With two weeks left in the year, homicides are already at a record level in the Police Department bureau that covers South Los Angeles.
The one exception to the general rise in murders in the South Bureau’s turf appears to be in Harbor Division, which covers Harbor City, Harbor Gateway, Wilmington and San Pedro.
As of Friday morning, the South Bureau had logged 412 homicides, surpassing last year’s record 403 slayings. The 1993 toll is especially striking, police say, considering that 13 of the homicides in 1992 were directly attributed to the riots.
“The level of violence is unbelievable,” said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the South Bureau homicide detail. “My detectives are hard-pressed to keep up with the pace.”
Not so, though, in Harbor Division. As of Dec. 13, Harbor Division had recorded 31 murders. If that figure doesn’t change before the end of the year, it will mark a 26% decline from the 42 homicides in Harbor Division communities last year.
Moreover, the number of gang-related murders in the harbor area plummeted, by a record 70%.
Most striking are the apparent declines in gang-related murders in San Pedro (from six in 1992 to one so far in 1993) and in Wilmington (from 10 murders to three this year). Harbor City, which had two gang killings last year, has had one so far in 1993, and Harbor Gateway’s gang murders have numbered two so far, compared with three last year.
Police attribute the dramatic decline in murders in the harbor area to work by the department’s gang control unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, and an area-wide cease-fire observed by gang members since early this year.
“Frankly it’s really difficult to say why crime doesn’t occur,” said Lt. Alan Kerstein, commanding officer of the Harbor detective division. “But I’m sure everybody deserves some credit for it. Crime goes down when officers are doing a good job and they’re visible, and when a community is cooperating with the police department.”
But the story was far different in other South Bureau divisions, where a record murder tally is occurring despite a decline in the citywide homicide rate. A complex set of economic, sociological and law enforcement factors have led to the bureau’s rise in homicides, according to police, community activists and experts.
If it were a city, the South Bureau would rank among the 10 deadliest in the nation. The 57-square-mile area includes four police divisions stretching from the Santa Monica Freeway to San Pedro and from Watts to Windsor Hills. Nearly 70% of its homicides have occurred in two South-Central precincts--the 77th Street and Southeast divisions.
“It’s like a war zone down here. People are dying almost every day,” said community activist Jaime Zeledon, who lives in the Southeast Division, where 133 homicides had been recorded as of Friday.
“Nightly, we can hear the gunshots,” said Father David Herrera of the Church of the Nativity, four of whose parishioners have been shot to death this year. They included a 15-year-old boy caught in the cross-fire of two rival gangs, and a father who confronted a man who had shot his dog. The church, at 57th Street and Vermont Avenue, is in the 77th Division, where 155 homicides were reported as of Friday.
As of Nov. 30, the latest citywide figures available, Los Angeles had logged 982 homicides--down from 1,009 during the same span last year. There were a record 1,095 murders citywide in 1992.
Experts and community leaders say that in most of the South Bureau, poverty, unemployment and lack of recreational activities have led residents to resort to desperate acts. Some of the violence also stems from racial tensions between African American gang members and Latino immigrants in housing projects, police said.
In the Southeast and 77th divisions, the neighborhoods had a median annual income level of $15,904, compared with $33,167 for Los Angeles County, the 1990 U.S. Census found.
“As the economy goes, so goes the crime rate,” said James H. Johnson, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. “I think the real issue in the South Bureau is in the area of Los Angeles that had already been economically devastated before the recent economic downturn.”
Added Helen Coleman, leader of the 71st Street-Victoria Avenue Block Club: “If you drive around here, you can see that young people have nothing to do. There’s few parks and hardly any recreational activities.”
Zeledon and others also blame the killings on a proliferation of high-powered weapons and a breakdown in societal values, saying that people are more willing to resolve disputes with deadly violence.
“It’s gotten so that people just don’t care anymore,” said South-Central resident Carlita Harris as she watched detectives search for evidence Tuesday at a double slaying at 97th and San Pedro streets.
In that incident, a man and his wife were shot to death in their apartment in what police said may have been a drug-related robbery. No arrests have been made.
“Everybody here is tired of this violence,” Harris said. “We just wish it could stop.”
Deputy Chief Mark A. Kroeker, commander of the South Bureau, vowed that 1993 would be the last year of record bloodshed in the area and that he planned to hold meetings with police and residents next month to devise crime-fighting strategies. “If nothing else, in 1994 we’re going to reduce the murders. That’s a given,” he said.
Although the South Bureau has recorded an increase in murders this year, the number of detectives assigned to the homicide detail has decreased from 73 in 1992 to 56 now because officers have not been replaced after they retired or were transferred. Detectives also say investigations are hampered by lack of resources.
For instance, the squad was loaned a computer that created composites of homicide suspects, but it was returned in June because the department could not afford to keep it permanently. The detail also had a computer analyst who charted crime trends that helped detectives piece together leads, but the position was eliminated by the department in a cost-cutting move.
“How the hell are my detectives and I supposed to operate that way?” asked Robleto, who recalled how a crime technician at a recent murder scene ran out of plaster as he was making a mold of a suspect’s footprint.
Still, Robleto said, the squad’s clearance rate--the percentage of murders for which arrests are made--has increased from 49% last year to a current 66%.
He said more police on the streets would bring short-term relief to the violence. Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Willie L. Williams are looking at ways to pay for several thousand additional officers in Los Angeles, which has one of the lowest police-to-resident ratios among major U.S. cities.
The only long-term solution, others say, is to create good-paying jobs and promote greater cooperation between the community and city government.
“There’s no quick answer,” said Coleman of the South-Central block club. “It’s going to have to be done house by house and neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Times staff writer Lisa Richardson contributed to this report.
Homicides in the South Bureau
The South Bureau has recorded an 8% increase in the number of homicides this year compared to 1992. While there were about 26% fewer murders in the Harbor Division, the number of homicides grew in the other three divisions. As of last week, 412 people were killed within the bureau’s jurisdiction.
Number of homicides per year SOUTHWEST
1993: 93 77TH STREET
1993: 155 SOUTHEAST
1993: 133 HARBOR
1993: 31 Number of homicides per year in all of the South Bureau
1993: 412 Source: Los Angeles Police Department