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Police the Parks

April 22, 2002

Downtown's office towers loom over the South-Central park where gangs killed 8-year-old Anthony Ramirez. From those peaks of power and money, where the mantra is just-get-it-done, Trinity Recreation Center's square of yellowed grass goes as unnoticed as another death from gang cross-fire.

In November, suspected gang members killed a 13-year-old doing his homework in St. Andrews Recreation Center in South Los Angeles, police say. In December, suspected gang members fired into Wilmington Recreation Center. In January, staff members at a South Los Angeles recreation center locked themselves inside in fear of shooters outside. In March, police say, suspected gangsters fatally shot a rival in the doorway of the Aliso Pico Recreation Center in Boyle Heights, sending 100 people who had been watching a girls basketball game fleeing.

The bullies who plague this city do not limit their mayhem to parks. Driving their criminal activity from these supposed public sanctuaries would not eliminate the problem. The solution to street gangs is relentless pressure and an overarching strategy that combines private and public efforts, including the resources of agencies ranging from the schools to the district attorney's office, county probation to the parks department.

A hodgepodge of fixes blossomed after the riots. Some were sappy. Eventually, civic commitment to even many strong ones waned--but not the poverty, unemployment and other ills that help push young men and women into gangs.

Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn plans to try again, announcing a major anti-gang initiative that he says will include prevention and jobs along with law enforcement. This sort of comprehensive approach can work--if accompanied by a reliable flow of money and a forceful leader with the guts to promptly scrap any program that doesn't pull its weight, no matter how well-intentioned, slickly promoted or tied to the politically connected it may be.

Hahn has already shown that he recognizes that standing up to gangs in parks is of particular importance. Parks are places for good kids to giggle on swings, bond at neighborhood barbecues and engage in the sort of activities that are antidotes to a life of crime. But that can happen only if they are safe.

Los Angeles has just 35 unarmed park rangers spread across 375 parks and recreation centers. Hahn has called for creating a park police unit within the LAPD similar to the one that patrols buses and subways. The LAPD says officers already work closely with park rangers and that reassignment would mean cutting back on patrols elsewhere.

We don't think the mayor should micromanage the Police Department, but the bloodshed in the parks has to stop, and, one way or another, that means more cops there more often.

We also hope that his plan recognizes city Parks Director Ellen Oppenheim's ideas. She wants to enlist neighbors in a "Parks Watch" program modeled on Neighborhood Watch and to train recreation center staff members to recognize signs that gang rivalries are heating up.

Police say Anthony Ramirez died after an 18-year-old gang member and his teenage accomplices, who had been kicked off the Trinity Recreation Center basketball court by a rival gang, responded to that disrespect with a semiautomatic handgun and a shotgun.

When an 8-year-old dies because selfish young men are squabbling over who gets to shoot hoops, the problem lies three or four steps back. What happened to those boys' families? Where was the boys club that could have used sweat-drenched games of five-a-side to teach conflict resolution?

Until every part of this sprawling village accepts responsibility, schools and streets won't be safe. And parks will have bloodstains, like those where Anthony fell, a spot now hallowed by neighborhood offerings of calla lilies, candles and a cherry-red fire truck.

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