Danger Is Only Part of the Story

Even here in a region where mayhem is sadly familiar, certain crimes retain the power to shock. The rape of a 12-year-old girl in a North Hollywood park restroom, for instance. Or the baffling murder of an Arleta man, executed on an MTA bus because he said the wrong thing to the wrong person.

Los Angeles Police and parents scoured San Fernando Valley neighborhoods last week after the girl was raped in a restroom at Valley Plaza Park. Days later, another girl was accosted as she walked her bike along Oxnard Street. Police suspect the same man was responsible for both crimes--violations that tear at the heart of a community.

At a meeting for parents last week, Capt. Richard Wahler warned: “Don’t let your children, especially your daughters, out of your sight.” Good advice. Sad, however, that it has come to this, that children cannot play freely in a busy park. Any responsible parent knows not to let a child wander off, but the Valley sprouted as a place where families could feel safe. Most days in most neighborhoods it still is. Kids of a certain age should be able to ride their bikes in their neighborhood, should be able to climb on the monkey bars without fear.

But the monsters who live among us make that ever more difficult when they strike and disappear--as they also did when one of them fired three bullets into the back of Paul Johnson’s head. The Arleta man, known as a gentle fellow, was riding the bus to see his mother when another passenger walked behind Johnson, opened fire, then icily walked off the bus and disappeared into a crowd in Hollywood. Johnson, who had a pet peeve about people staring at him, apparently thought the man was looking at him. The pair exchanged words and a few hostile glances, but nothing that presaged the killing. Johnson left a wife and four children.

The numbers tell us crime is dropping. But safety is as much perception as it is reality. Crimes like these shatter that perception, but we must not allow them to turn us into prisoners in our own neighborhoods. The reality remains that the Valley is a safer place than it has been in years.