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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

Collar Killers, Foster Hope

October 04, 2002

To the many crime statistics Los Angeles' new police chief will soon be crunching, add No. 90. That's what Krystle Tashell White became last week, one of 90 homicides so far this year in South Los Angeles' 77th Street Division.

According to police, the 20-year-old Cerritos woman and a male companion were driving near 83rd Street and Avalon Boulevard when a group of teenage boys on bicycles rode alongside, yelling gang challenges. Police believe she was trying to shield her 22-month-old son when one of the teenagers shot her through the car window.

Incongruous as it sounds, it's not unusual for armed boys on bikes to prowl parts of Los Angeles. What sets this killing apart from the usual carnage is that typically mothers are left to mourn lost sons, not the other way around. As this young mother's life evaporates into the ever-growing violent crime tallies, let's put 90 homicides in perspective. The city of Oakland, population 399,500, has had 85 homicides citywide so far this year, and city officials have declared a crisis. The LAPD'S 77th Street Division patrols 12 square miles with about 175,000 residents. With fewer than 5% of the 3.7 million people in Los Angeles, it accounts for almost 20% of the homicides.

South Los Angeles' homicide numbers alone, as bad as they are, don't tell the full toll. LAPD Capt. James Miller, who commands the 77th Division, estimates that shootings have wounded an additional 1,000 people. Whole neighborhoods live in fear. Families and friends live with loss. Wednesday's Times carried a sobering story of violence's rippling reach: A jury convicted a North Hollywood woman of fatally beating her 4-year-old niece--she had reluctantly taken custody of the child two years ago, after street gangsters killed the girl's mother.

We wrote last month that the most urgent task facing the then-unnamed new police chief would be quelling a three-year surge in homicides, more than half of them involving gangs. Police here and in Oakland and everywhere cite the same reasons for the slaughter: a crummy economy, waves of parolees returning to the streets and a population bulge of adolescents, the most crime-prone age. To this, the 77th Division's Miller adds, "Kids are hopeless. They don't care if they get killed. They don't care if they kill someone."

Former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, whom Mayor James K. Hahn named Thursday to take over the LAPD, cannot repair the boyhood dreams knocked flat by poverty, absent fathers, criminally inadequate schooling and a lack of jobs. But together, with real commitment, the mayor and chief could hit the crisis with the required one-two: a hard punch for the criminals, a guiding hand on the shoulders of the boys who are not yet beyond salvation. Only by busting criminals and arresting hopelessness will they make the streets that failed Krystle Tashell White safe for her young son.

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