In L.A., race kills

Lee Baca has been sheriff of Los Angeles County since 1998.

Conversations about race are fraught with emotion, confusion and controversy. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid or sidestep the issue.

As a Latino raised in East Los Angeles, and as the elected sheriff of Los Angeles County for the last decade, I have seen many sides of the race issue. I have lived it, in fact.

So let me be very clear about one thing: We have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos.

Some people deny it. They say that race is not a factor in L.A.'s gang crisis; the problem, they say, is not one of blacks versus Latinos and Latinos versus blacks but merely one of gang members killing other gang members (and yes, they acknowledge, sometimes the gangs are race-based).


But they’re wrong. The truth is that, in many cases, race is at the heart of the problem. Latino gang members shoot blacks not because they’re members of a rival gang but because of their skin color. Likewise, black gang members shoot Latinos because they are brown.

Just look at the facts. In February 2006, our jail system erupted into a full-scale riot involving about 2,000 black and Latino inmates at the North County Correctional Facility at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. One black inmate died and numerous others were injured. Through extensive interviews with participants, our investigation revealed that race -- not gang affiliation -- was the motivating factor.

Furthermore, we have evidence linking inmates who are known as “shot callers” directly to street shootings based entirely on race. These shot callers at Pitchess and elsewhere are affiliated with gangs, to be sure, and in many cases they may give the order to kill a particular person or a member of a particular gang. But if that person or gang cannot be found, the shot caller will often order the gunman to find someone -- anyone -- who is black or brown and shoot them instead. Gang affiliation does not matter. Only the color of the victim’s skin matters.

I would even take this a step further and suggest that some of L.A.'s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets looking for people of the other color to shoot. Our gang investigators have learned this through interviews in Compton and elsewhere throughout the county. L.A.'s gang wars have long been complicated by drugs, territory issues or money. Now, it can also be over color.

Race-based violence has even found its way into our school system, although no deaths have been reported. Some say it’s always been there, but it certainly is rearing its ugly head now more than ever. Most recently, fighting broke out in May between more than 600 black and brown students at Locke High School in South L.A.

The racial divide is being driven by the ongoing population growth and demographic changes that have buffeted L.A. for decades. The perception that one group has more opportunities and advantages than another can lead to resentment, competition and, ultimately, spontaneous eruptions of violence.

So where does this leave us? How does this information help?

I have begun a process in my headquarters in which analysts are poring over data collected from various sources throughout the county to help us understand exactly what gang crimes are underway -- and where -- in real time. I call it a Gang Emergency Operations Center.


It’s about more than just identifying problem areas and moving more police there. In fact, it is not a suppression model at all, but an intervention and prevention model aimed at ensuring that those who need social services get them. Most important, it will serve as a fusion center for sharing information. Such centers -- like the federal Joint Regional Intelligence Center, which combats terrorism -- have more than proved their worth.

But as we gather this data, the race issue must be part of the equation -- because if it isn’t, we are not analyzing the data correctly. Crimes with a racial component must be categorized and studied to help us better understand the problem. Racial issues must then be addressed through education and awareness.

The problem of interracial violence is not intractable; we’ve made progress in other settings. I have seen it on a small scale in the Sheriff’s Department’s Domestic Violence Prevention Program in our jails.

It happened like this. Inmates with a history of domestic violence -- sometimes known members of opposing gangs -- were forced to attend this program or be remanded to custody for a significant amount of state prison time. Those who agreed to participate would sit together and discuss various topics of interest. They would eat meals together and live together in housing set aside for them.


The program was designed to address issues of domestic violence. But over a period of weeks, the participants overcame barriers by being exposed to those they were supposed to hate. They began to form friendships -- friendships that, in some cases, have lasted outside the jail walls.

This may seem like an insignificant occurrence to those who are uninformed about gang life and racial tension. But it is not. People who would shoot each other as easily as kick a can were taking meals together, talking together and living together without violence.

The better we understand the crisis, the better chance we have of solving it. It is difficult to believe that something as simple as gathering information, analyzing it and then putting it into action -- whether through suppression, intervention or prevention -- will have any effect. But it will. It is a proven formula.

The unification of information, dispassionately collected and analyzed, will lead us toward a disarming of the gang culture. And through disarmament, we will make the streets safer. And that’s the whole point.