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A Thinner Blue Line

Jobs and services are needed in L.A. But let's start with a few more cops.

June 08, 2003|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon's latest novel, "Lita," will be out in July.

Over breakfast Thursday morning, I read about the execution-style slaying of Londell Murdock, father of two and a custodian for the state, killed because he wanted a soda before starting work. He wore the wrong color shoes in the wrong neighborhood, and that may have been what offended the two men arrested in connection with the killing. He violated some asinine gang rule: Crips wear blue, Bloods wear red, and if you don't know that, you'd better ask somebody. Fortunately, the suspects were apprehended after LAPD officers happened to drive by and see Murdock fatally shot.

If my breakfast wasn't already completely ruined, a story on the front page took care of that. It was about the L.A. City Council's override of Mayor James Hahn's budget veto, which in effect killed his plan to hire 320 additional police officers. In case you're missing the irony, think about this: How were the suspects in the Murdock shooting apprehended? By police on the street. What did Hahn want to do? Put more police on the street.

I've followed this issue with weary interest for years. Though I no longer live or work in Los Angeles, it's a part of my life; my wife works for the city. I grew up in Los Angeles. I very much care about public safety -- and, conversely, about urban insecurity, because as a boy in L.A., I was afraid. Thirty years ago, when I was learning the streets of what was called South-Central Los Angeles, that geographically imprecise region of the city where black folks lived, I worried with good cause that I would be killed in some miserable, brutal incident that wouldn't even make the Metro section's police blotter.

Capricious, ever-present "ultra-violence" was so common, even at that time, that "Pootbutts" and "Nons," boys like me, were defined by what we didn't do -- drink, fight, get high -- and by what we did do -- study, wonder about the world, play chess and read. I didn't go to parties because I didn't want to be knocked unconscious if I happened to step on some gangbanger's unreasonably well-polished shoe. I flew model rockets, won science fairs and read in the shower. But I knew that academics wouldn't keep me safe from the spray of a shotgun blast on the way home, or even on campus.

Years later, I taught at Locke High School near Watts. One of my students, Valerie, lost two boyfriends the same year to gang violence. I didn't have words to console her when she showed me the funeral program for one of her young men, who was laid to rest in a powder-blue tux. I imagined him stepping out of the coffin, flagging down a limousine and heading to his prom with Valerie in hand.

Today violence plagues some neighborhoods in Los Angeles like a homegrown Horseman of the Apocalypse. I don't want kids to have to experience being beaten -- as I once was for walking through a strange neighborhood in search of true love. That day, if police had driven by and seen the mob of boys beating me black and blue on the green lawns of that palm-tree-lined street, I would have thought it a miracle.

I wanted to be delivered, but I imagined the police were too busy solving property crimes on the Westside. Quick police response time is a miracle that for many of us never occurs.

My high school girlfriend, whose family lived in "The Jungle," near Baldwin Hills, once heard someone trying to break into her apartment by unscrewing the security door. She called the police, but they didn't show up for hours. Luckily, the home invasion proved too difficult, and the potential invaders abandoned the attempt, leaving the screwdriver on the steps as a grim reminder of what might have happened had they had time enough and a better work ethic.

The '70s were frightening times, when gang culture boiled like a virulent stew, escaping the attention of the media and the police except for its occasional flare-ups on the Westside, or in some public venue.

Until gangster rap chronicled life on the streets, who knew or cared? Kids growing up were often terrified. L.A.'s policy of having far too few police in relation to its population and size contributed to the problem. Terrified kids were armed to protect themselves from other kids who wanted to harm them. Sometimes they even shot first because they were afraid. I was that afraid. I might have shot someone if I'd had a gun. For civil society to flourish, public safety is a necessity for all the city's residents, regardless of wealth or race.

Now I live in a gated community in Altadena, in an area where the police respond quickly, but gated communities can't solve the problem. Having an adequate and enlightened police force -- along with schools that work, jobs and social services that address the needs of the less fortunate -- can. That's a short but expensive wish list. Right now I'd settle for those 320 police on the streets.

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