What do you trust: your eyes and ears . . . or the statistics?
Do you trust the by-now-familiar popping of guns in the night, the squeal of tires signaling the dreaded drive-by, the chunky whir of police helicopter blades obliterating the drone of the television . . . or the statistics?
When I read Wednesday that Los Angeles doesn't rank among the 15 most dangerous American cities, I reacted the way most people around here did: with incredulity. Atlanta and Miami on the list I can understand. But we're safer than Kansas City, Mo.? Safer than Birmingham, Ala.?
Just the evening before, we had driven past a crime scene-- yet another crime scene-- about half a mile from our house.
It was a liquor store on Lincoln Boulevard this time. A garland of yellow police tape heralded the mayhem. Uniformed officers stood on the sidewalk and in the street the way cops do--solidly, their feet planted far apart. One lit traffic flares. Neighbors stood quietly in a clump on the corner, watching. A car with its windows shot out was parked in an alley next to the store, facing Lincoln, steps away from the sidewalk. Powder blue sheets covered the car's missing windows.
I've watched enough TV to know a homicide scene when I see one. A man in a brown suit stood next to the shot-up car scribbling onto a note pad.
I walked into the house, turned on the computer and called up the wire service listings.
Sure enough: "A man was shot to death today as he sat in his car in the parking lot of a liquor store in the Venice area, authorities said. The victim was shot in the head. Paramedics found him in a Cadillac parked behind the liquor store and pronounced him dead at the scene."
This was a particularly public death. It occurred at 6 p.m. next to a busy thoroughfare. The assailants, reported by witnesses to have numbered three, maybe wearing masks, maybe driving a green station wagon or a beige sedan, must have known they might get stuck in traffic as they made their getaway.
The brazenness was as appalling as the crime.
But that's what it's come to in the gang war raging like a Malibu fire on our side of town.
A week ago, we stopped taking our toddler to the local park. She loves the swings and the sand. But our assumptions about what goes on in parks were molded a long time ago, in what feels like a galaxy far, far away.
The park is home to Project Heavy West, a gang counseling program not for former gang members, mind you, but for active ones. It's a good program--well-regarded, with a 15-year track record--but I don't want my child playing in the vicinity of gangbangers.
One of the program's counselors told a friend, whose preschooler son also loves the park, that two gang-related shootings have occurred there in the last couple of years.
Statistically speaking, that isn't so bad.
In January, one of Project Heavy's counselors, a 32-year-old black man named Jimmy Powell, was shot in the arm by two Latino teen-agers he had counseled. Powell was near his home in Oakwood, a neighborhood that has taken the brunt of a black-on-brown gang war that has claimed at least 13 lives since September. Some of the victims had nothing to do with gangs, the police say, but were singled out because of their race.
I want to support any effort to rid this city of gangs. And I don't want to be alarmist.
When the Project Heavy West senior case manager told me, "As neighborhoods go, this corner is pretty quiet," I had to agree.
But who wants to take a chance?
The day after the killing at the liquor store, I tried to contact the anti-gang police officers who work in the area. The officers on the case were out. But when I told the cop who answered the phone that I wanted to talk about Los Angeles failing to make the cut of the 15 most dangerous cities, I can only describe his response as a sputter.
Yes, I assured him, you can read it in The Times. We are No. 17 on the list. Our story was based on a piece in the June issue of Money magazine. Money analyzed 1993 FBI crime statistics on homicide, rape, burglary and aggravated assault. Its rankings were based on the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
The whole idea of a Midwestern city being more dangerous than Los Angeles is enough to jangle your brain. If it's any "consolation," in sheer numbers, Los Angeles--with nearly 1,100 killings last year--ranks No. 2 in the country for homicide.
So I feel vindicated.