering the flood of telephone calls that waited in his office, Yaroslavsky said, he touched base again with Moore. Both men agreed that the Police Department would need to temporarily bolster its presence in Westwood, but the exact numbers were not worked out.

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