Los Angeles police and FBI agents process detained suspected gang members outside the Sport Arena parking lot in Los Angeles in October 2009. The city's crime rate is at an all-time low, in part because the troublemakers have either been locked up — or have turned into interventionists to help put a dent in crime.
Los Angeles police and FBI agents process detained suspected gang members outside the Sport Arena parking lot in Los Angeles in October 2009. The city's crime rate is at an all-time low, in part because the troublemakers have either been locked up — or have turned into interventionists to help put a dent in crime. Damian Dovarganes/AP
From New York to Los Angeles, murders and other violent crimes are at a 50-year low. In Los Angeles, that's partly because police and ex-gang members are working together to make the streets safer.
In 1990, people wouldn't dare stand in the alleyways of 77th Street in South Central L.A. Down the street, there's a police station. Even so, there used to be drive-by shootings. Area residents say they used to hide their children in the bathtubs at night to avoid the stray bullets.
"It was very scary," says Lorna Hawkins, who lost two sons to gang violence in 1988 and 1992. "Bullets fly through these houses and these windows like they were nothing, because these people don't know how to shoot. Little coward, baby-shooter killers. When the sun was going down, everybody better be somewhere in the dark, hiding. That was what it was like. It was hell."
Today, it's a different story, Hawkins says. "They say the streets haven't been this safe for 50 years."
Former Gang Members Intervene
For decades, safe isn't a word that would have described much of L.A. In the 1980s, at the height of the crack epidemic, the city's murder rate sometimes approached 1,000 per year. Last year, it was 314. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says violent crime is down by nearly 11 percent.
"I used to shine shoes on 7th and Broadway, and I can tell you, there was a time when L.A. was this safe, but that time was in the 1950s," he says.
Today on 7th and Broadway, the shoeshine boys have been replaced by sidewalk merchants like Jesus Sevala, who sells cold sodas and telephone calling cards. He says he doesn't see too many robberies these days. Sevala says the neighborhood is safer because many of the old troublemakers are locked up.
Gang violence is still a problem, but Los Angeles' new police chief, Charlie Beck, says former gang members turned interventionists are helping put a dent in crime.
"Whenever a gang shooting occurs, we notify intervention, they do a couple things," he says. "They, first of all, dispel rumors. Rumors cause the next homicide — rumors about who did what to who instigate further violence. So they calm rumors. They also create peace. They broker peace between feuding factions. They also mentor and try to remove gang members from the life of violence."
Beck says Los Angeles will soon open a gang intervention academy to professionalize their work. Twenty years ago, this kind of cooperation was unheard of, with the LAPD at war with street gangs.
'Don't Nobody Want To Go To Jail No More'
Back on 77th Street, the streets are calm. Jutaun Butler, 20, and her cousin Shonkia Dunbar, 23, push Butler's baby goddaughter in a stroller. They say they've noticed a difference in the gang members in the neighborhood.
"You don't hear that much about shootings and stuff now," says Butler.
Adds Dunbar: "As far as trying to walk the streets, bothering people, I don't see that anymore. I guess I see more police than I see gangbangers now, patrolling. So don't nobody want to go to jail no more. Everybody tired of being in jail."
Butler adds that local gang members also seem tired of losing friends. "And then some of them just grew out of it."
Lorna Hawkins agrees. "These guys just grew up and started having their own babies. Ya see?"
Hawkins became a community activist after her first son was murdered. Her group, Drive By Agony, marched through the streets for peace. Hawkins spent these past two decades talking to crime victims through her own local talk show and on tour around the world. She has also lectured young people in schools, juvenile detention and prisons.
"A lot of gang members' kids are now grown, and they're losing their sons, right?" she says. "Nowadays, they're in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and they're like, 'Oh s- - - I got grandkids! I cannot let this continue. So groups are coming together. They're coming together!"
Gang interventionists, community groups and L.A. police are all cooperating to drive down crime. Hawkins says this is a winning combination.