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Stop the Killing? LAPD Can't Do Its Job and Everyone Else's Too

November 24, 2002|Steve Lopez

"Bill Bratton, control your cops," said a sign held by a protester outside the LAPD's Parker Center downtown.

The demand followed a police shooting that left two teenagers dead.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bratton, never bashful, quickly counterpunched.

"Control your kids."

In just four weeks on the job, Bratton has become de facto mayor, camp counselor and provocateur. And that exchange neatly frames the challenge for Los Angeles, which will probably have more homicides in 2002 than New York, a city with twice as many people.

How do you stop the killing, much of which is gang-related?

How do you restore order to the point where law-abiding folks aren't afraid to let their children outside?

Police can do a far better job, as Bratton has admitted. But when he said control your kids, he was telling the city that cops alone can't do a job that parents, teachers, ministers and politicians have failed at. And it wasn't hard to find people who agreed.

"Where in the hell is the so-called black leadership when we need them most?" asks Tony Wafford, a black friend who's an AIDS prevention activist. "Those mothers were all over the media talking about 'Barbershop,' a b.s. movie."

Najee Ali, an activist and former gang member, said that if black leaders are going to denounce police abuse, they ought to get just as militant about black-on-black crime.

"We have to give the message to the community to turn in these killers," Ali said, "because the silence is partly to blame for the murders."

Easy to say. But rat out a drug dealer or murderer, and if it gets back to the hoodlums, the price is steep.

"Whenever I hear that response, I always say the risk is greater in not cooperating to bring the killer to justice," Ali said. "He might target you or someone in your family next."

Luis Rodriguez, who counsels both black and Latino gang members, probably wouldn't disagree with that.

He spent most of his childhood as a hoodlum, mostly in neighborhoods east of Los Angeles, so he knows how it works.

By age 7, he was a thief. By 11, he was running with the Lomas gang. By 13, he was locked up. By 17, he was stabbing and shooting people. By 18, no fewer than 25 of his friends were dead.

Rodriguez barely got out with his life, and he went on to become an accomplished writer.

His first book, "Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.," was an attempt to "control" his own son, to borrow from Bratton.

It didn't work.

At age 27, the son is six years into a 28-year sentence, and Rodriguez travels the city and the country as a counselor and storyteller, trying to save gangbangers and wannabes from a fate worse than his son's.

If Bratton can lock up every last gangbanger standing on a corner, good for him, Rodriguez said when I drove up to Sylmar to see him. But then what?

Going to prison doesn't mean they're out of business, said Rodriguez, now 48. From behind bars, they might still be calling shots on the streets, where armies of kids will step in to replace them in the drug and turf wars.

Rodriguez didn't give me a song about economic and racial isolation, both of which put kids on the streets with nothing to lose.

He touched on the lousy schools and lousy jobs, but said no one is more inept at keeping kids out of trouble than the people who know them best.

The people of their own community.

"Why are parents all fearing the same things for their children, and never talking about it together?" he asks.

About a year ago, Rodriguez scanned the gang-ridden landscape of the northeast San Fernando Valley, and couldn't find a bookstore or a theater. So he opened Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural on Glenoaks Boulevard, next to a Pizza Hut.

The day I met with him, he was expecting as many as 100 kids for weekly film night, a documentary on the Gulf War, with discussion to follow.

Six days a week, he serves up art, history, music and an open-mike discussion of books, current events and community concerns.

There's an obvious hunger for it, he says, because he gets good-size crowds of adults and even more kids.

"If you could put something like this in every neighborhood of the city, I think you could make a difference," says Rodriguez. He took issue with Bratton for telling the city to get angry about the dead and dying.

"We don't need more anger -- there's anger enough. We need imagination. Intense dialogues. ... Meaningful relationships between adults, teachers, mentors and youth. More art and creative means of pulling out of the crises we are in.

"You can't just work the back end. Bratton is looking from there and surmising the problem is lack of emotion. He's wrong. Plenty of emotion to go around. Not enough thinking. Sharing. Risking. Dreaming. Building. Loving. You name it."

I disagree in part. Bratton is a cop, not a social worker. His job is to put troublemakers in jail, not enroll them in an arts and crafts program, and when he asked the city to get angry about all the bodies in the streets, he was only trying to stir people to action.

If Rodriguez could open a dozen more centers like the one in Sylmar, I bet Bratton would gladly cut the ribbons. The chief has been tapping celebrities for cash to fight crime and save kids' lives, and if he can point to a success like Rodriguez's, it might be easier to shake that money loose.

We can control them, we can cuff them.

Or we can bury them.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez

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