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Gunfire shatters a new sense of calm

As Los Angeles grows safer, high-profile shootings can reinforce long-held perceptions of danger.

January 23, 2011|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

Last week started off with a heady breeze of optimism in a place where often none has been felt. In Compton, according to Tuesday's Times, residents are now able to enjoy the things people in other places take for granted, because much of the gunfire is gone.

They can sit on their front porches. They can walk their kids to school. They can push their grandbabies on the swings at the neighborhood park, without the risk that once accompanied those everyday pleasures.

Crime in Compton, the paper noted, is way down from last year — and far, far removed from the bloody 1990s. That is of a piece with the rest of the county.

On Monday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced that the homicide rate in regions it patrols was lower last year than any time since 1965, accounting for changes in population. The Los Angeles Police Department had earlier released tallies that showed that 2010 brought the lowest number of homicides since 1967, when the city was almost a third smaller.

"You just don't have the fear there used to be before," one Compton resident told The Times for the article on Tuesday's front page.

Hours after that was published, and a few miles away, the fear roared back.

Last week's spasm of violence started at Gardena High School, where a 17-year-old student carried a loaded Beretta to school in his backpack. It accidentally discharged, and a round went through one student's neck and slammed into another's skull. Two students — two children — were rushed to the hospital. Another was captured, reportedly apologetic. Later in the week, he was charged with two felonies: possessing a gun at a school and discharging it. Prosecutors hope to try him as an adult.

With the national trauma of the Tucson rampage still fresh, the Gardena shooting zoomed into prominence on local media outlets and beyond. Students were caught in their classrooms, their frantic parents unable to reach them. SWAT teams walked the halls of the school and helicopters throbbed above.

The communal blood pressure had barely calmed before Wednesday brought the lockdown of 9,000 students in the Woodland Hills area after a gunman shot a school police officer near El Camino Real High School. Back came the police and the news coverage and the awful wait for parents and children to be reunited.

So the week was a conflict between head and heart. It was thrilling, particularly for those who lived through more violent years, to hear again that crime is down. And yet statistics vanish in the face of fear.

On the one hand, a Times analysis shows that only two homicides have occurred within a mile of Gardena High since 2007 and little violent crime takes place in the Woodland Hills area that was locked down. On the other, one police officer and two children were wounded, one of the students critically.

The timing seemed particularly painful because of the good news, as if the week's events served to perpetuate an image of Southern California that, by the numbers, should have disappeared long ago.

There are two reactions to this sort of thing, according to Laura Abrams, a UCLA associate professor of social welfare. Short-term, parents particularly can grow fearful. Longer-term, such incidents can force shifts in public policy that may — or may not — bring meaningful improvement.

The intense media focus can also heighten fear of young men like the Gardena student with the gun. News reports said he was on probation for a misdemeanor battery charge.

But his friends told The Times that the young man, a special education student, had taken the gun to school for his own protection, because he feared for his safety on his bus ride home.

"We don't know anything about his community circumstances, or whether he himself was bullied," Abrams said. "Often special ed students are targeted. The media tends to portray young men of color in part as repeat violent offenders but rarely projects the fuller circumstances."

Studies have shown that worry about crime can persist long after the rates actually drop, Abrams said, in part because of media focus.

"The everyday juvenile shooting, gang fighting, the things that Southern Californians always hear about and always worry about, I would doubt that people's perceptions have changed that much" despite the drop in actual crime, she said. "Part of that is because we continue to see it."

Those negative perceptions tend to persist more strongly the farther one is from high-crime areas, she said; those closest are more aware of how things have improved. They are like the people of Compton, sitting on their front porches, or going to the park, or walking their kids to school and hoping they don't collide with bullets.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek

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