Gang violence in the Harbor area soared to an all-time high during 1991 with more than 700 felony crimes and 21 killings blamed on turf wars that raged through the communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway, Los Angeles police said this week.
The surge in violence left the LAPD's Harbor Division ranking third among the city's 18 divisions in gang crime for the year, police said. By comparison, the division last year ranked sixth citywide.
"I've been here 12 years and it's never been as bad. All across the board--drive-bys, homicides, assaults," said Harbor Division gang Detective Kim Wierman.
Though final 1991 statistics were still being compiled, Wierman said preliminary reports show that about 720 gang-related felonies occurred in the Harbor Division last year. That eclipsed the 591 felony crimes during 1990, which Wierman said was previously the most violent year ever for Harbor area gangs.
Similarly, Wierman said, the Harbor Division's 21 gang-related homicides last year far surpassed the previous year's total of 14. And though no precise figure was immediately available on drive-by shootings in 1990, Wierman estimated that the 186 drive-by shootings in 1991 represented a 20% increase.
Overall, the statistics pointed to a year in the Harbor area that ended as violently as it began for street gangs. During the first four months of the year, gang-related felonies were running 46% higher than in the same period in 1990, and that trend, blamed largely on both new gangs and younger, bolder gang members, held throughout the year.
The early year increase in gang crime led the LAPD in May to send more than 50 additional officers to the Harbor Division. Their presence, coupled with work by gang counselors from several agencies, led to a decline in crime during May, June and July, police statistics show.
But that decrease proved short-lived. The emergency deployment of officers ended in August, several anti-gang programs saw their funds cut and new gang members, particularly in San Pedro, shattered the several months of relative calm on Harbor area streets.
"It's the worst I've seen since I have been here," said James Davis, longtime program director for Toberman Settlement House in San Pedro, a nonprofit center that works with teen-agers and offers gang counseling. "The drug use is a lot worse. The violence is a lot worse. Gangs are getting younger and more vicious. It was just a bad year."
Police, gang specialists and community activists offered different theories for the increase in gang crime, but all agreed on several key reasons for the dramatic rise in violence.
For one, they noted that the traditional turf wars between gangs in rival communities have now become just as intense within the neighborhoods of San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway. And that trend, they said, is particularly evident in San Pedro, where a new gang tied to a long-established gang in Lynwood is now battling daily with an older San Pedro gang.
"Wilmington has always been pretty active . . . but right now, we have shootings almost daily between (the) two gangs in San Pedro," said Wierman.
Secondly, authorities and community activists said, many of the area's gangs have gradually grown larger. And many of the new gang members, they said, are preteens who are proving bolder and more violent than older gang members.
"The young kids don't have any fear. They haven't been around long enough to know about getting hurt. They'll just go out looking for trouble," Wierman said.
Five years ago, added Davis of the Toberman House, the youngest area gang members carrying guns were ages 16 to 18.
"Now you are looking at 11- and 12-year-olds carrying guns," he said.
"They don't have the same feelings about killing as the older ones do," added Davis.
Finally, police and others said, gang crime increased as law enforcement and anti-gang agencies found themselves unable to muster resources as before. For the LAPD, the deployment of additional officers in the Harbor area lasted only until the early year crisis seemed to ease and officers were dispatched to other problem areas in Los Angeles. At last count, only half a dozen of the additional 50 LAPD officers dispatched to Harbor Division were still assigned to the area.
"We don't have any reserve manpower anymore. We are just down to fighting this thing one day at a time," Wierman said. "We might win one or two battles, but overall it just keeps increasing."
Likewise, several anti-gang programs found themselves working with reduced funding. The Toberman House, for example, saw its funds for anti-gang efforts cut an estimated 20% and the Lomita-based Community Reclamation Project began operating several months ago with a skeleton crew as its Justice Department grants all but evaporated.
"We have the network in place. We have the cooperation between agencies to bring about change. But one of the missing links is the manpower and woman power to touch these lives," said Liz Taylor, a former Community Reclamation Project official who now directs the Wilmington Boys and Girls Club.
With no prospects for new grant funds and Los Angeles facing a budget crisis that precludes the hiring of new officers, both anti-gang officials and Harbor Division police said curtailing gang violence in 1992 will rely more than ever before on community assistance in providing recreation programs, counseling and other efforts at steering young people away from gangs.
"We really have no resources left but the community. They are going to have to trust us more . . . to come forward and be heard," Wierman said.
Added Davis: "The way I look at it, we have almost hit bottom, so we can't do anything but go up . . . (and) it's not just the agencies but the community as a whole that must unite to deal with the problems we are having."