The Legacy of a Slaying : Westwood Gang Shooting Alters Public Attitudes, Police Tactics

Times Staff Writer

Attorney Paul Takakjian remembers the outrage he felt at the news.

Karen Toshima, a young Long Beach woman with a promising career as a graphic artist, was shot in the head as she strolled in Westwood, the innocent victim of a bullet fired in a gang fight.

Today, Takakjian begins the defense in court of the man accused of firing the fatal shot.

And the repercussions of that shot continue to reverberate throughout the city.

Toshima’s shooting 19 months ago carried an ominous message--that the gang violence that had plagued poor, minority neighborhoods in South and East Los Angeles for years had escaped its imaginary boundaries.


Seen as Watershed

Suddenly Los Angeles--and the nation--awakened to the fact that the gang problem was no longer just a neighborhood concern.

The killing “was one of those watershed-type moments,” said Joseph Duff, president of the Los Angeles NAACP. People “became aware of the fact that these problems are non-containable.”

Police changed their tactics and redoubled their efforts to combat gang violence citywide, and stories of gang killings began to dominate the nightly news.

Karen Toshima came to represent “everywoman,” and her death made all of Los Angeles feel more vulnerable.

Toshima was killed on a Saturday night as she walked along a Westwood street crowded with visitors. Rival gang factions had spotted each other on Broxton Avenue and hurled insults before one of them fired across the street, hitting Toshima in the head.

After a night on life-support systems, she died Jan. 31, 1988, at the UCLA Medical Center.

Immediately after the shooting, police rounded up scores of bystanders, including several members of the two gang factions involved in the deadly feud. They were questioned and released.

One week later, Durrell Dewitt Collins, 23, an alleged member of a Crips faction, was arrested at his Southwest Los Angeles home and charged with Toshima’s murder and the attempted murder of a rival gang member who was the alleged target of the bullet.

At his preliminary hearing, three eyewitnesses testified they saw Collins fire the shot that killed Toshima. But Takakjian, ordered by the court last March to represent Collins after a succession of attorneys withdrew for varying reasons, says his defense will hinge on “an identity question"--whether it was actually Collins or another gang member who fired the fatal shot.

What is not in question is that gang violence cost the young woman her life.

In the wake of Toshima’s death, Los Angeles police tripled patrols in the upscale Westwood Village area and devoted 30 officers to the murder investigation.

That show of police strength spawned criticism by black and Latino community leaders, who complained that gang shootings in South and East Los Angeles had generated no such dramatic police response.

That, in turn, led to a surge in police activity, especially in South Los Angeles, and a change in police tactics that included the introduction of Operation Hammer--massive police sweeps aimed at interrogating and arresting suspected gang members. The twin aim was to make life miserable for the gang members and make police visible to area residents.

Operation Hammer was a “spontaneous” reaction to Toshima’s death, an “outgrowth of a lot of frustration and an outrageous level of violence . . . which all seemed to crystallize in the city when Karen was killed,” said Deputy Chief Bill Rathburn, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau.

“It’s ironic,” said Takakjian, a former deputy district attorney who spent three years as a member of the D.A.'s hard-core gang unit before he went into private practice in 1987.

“Several years before, in ’85 or ’86, . . . I wrote a memorandum saying there was beginning to be an influx of gang members in the Westwood area, and it was something we should concentrate on because it was just a question of time before something exploded and someone was hurt.

“That’s just what happened. You had rival gangs, somebody took a shot, hit an innocent bystander. . . . Tragically, it took something like this to really get people off the dime.”

To pay for special patrols like Operation Hammer, Los Angeles city and county officials allocated nearly $6 million in emergency law enforcement assistance funds in the months after Toshima’s death.

Fewer than two weeks after the slaying, the Los Angeles City Council approved hiring 150 more police officers. Several months later, the council voted to fund an additional 514 officers, which will bring the department to record strength--more than 8,000 police officers--by next June.

Deployment of Officers

Toshima’s death also rekindled the debate over deployment of officers, and the month after the slaying, changes were made in the deployment formula to put more officers on patrol throughout the city.

But the legacy of the Toshima murder may rest less in the outcome of Collins’ trial and more in the vigor and direction of the attack on gang violence in this city.

“I really think her unfortunate murder has proven to be significant in the history of gang problems and our efforts to deal with it in the city of Los Angeles,” Rathburn said.

“Before that, we in the Police Department knew that the gang problem had gotten out of hand . . . and we were frustrated with our inability to deal with it effectively. But the politicians had escaped any responsibility for it.

“The Karen Toshima homicide put the gang problem very high on the public agenda. It has remained high since then, and it needs to or the people with the ability to provide resources to fight the problem don’t see any responsibility.”

Rathburn said the additional officers have allowed the department to supplement its traditional “suppression” approach--"putting cops out and arresting people"--with a stronger investigative effort that will target the most active and dangerous gang members.

In a way, Toshima’s death was the death of innocence for many in Los Angeles.

Before her death, gang crime was something most of middle-class Los Angeles “couldn’t in any tangible way make a connection with,” Takakjian said.

The Westwood killing “was a shock to the community,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandra G. Harris, the prosecutor in Collins’ case. “I don’t think the public was aware that the gangs are as mobile as they are, that something like this could occur in what was considered a relatively crime-free area.”

Westwood Village, with its movie theaters and fashionable shops, has long been a magnet for crowds, from tourists to teen-agers, but business dropped in the weeks after the shooting.

‘Frightened Some People’

“It frightened some people for a short period,” said Scott Regberg of the Westwood Village Merchants Assn. “The village . . . was quieter.”

But Regberg said within a month the police patrols ceased and Westwood was as busy as ever. “Now it’s just viewed as an incident in the past, a one-time thing that was tragic, but didn’t really mean anything was different about Westwood.”

Ironically, the increased police presence in Westwood after the shooting made the area appear inhospitable to many black visitors because of reports that police were harassing young black men, according to the NAACP’s Duff.

"(Black) people were afraid to go afterward,” he said. “They were calling us, saying, ‘Should my child go? Is something gonna happen to them from the police?’ ”

Duff said residents of South Los Angeles have appreciated the increased police presence in their neighborhoods, but more needs to be done.

“I don’t think the payoff has been received yet,” he said. “The payoff is in the resources the city puts in as a whole to solving the problem. There has not been a real good response with respect to other aspects of the problem, such as (funding for) social services.”

Operation Hammer “has gone over very well in the community . . . but people regard that as a kind of quick fix,” Duff said. “There was a quick turnaround, people being arrested and released. They weren’t really getting them off the street, and some people were caught up in the Hammer because they just happened to be in the neighborhood.”

And while the increased police attention to gangs has been the “plus” in the wake of Toshima’s killing, the increased media attention has been the “minus,” he said.

“It’s a minus in terms of the morale of the community,” Duff said. Because television and newspapers are reporting gang violence more thoroughly, “people have a tendency to believe that these things happen every minute . . . that you can’t help but become a victim.

‘Exaggerated the Danger’

“I think we’ve exaggerated the danger to the point where people can become paralyzed (with fear).”

The intense media coverage of Toshima’s death and its aftermath will be the focus of a hearing in court today when Takakjian will ask to have the case moved to a different county, contending the publicity here might deny Collins a fair trial.

“There is still a very heightened awareness of the homicide,” he said. Last month “on an NBC broadcast with Tom Brokaw on gangs and drugs . . . he specifically mentioned Karen Toshima’s homicide.”

The uproar over and continuing focus on Toshima’s death is ironic in that she is not really much different from most victims of gang shootings, both the prosecutor and defense attorney say.

“At least 50% of (the gang unit’s) victims are innocent,” Harris said. “Yes, her death is a tragedy, but she isn’t any different from the other innocent victims we have.”