When a suspected gang member was fatally shot during a noisy confrontation at the Mar Vista Bowl recently, it was an unsettling reminder to Westside residents that gang warfare can hit close to home.
To police, the slaying of 17-year-old Dwight Faulkner was just one of many recent indications that Westside gang activity is sharply on the upswing.
Soon after Faulkner's slaying at about 1 a.m. March 8, in fact, things got worse: Retaliation later that day by a rival black gang left two suspected gang members seriously injured.
Then two days later, David Marquez, 20, was shot and killed, and his friend John Paul Grammatico, 17, was injured during a fight at the Mar Vista Gardens housing project. Police say they were members of a local Latino gang. The next day, police say, came the pay-back, when an alleged member of a rival Latino gang, Daniel Lopez, 23, was fatally shot during a drive-by in the Oakwood section of Venice.
"Once you have the first, there is retaliation, and more retaliation," said Capt. Patrick Froehle, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division. He said the clashes in Mar Vista Gardens and at the bowling alley were unrelated.
As a result of the escalation, police are beefing up patrols and are considering barricades for trouble spots and taking other measures to thwart the gang warfare, Froehle said.
Detective William G. Humphry, a member of the LAPD anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH, said his staff is working with local police to quell the violence. But he fears that a year already off to a bad start could get worse.
"Since last fall, things have clearly escalated," Humphry said. "I believe it's cyclical, and I hope it's coincidental."
Police say there have been 10 gang-related slayings on the Westside this year, including the three deaths and at least three injuries in the past 11 days. So far, the murder rate far outpaces last year, when 33 gang-related slayings took place in the Pacific, West Los Angeles, Hollywood and Wilshire divisions that fall under the jurisdiction of CRASH's Westside bureau, Humphry said. In 1988, there were 30 such slayings.
Last year saw a 32% increase in gang-related crime on the Westside, although some of that increase could be due to better notification of police, Humphry said.
Santa Monica is not immune to the trend. "We have seen a slight increase in Santa Monica in the past month and have taken measures to deal with it," said Detective Hector Cavazos, one of two officers assigned to the Santa Monica Police Department's gang detail. No one has been killed, but several gang members have been injured in drive-by shootings and in stabbings, he said.
The Westside is still relatively safe from gang violence, even though police say the number of local gang members has tripled in the last decade. In 1989, there were 554 gang-related slayings countywide. Of an estimated 70,000 gang members in the county, police say 8,000 operate out of the Westside in about 25 gangs.
No one is certain why there has been a surge of local gang activity, but it has brought a swift response from local police agencies and community anti-gang forces.
Some authorities say the recent upswing in violence in the area is merely cyclic, or the result of some local gang leaders getting out of prison. Others attribute it to an influx of new gangs into the area, or to skirmishes between feuding gangs in Mar Vista Gardens, Oakwood, the Venice shoreline and other areas long considered havens for gang and drug activity.
Two of the slayings occurred in Hollywood, outside the usual turf of Westside gangs, police say. Investigators won't disclose which gangs were involved. "Once they start getting their name around, they do more just for notoriety," Humphry said.
CRASH's Westside bureau in January received 10 extra officers, more than a 25% increase, allowing it to dispatch squads to several areas at a time, Humphry said. It is by far the unit's biggest increase since it was formed in 1980, and it brings the number of officers to 48, he said.
Still, Humphry said, "There's too few of us and too many of them. There are too many murders and too many shootings."
CRASH members teach local police officers how to understand gang lingo, how to recognize gang activity and how to tell which gangs are at war. The anti-gang officers also speak to schools and organizations that request help in dealing with the gang problem.
Froehle says he has beefed up his staff in historically troublesome areas, and his officers are working with CRASH and with city housing authorities to develop preventive measures against gang violence.
On April 1, the nonprofit Community Youth Gang Services agency will reopen its Westside center, targeting what it says is a burgeoning gang problem. The group, which receives city and county funds, withdrew from the region three years ago due to lack of funds, said executive director Steve Valdivia.