'More Cops': Candidates' Simplistic Cure for L.A. Woes

April 11, 1993|BILL BOYARSKY

One of the most infuriating aspects of a political reporter's job is daily exposure to the vast gulf between candidates' simplistic rhetoric and life in the neighborhoods they hope to govern.

Every election drives that lesson home. It's one reason why I once quit covering campaigns for a few years in favor of something less ephemeral, like fires, floods and trouble in the public schools.

Last week, I got a dose of the same old rhetoric at a mayoral candidates forum at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles. I saw the reality the next morning when I walked through one of the most poor and hopeless streets in all of Los Angeles County.

At the debate Thursday night, the candidates appealed to Los Angeles' fear of violence, exacerbated by last year's riots and the wait for the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial.

"Our city is considered a war zone throughout the world," said Richard Riordan. "The reality is very close to that. Mothers in the inner city must tell their 2- and 3-year-olds to duck behind parked cars when they hear shooting. Families are afraid to walk to church. Tourists are avoiding us."

The L.A. dream, said Michael Woo, "has turned sour. We are losing many families. Many people do not want to work here because they do not think L.A. is safe." Richard Katz said: "Everyone I know is frightened."

Their antidote to these fears was simple. In fact, they made it sound easy--just hire more cops. Take the two front-runners, Riordan and Woo. Riordan promised to add 3,000 officers without new taxes. Woo bid 1,000 cops, although he, at least, was realistic, recognizing someone would have to pay for them. He endorsed the property tax increase measure on the April 20 ballot.

Everyone knows the LAPD is too small. But there's much more to making Los Angeles secure than beefing up the thin blue line, as I saw the next morning.

I drove to the New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Willowbrook, an African-American and Latino community south of Watts. The Rev. Romie Lilly had invited me to observe the "Keep It Good in the Hood" project, an effort by southern Los Angeles County clergy to prevent civil unrest after the King verdicts.

"We are committed to the idea that this is our neighborhood and we are going to keep it good," said the Rev. Lonnie Dawson, pastor of New Mt. Calvary and president of the Southern Area Clergy Council, a leader in the campaign. About 40 men and women listened solemnly. Then they joined in a hymn and left to hand out leaflets in Willowbrook and nearby Compton.

I accompanied Lilly to a Compton neighborhood a few blocks east of the Blue Line commuter train tracks. We parked outside the Taco Mex restaurant, and we went inside. Lilly handed a "Keep It Good in the Hood" leaflet to the proprietor, Maria De LaTorre. A market next door had been burned in the riots, but Taco Mex was spared. "I'm kind of scared," she said.

We crossed the parking lot, a white reporter and a black minister, and turned left into a long block of run-down houses, triplexes and cottages that you might see on the desolate edges of one of the world's more impoverished cities.

Graffiti covered an abandoned apartment. Next door, a Latino woman accepted a leaflet, although she did not speak English. Cyclone fences had been put up to keep criminals away. At one house, three watchdogs slept in the sunshine. Old cars were parked along the curb and in front yards.

About a half a dozen young black men lounged on a driveway in front of a house, one of them with a cellular phone. Lilly handed them leaflets and said: "No violence." As Lilly and I moved on, we figured these men were at the bottom of the ladder in the drug trade. He said they would be dead or in jail within a year.

After we drove away, Lilly said: "Just look what was out there. . . . Lives here are devastated by a lack of jobs."

That street was a few miles east of the city limits. But Los Angeles has plenty of such streets, full of poverty, crime and anger that can quickly turn into violence.

They will be part of the next mayor's domain. And more cops--1,000, 2,000 or 3,000--will not change their bleak reality.

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