For upholsterer Herman Jackson, the impetus came from the sudden appearance two years ago of young men standing around on neighborhood street corners, selling drugs, playing radios loud. "It was kind of blatant," he said.
He organized a Neighborhood Watch group in his unincorporated area near Compton.
For Carson resident Gloria Estrada, involvement was more recent. About eight weeks ago, a succession of shots broke the quiet of her neighborhood one Sunday evening. The shots were aimed at a young couple sitting in a car.
Suddenly, Estrada said, she felt her neighborhood was threatened.
"We have two grandchildren and I want it as safe as it was for my kids," she said.
Drawn by similar fears, Jackson, Estrada, and about 50 others from Compton, Carson, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Inglewood, San Pedro, Redondo Beach, Athens, Los Angeles and the unincorporated communities of Firestone and Haven Heights, gathered Tuesday at California State University, Dominguez Hills. The occasion was a meeting to help Neighborhood Watch leaders to get to know each other and learn how to increase their effectiveness.
The meeting mixed elements of a briefing with the fervor of a revival.
"The gang members are laughing at us," said Robert A. Ferber, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney. "The gangs are educating your kids and giving them their values. They are laughing at you."
Xavier Carter, chaplain of the Inglewood Police Department, also was blunt.
"The community has tolerated all of the garbage," he said. "We usually don't get involved unless it happens in our home or in our neighborhood. Then we want all the lights to turn red and take care of our problem. That is not how the system works."
He told group members they should take their concerns to judges. "Take a judge to lunch," he urged. "They will obey you." Many politicians, he said, ignore crime issues until election time. "Then they come to you," he said.
Albert H. MacKenzie, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, spoke about plans for a state ballot initiative to streamline court procedures to make punishment of criminals more certain. Among California procedures that contribute to judicial "gridlock," he said, are lengthy jury selections and extensive preliminary hearings. He said no other state routinely has preliminary hearings as lengthy as California's.
Judith Lewis, a lieutenant with the Sheriff's Crime Prevention Unit, said that anti-gang efforts must begin as early as the fourth grade.
She said that the Crime Watch members should go beyond crime reporting to "getting neighborhoods back in the business of being neighborhoods."
"In a small town," she said, "everybody knows everybody's business. Unfortunately, we are in an urban society."
Her suggestion appealed to Joan Crear, who lives in the Athens neighborhood near El Segundo Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
Crear said the meeting bolstered her "sense of empowerment in terms of community people coming together to work on solutions."
"I can go back to my community unafraid," she said. "These are like-minded spirits. You can get the opinion that everyone is bad, but it is a small group of people who are terrorizing the community.
"Sometimes, negative things can be positive. Neighbors are speaking to neighbors. We are going back to the idea of a neighborhood."
Crear said she hopes that neighborly involvement stemming from efforts against crime will spill over to nonviolent concerns such as "how we raise kids."
Sheriff's Deputy Carlos Jaen of the Carson sheriff's substation--which sponsored the meeting along with the Inglewood Police Department--sent the group home with the advice to include as many people as possible in their Crime Watch groups.
"Safety is in numbers," he said. "If your whole block is organized, the gangs won't pick you out."