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Big drop in L.A. homicides

Turnaround comes after police campaign turns to ex-gangsters for help.

September 28, 2007|Hector Becerra and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles has seen a significant decline in homicides so far this year -- including a 50% drop in killings in some South L.A. neighborhoods, such as Watts -- as police embarked on a new strategy involving asking ex-gang members to help prevent violence.

The city got through the traditionally violent summer months with 167 gang-related homicides, compared with 214 for the same period last year. Homicides citywide are now at levels not seen since 1970.

The drop comes nine months after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton vowed to crack down on gangs. But though previous anti-gang campaigns have involved mass arrests and high-profile sweeps, this effort has been more targeted.

And in its most radical shift, the LAPD is putting aside decades of suspicion and turning for help to gang intervention workers, many of whom were gang members.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. homicides: An article in Friday's Section A about falling homicide rates in Los Angeles incorrectly stated that there had been 351 homicides in the city so far this year. As of midnight Sept. 22, which is the latest date for which the LAPD has provided figures, there had been 289 homicides. There were 351 during the same period in 2006.

"For the first time, we're requiring captains to call the gang interventionists, give them the word on the shooting and get out there and avert another homicide," Deputy Police Chief Charlie Beck said.

"We are pretty good at solving homicides, but we are trying to get better at preventing the next homicide."

Beck and other LAPD officials said the intervention workers have been particularly good at "rumor control," calming tensions after a shooting to prevent retaliation.

It's a delicate dance, with gang interventionists taking pains to not look as though they're directly working with police out of fear of losing street credibility. They will help ease tensions, but most refuse to provide detectives with gang intelligence.

"That's a paradigm-changing breakthrough," said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who was hired by Los Angeles to evaluate its anti-gang programs. "They know they can't contaminate each other, and they're figuring the lines that can't be crossed, so they're negotiating that right now. I know that work is going forward."

The decline in homicides underscores an 8% decline in overall violent crime in Los Angeles, bucking a trend that has seen violent crime inch up in other major U.S. cities.

Homicides in communities patrolled by the county Sheriff's Department and police officers from neighboring cities were down about 15%, according to sheriff's statistics.

Overall, Los Angeles has recorded 351 homicides so far this year, with Bratton saying he believes the city will end the year with the lowest number of killings in 37 years (in 1970, there were 394 homicides). Authorities believe the help of gang intervention workers has made a difference, but they acknowledge that they can't fully explain the drop.

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Averting conflict

In June, 16-year-old Dovon Harris and some friends got into a quarrel with some other teens near his Watts school. They then boarded a bus, but the other teens followed them in cars. When Dovon got off the bus, two gang members pulled up and fired into the crowd of boys and girls. Dovon was struck and killed.

Police called intervention workers and asked them to hit the streets. Within a week, there was an arrest, and no retaliatory shootings.

"Without a doubt, this would have started a shooting war," Beck said. "Usually this would have started a cycle where there would have been a series of retaliatory shootings day after day. But that didn't happen here."

In a first, all of the LAPD's probationary officers in South Bureau divisions attended a June session led by gang interventionists at the department's training academy. Another session conducted by law enforcement experts dealt with gathering intelligence and interrogation techniques.

There are dozens of gang intervention groups around L.A. -- some funded by the city or county, others by nonprofits and religious organizations. Some have won praise -- but others have received law enforcement scrutiny, including one Eastside organization that prosecutors say continued to operate as a criminal enterprise under the guise of keeping teens out of gangs.

LAPD officials acknowledge that not all gang intervention programs are perfect -- but they believe some can help prevent more violence.

Community activists and gang workers say they have noticed the difference.

"Gone are the days when law enforcement did its job and rounded up the shooters and the leaders or both, and everything would be OK," said Tony Massengale, senior human relations consultant for the county and a community organizer who has worked with gangs.

In the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, three members of the PJ Crips gang had their own explanation for the drop in violence.

They said veteran gang members -- known as "original gangsters" -- played a role. (Gang intervention officers try to work with older gang members because they tend to have more influence over younger members.)

"It's quieter because the O.G.s stepped up to the plate," a 43-year-old said as he leaned against a car in the parking lot. "We decided to talk to the youngsters."

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