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City Headed for a Record Homicide Toll : Crime: Bloodshed is 'totally out of control' in the South Bureau, one officer says. The Wilshire Division records a 63% increase in slayings.

July 18, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fueled by a rise in gang violence in South Los Angeles and the Mid-Wilshire area, the city is poised for a third consecutive year of record bloodshed. As of June 21, the Police Department had recorded 476 homicides citywide, 28 more than at this time last year. In 1992, Los Angeles tallied a record 1,095 homicides.

The toll has been especially heavy in the department's South Bureau, where police this week beefed up the area's understaffed homicide detail after violence left eight dead within the bureau's boundaries last weekend, and eight more the previous week. Authorities said the staffing increase was in response to a growing tide of gang-related bloodshed.

"We just can't keep up with the record number pace," said Commander Art Lopez, acting commander of the South Bureau. "Our homicide detectives are bone tired."

The bureau has recorded 214 homicides this year, up from 190 during the same period last year. On Monday, six new officers joined the 44-person homicide detail, whose detectives work up to 60 hours a week. But police say the detail still has three fewer detectives than last year. The bureau stretches from the Santa Monica Freeway through South Los Angeles and includes the Harbor, 77th, Southeast, and Southwest divisions.

"Things are totally out of control here," said one veteran homicide detective. "This puts Lebanon, Northern Ireland and everyone else to shame."

The violence is also escalating dramatically in the Wilshire Division, which has recorded the sharpest rise in homicides of any police division in the city this year. The division had 38 homicides in the first half of 1993, a 63% increase over the 23 reported during the same period last year. The division includes part of Koreatown and is bounded roughly by Beverly Boulevard on the north, the Inglewood city limits on the south, La Cienega Boulevard to the west and Normandie Avenue to the east.

Wilshire detectives blame the rise in homicides on gang members who are not only killing each other, but also becoming more involved in slayings connected to robberies and drug deals. "It's no secret that gang members are involved with drugs and robberies. Frequently the lines between those crimes are blurred," said Detective Dan Andrews.

The Wilshire Division has traditionally been the most violent of the four divisions in the West Bureau, which mostly covers the Westside. This year is no exception, with Wilshire recording about half of the bureau's 75 homicides.

In response to the rising death toll, the nine-person Wilshire homicide detail was beefed up by four detectives on Monday. But police say the officers were taken from other details that are equally understaffed. "Basically, we're stripping other assignments to take care of this horrendous situation," said one Wilshire officer.

Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the South Bureau's homicide detail, offered two main reasons for the carnage in his area: "Gangs and dope."

Although a truce between gangs in Watts last year offered hope after years of killings, Robleto said the treaty has all but collapsed amid growing violence.

"The fact of the matter is the truce had to do with two gangs, and it did work with those two gangs. But we have about 200 other gangs in the South Bureau that are going about their business as usual," he said.

Unlike the Eastside, where gang members usually operate in a small area where they live, Robleto said, gangbangers in South Los Angeles roam different neighborhoods.

"A 77th crook just doesn't kill in the 77th area" he said, referring to the 77th Police Division, which is bounded roughly by Vernon Avenue on the north, the Harbor Freeway on the east, Century Boulevard on the south and West Boulevard on the west. "He kills throughout South Los Angeles."

Last year at this time, he said, detectives had made arrests in 78 of the bureau's 190 homicide cases, or 41%. This year they have cleared 120 of the 214 homicides, or 56%.

Criminologists offer other reasons for the rise in violence: a breakdown of societal values, a weak economy and high unemployment that have led people to resort to desperate acts, changing demographics that have resulted in racial tensions, and the proliferation of high-powered weapons. "There are a complex set of factors," said USC criminologist Marcus Felson.

He said the 28 additional homicides recorded in the first half of this year citywide are not a sign of a major crime trend, and also discounted the importance of the increases in the Wilshire Division. "To a statistician, that is not a significant change," Felson said, adding that the rise in homicides could be due to "a couple of bad weekends."

Still, for many residents, any increase in homicides is troubling.

"I pray all the time that the killing will stop," said South-Central resident Erlinda Coleman. "We can't let things keep going the way they are." Coleman lives in the 77th Division, where 87 homicides had been reported in 1993 as of last week.

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