A Generation Is Being Lost By Parents Who Give Up
A few Fridays ago, I worked another curfew sweep in the Hollenbeck division on Los Angeles’ Eastside, where I have been a reserve police officer for more than five years. The curfew sweeps have been a pilot program for the Los Angeles Police Department for the past two years, and now other divisions are considering similar programs citywide.
We pick up juveniles who are loitering in the streets or attending parties past 10 p.m., take them to the station, identify and then cite them for curfew violation. A parent is asked to come to the station, where the family is counseled about the violence in their community and then cited with a future court appearance. The parental fines are steep and get more expensive with each succeeding violation.
While breaking up a party of more that 200 teenagers who were drinking and loitering at a housing project, I saw a young man, maybe 17, being ordered onto the ground by another officer. The boy appeared drunk: His coordination was lethargic, his gait was unsteady and he was not responding to verbal commands. I saw a girl yelling at the officer, distraught about how the boy was being treated. The boy’s head was shaved (not unusual), but it was obvious he had recently had major head surgery. He had a large spider-web scar and you could see other scar clusters where the staples had once held his healing scalp together. I could now hear her yelling that this boy was her brother and he had been recently been shot in the head. I then saw a hearing aid. He was not drunk; he simply could not hear or comprehend the officer’s verbal commands. I told the sister to communicate to her brother that he was to lay calmly on the ground until we had the situation under control.
How absurd, I thought to myself. Our whole reason for these sweeps is to get the youth off the streets in order to have an impact on the number of victims subject to the random and senseless shootings that plague the Hollenbeck division. Despite our efforts, night after night, young men who have already been shot or stabbed or clubbed still dress up in their baggy clothes, sunglasses resting on their foreheads, while they roll their wheelchairs to the corner, undaunted by the fact that they were spared death or the reality that they have lost the use of their lower bodies.
In 1984, I taught English at Roosevelt High School, just a few blocks from the Hollenbeck police station. I was especially concerned about the more than 50% dropout rate. I wanted to make a difference. My grandparents had a furniture store on Whittier Boulevard near Atlantic for more than 30 years and I went through school with mostly Latino classmates. I saw from an early age the difficulties plaguing this community.
At the corner of Fourth and Evergreen a few minutes later, more than 200 teens and young adults are loitering. When I pull up in my back and white, kids scatter. While the boys dress down in baggy pants and T-shirts, the girls wear cut-off jeans that are incredibly short and inappropriate, except maybe to do gardening in the privacy of your backyard. The “fashion” showed not just skin, but provocative body parts. It just seemed so out of place; really unsophisticated kids trying to be sophisticated, to dress the part.
When one mother came at 2:30 a.m. to retrieve one of these fashion princesses from the station, I confronted the mother, who was hugging her bare child to keep her warm. “How could you allow your daughter to dress like that?” I asked. But before the mother could answer, the daughter said “I dress myself.” It was apparent that the mother had abdicated power long ago.
It is now 3:30 a.m. and I have to drive a boy home to a nearby city. I call it “police taxi service.” He has no identification and the volunteers who process these juveniles have had no contact with any responsible adult. My partner and I drive the kid the 15 miles to his house. When we get there he bangs on the door until his mom is awakened. She sees me standing in full uniform; my police car parked 10 feet from the door, the amber lights flashing in the wee hours. All she can say is a lukewarm “Thank you.” Thank you? I do not want her to thank me. I want her to say, “What happened?” To ask me where I found your son and what was he doing. To be angry with her son and acknowledge her responsibility. I want to tell her that her 15-year-old son was partying in a gang-infested housing project, where young men had shattered, with rocks and bottles, the windshield of the first police car to drive by. I want to tell her that her son was laying on the ground next to a boy who had been shot in the head just months earlier and was saved only by extensive brain surgery by the miracle doctors at County-USC hospital. But in reality, I can only stare at the mom, because I am much too tired to lecture her and I am not convinced it would help anyway.
Ultimately, no matter how large a police force we have, no matter how much community-based policing we implement, until the parents take control of their children, we will lose a whole generation of youth.