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At Long Last, South L.A. Has a Prayer -- the Police

If criminals had been stigmatized instead of cops, anti-crime activists say, the city would be far safer today.

August 06, 2003|Heather Mac Donald | Heather Mac Donald is a fellow of the Manhattan Institute and author of "Are Cops Racist?" (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

A new form of activism is emerging in Los Angeles' crime belt: public support for the police.

Late last month, a group of ministers and crime victims' families joined hands at the site of a recent Watts homicide and prayed for the "men in blue ... that they may continue to protect and serve."

In the history of community efforts to stop violence, this one may be the most promising.

Over the years, the surest way for a would-be celebrity-activist to attract media notice was to denounce the cops. Yet while police misconduct is deplorable, it is not the most pressing problem facing inner-city communities.

Cops are not killing hundreds of young black men in South Los Angeles every year; other young black men are. Had a fraction of the press coverage and moral fervor directed against the police over the last decade been dedicated to stigmatizing criminals, the inner city would be a far different place.

The organizers of last month's rally are acting on these unpopular truths. "We tell Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to stay away," said Perry Crouch, a member of the Central Recovery & Development Project, a gang intervention group. "If a white person does something bad to a black person, they're all over it, but if a black person does something to a black person, where are they?"


Which is why the project and the Men of the First AME Church organized the "Stop the Killin" campaign a year ago. Since then, the campaign has staged 50 community actions at homicide sites across South and Central Los Angeles to demonstrate the bond between citizens and the police and to underscore that murder is not normal.

At the rally, the young men of Watts -- the intended audience for Stop the Killin -- witnessed the following: the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division, six squad cars and seven senior lead officers escorting a honking caravan of trucks and vans to five homicide locations over four hours. At each site, Capt. Terry Hara, Southeast's commander, tersely described the murder, then a civilian called for prayer and peace.

In the Nickerson Gardens housing project, where two men were fatally shot July 4 and 6, the Rev. Leonard Jackson admonished: "On the Fourth of July we should have been celebrating our independence, but some here were celebrating death. Father, eradicate this community of death. We need to stand up for life and say enough is enough."

When approached by a reporter, the teens of Nickerson Gardens melted away sullenly. Yet they dropped their defenses long enough to follow the prayer circle as it moved from the first murder site to the second one. If just one youth takes the anti-violence message to heart, organizers say, the effort will be worth it.

At a murder location across from Locke High School, located at the deadly intersection of four gangs, Stop the Killin members confronted head-on the value system they hoped to change. An angry teen started complaining about the LAPD. Ed Turley, founder of the Central Recovery & Development Project, responded quietly: "We feel your pain and hurt, but we've lost family members at the hands not of the police but of each other."

Back in his pickup truck, Turley wondered, "When are we going to stop blaming the police for our problems?"

Turley was driving to the last stop of the night -- 108 Street and Figueroa, where a 75-year-old woman was found strangled to death on a sidewalk in June. "That family was outraged at the police. But here there's a murder a day. That to me is an outrage. We're always quick to point a finger when it's someone else. When it's us, well, 'That's just the way it is.' "

The members of Stop the Killin are no apologists for bad cops. But they realize that the majority of officers work hard for law-abiding poor people. They also know that without police-community partnerships, violence will continue to define the inner city. The hatred spread by anti-cop activists keeps some crime witnesses from cooperating with law enforcement, leaving killers at large.

Surveying the LAPD's huge commitment to that evening's prayer vigils, Turley said with satisfaction: "This is true community-based policing. We're in support of law enforcement and they support us. It's a happy marriage." Out of that union may finally come the safety that all Los Angeles residents deserve.

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