Los Angeles Sees Surge in Gang Violence

An uptick in gang violence in Los Angeles has Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Bill Bratton calling on the federal government for more crime-prevention resources. Of particular concern is an increase in racially motivated gang attacks. Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The city of Los Angeles is grappling with a spike in gang violence. After four years of decline, gang-related crime jumped 14 percent last year. Now Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has appealed to the federal government for help. We begin our coverage with this report from Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC.

FRANK STOLTZE: One of the victims of gang violence last year was nine-year-old Charupha Wongwisetsiri. She was helping her mother fix dinner in the kitchen in the Angelino Heights neighborhood one December night when a bullet from a gang shootout on the street tore through the wall and hit her in the head. Her mother is from Thailand. An interpreter spoke to reporters on the mother's behalf.

Unidentified Man (Interpreter): She talked to me at the hospital, and she said in two days, Christmas has come by, New Years coming by; she don't have any future.

(Soundbite of crying)

STOLTZE: Gang-related murders in Los Angeles rose five percent in 2006. Attempted murders jumped 23 percent; robberies 24 percent. Overall crime fell for the fifth straight year. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): So our New Year's resolution in 2007 is to make violent street gangs Public Enemy number one.

STOLTZE: Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Bill Bratton promise to target the worst gangs in a renewed and coordinated effort with other local and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Police Chief WILLIAM BRATTON (Los Angeles Police Department): Every player that's involved with gangs in terms of the law enforcement end of it is stepping up to the plate big time. We're fortunate that all of us at this particular point in time have a few more resources than at any time in the last four years.

STOLTZE: Bratton concedes resources remain tight, and gangsters sent to jail often get out early because of overcrowding. The FBI has pledged to help, but the local U.S. attorney, George Cardona, says the Feds are strapped, too, as they fight everything from terrorism to corporate fraud.

Mr. GEORGE CARDONA (United States Attorney): The federal law enforcement agencies have a whole lot on their plate, and obviously gangs are one of their priorities and one of our priorities, but it's just a huge problem with limited resources to address it.

STOLTZE: Los Angeles County is home to an estimated 80,000 members of about 1,200 gangs. The city hired civil rights attorney Connie Rice to examine gang-prevention programs. Her report called for a Marshall Plan-style initiative, aimed at providing more social services to keep kids out of gangs.

Ms. CONNIE RICE (Civil Rights Attorney): Let's go neighborhood by neighborhood, do a CAT scan on that neighborhood and figure out who are the leaders, where are the churches, and just map all the assets. Make them work with all of the city agencies in developing a neighborhood stabilization plan.

(Soundbite of police radio)

STOLTZE: LAPD officer Dan Robbins sits in his patrol car in the harbor area of the city. This is where Latino gang members allegedly murdered a 14-year-old girl because she was black. Police say there's been an uptick in cases of racially motivated gang violence. Robbins says one reason is California state prisons tend to be segregated by race.

Officer DAN ROBBINS (Los Angeles Police Department): You have gang members that inside prison are indoctrinated into a racist lifestyle. They come out here, train the younger gang members in those beliefs.

STOLTZE: Changing demographics play a part, too. Mike is a member of the 204th Street Gang that controls this mostly Latino neighborhood. He won't give his last name. Mike laments the arrival of blacks over the past few years.

Mr. MIKE (Member, 204th Street Gang): We had a nice little community here and it's not nice anymore, and because of them. They brought lowlife, just - they're dirty, man.

STOLTZE: Members of the gang say they'll abide by a peace treaty signed by Latino and black residents, but they refused to show up to the signing of that agreement. Mayor Villaraigosa says racially motivated gang violence will be one target of the city's new campaign against gangs, but he says it should be put in perspective.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: There's a sense that it's a growing problem, but again, the vast majority of crime continues to occur within ethnic and racial groups, not between them.

STOLTZE: Law enforcement officials say they want to make sure to clamp down on the increase in gang violence in Los Angeles. A number of the city's gangs operate in other regions, and they want to make sure that the violence doesn't spread. For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles.

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