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Watts pool reopens with tighter security

Two LAPD officers will help guards keep it safe after fracas.

June 26, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

By the time Los Angeles city officials arrived to make the announcement Wednesday, dozens of children already were diving, splashing and screaming in the water at the 109th Street Swimming Pool in Watts.

The word was out.

"Finally, we have our pool back," said Wesley Perkins, 14, adding that he learned to swim there. "When it was closed, there was nothing to do. This is all we have."

City officials reached a deal Wednesday morning to beef up security and reopen the neighborhood pool, where a band of young men went on a rampage Sunday. Two armed guards and six pool workers were easily overwhelmed by up to 30 young men, who attacked the manager and threw him, a lifeguard and a locker attendant into the water.

The pool, part of a park that includes a baseball field, was shut down after the incident, which took place in sweltering afternoon heat and while it was packed with more than 200 people.

The pool is between two public housing projects, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, and two competing neighborhood gangs.

The agreement to reopen the pool was reached after a 90-minute meeting of the Watts Gang Task Force -- a coalition of community leaders and representatives of neighborhood organizations and governmental agencies who meet once a week in an effort to resolve some of the problems that stem from gang violence -- in Councilwoman Janice Hahn's Watts office.

Under the new security arrangement, two Los Angeles police officers and two city general services officers will join the two security guards previously hired by the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

In addition, up to six men from the neighborhood Moonlight Basketball League will assist in controlling unruly crowds on the pool deck.

At Wednesday's reopening there were more officials -- and security -- on the pool deck than swimmers in the water.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa walked up to a lectern on the pool deck and announced that the pool was back.

"We're here today united for one reason -- to take back our park," Villaraigosa said. "This park and this pool represents the heart of the Watts community. Sunday's incident represented an attack on all the residents of Watts."

The heavy security was for a reason, police said.

"We have to make a statement," said Capt. Phillip C. Tingirides, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division. At the same time, he stressed that a longer-term strategy was needed.

"This is a temporary solution to allow the community to use the pool until the community begins to organize its own program," Tingirides said earlier in the day at the meeting in Hahn's office, which was attended by about 50 city officials, residents and community activists.

The Watts Gang Task Force had been grappling with the issue of pool safety before Sunday's attack.

"This is a huge black eye," Tingirides told the gathering. "I couldn't be more sad and disappointed."

He said he would increase police pressure on the gangs through gang injunctions and vowed to arrest those responsible for Sunday's attack.

It wasn't the first time the facility had experienced difficulties. For years, pool officials have complained about problem patrons bringing alcohol onto the pool deck, swimming in street clothes and jumping the fence to avoid the $2.50 entry fee.

Last summer, the city stationed armed guards at the pool during swimming hours in an attempt to control unruly crowds that had become a threat to the pool staff and younger swimmers.

"We don't go to the pool," said Kim Thomas, whose nieces and nephews are of swimming age. "It's too dangerous."

But with the increased security Wednesday, she brought the children for a plunge.

"We came together as a community, and we came up with a solution," Councilwoman Hahn said. "We don't want to keep it shut any longer. It's hot and the kids deserve to swim."

But Michael Wainwright, who coordinates community outreach for the organization Weed and Seed, said people in the neighborhood need to take charge.

"It's not enough to rely on the police," he said. "The community has to do more to make sure that the children are safe."

--

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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