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Outrage Over the Innocents : Violence: When four children died of gunshot wounds in New York City, the entire city rose up in anger and pain. But when four youngsters died in L.A. and Orange counties, the reaction was far more restrained. Why the difference?

September 06, 1990|HANK STUEVER and JENNIFER TOTH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The image of 9-year-old Veronica Corales peered from New York newsstands with large dark eyes and a smile so innocent that she could subdue even the most shrill tabloid's front page. Still, the headlines screamed:

STRAY SHOT HITS GIRL . . . HER GREAT ADVENTURE ENDS IN TRAGEDY . . . SLEEPING GIRL SHOT IN HEAD.

So began a wave of tragedy this summer, heightened by media attention, that baffled even those New Yorkers accustomed to living with violence. Little children shot and killed by random gunfire.

By August, the city was wrapped up in a collective outrage, shouted in the tabloid headlines:

CHILDREN IN THE WAR ZONE . . . IT'S NOT DODGE CITY, BUT . . ..

Maybe it was just a slow news period that slotted little Veronica as the first victim of what Newsday later called the "slaughter of innocents."

But more deaths came, one after the other. The ages of the victims became impossibly young: A 3-year-old shot as he slept on a fold-out bed; a 9-month-old killed as he sat in a walker in his grandmother's kitchen.

The city cried out, to the police, to Mayor David Dinkins: Do something!

But while New York anguished over its "littlest victims," the summer has been almost as grisly in Southern California:

* A 6-year-old girl was shot by an angry 17-year-old gang member at a birthday party in South-Central Los Angeles.

* A 10-year-old Wilmington boy was shot accidentally while he played with a gun belonging to his gang-member uncle.

* A 12-year-old boy was shot on a Santa Ana street after a drug deal soured; the boy had nothing to do with that deal.

Where, then, is Southern California's outrage--the headlines, the grief, the uproar? Except for the tears of families and friends--and a few tightly written or produced newspaper and TV stories--Los Angeles and Orange County have not reacted with the collective intensity that New Yorkers have.

The anguish is here, as sure as the increase in gang-related crime, police and media watchers say.

But, they add, how New York and Los Angeles deal with children's shootings is as different as the cities themselves. The reaction, experts say, has been affected by such factors as:

* Communities in New York are not separated by miles of interstate.

* Competing tabloid newspapers there sell fast and furious, mostly on pedestrian rush-hour streets.

* And, most importantly, although at least four Southern California children were fatally shot in one month, the area has not recorded the consecutive tally of child shootings--four dead in nine days--that sparked New Yorkers' fury.

Where neighborhood violence--particularly gang violence--is concerned, it's becoming a banner year in Southern California.

Gang violence, according to figures released last month by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, increased 69% in the first eight months of 1990 over last year.

Overall violent crime, the report says, is up 20%.

And, as always, shootings often involve innocent bystanders--families who learn duck-and-cover techniques the way most Southern Californians practice earthquake drills. Marie Felix, of the Gang Violence Reduction Project in East Los Angeles, reports that as many as 60% of victims of gang-related crime are bystanders.

In New York so far this year, six of the 16 innocent bystanders killed by random bullets were children under 16. In 1988, homicide was the fifth cause of death of youngsters 14 and younger in New York City.

Although the New York Police Department has no statistics distinguishing children intentionally slain and those killed by stray bullets, one police spokeswoman suggested that misdirected gunfire accounted for only a handful of victims.

Similarly, in Los Angeles County, cases of children struck down by gunfire are not filed under the circumstances of the shooting.

"They're all homicides," said a Los Angeles Sheriff's Department spokesman. Still, according to coroners in Los Angeles and Orange counties, 91 children under 13 were homicide victims in 1989; of these, 30 were killed by gunfire. Authorities do not tally how many were gang- or drug-related.

The counting occurs when newspapers and television reporters add up homicide totals--and fuel public outcry by portraying related events as crime waves.

Police here maintain that residents get angry--and often call their offices seeking solutions to violence, whether the crime occurs in their neighborhood or not.

"There is some apathy (in the public) towards crime, but to what degree, I think, depends on the community and the circumstances," said Lt. Robert Helton of the Santa Ana Police Department.

With the killing of an innocent child, like Pedro Sanchez Hernandez, 12, in Santa Ana Aug. 14,the outcry increases, he added.

Hernandez, struck down by gunfire stemming from an unsuccessful drug deal, was simply walking down his neighborhood street with his brother, Gus, 16.

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