Northeast Los Angeles residents concerned about losing their streets to gangs quietly filed into a Glassell Park middle school Saturday where frightened students were locked in for hours after a widely publicized midday shooting last month.
As kids kicked a soccer ball on a playing field outside, city officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and City Council President Eric Garcetti, sought to reassure residents assembled in the school’s auditorium that they will continue to put pressure on multi-generational gangs that for years have terrorized the compact community.
“It took 60 years to get in this mess we’re in,” Bratton said. “Sixty years of gang growth in families that aren’t breaking the cycle.
“We know who these families are,” he said. “We are committed to putting them in prison.”
The chief urged patience, saying he plans to work with other agencies to incarcerate gang members in other states, including Maine and Alaska, to break up a handful of families that run powerful local gangs.
Noting that they also live in northeast Los Angeles -- Garcetti in Echo Park and Bratton in Los Feliz -- they said they could empathize with residents’ fear about a recent uptick in violence, but they added that a seven-year effort to clean up the area by building a new park and instituting Neighborhood Watch and after-school programs is paying off.
“A lot of Los Angeles saw our neighborhood and our community a couple weeks ago for the first time,” Garcetti said. “But we’ve been working here for a long time.”
Garcetti was referring to a Feb. 21 gunfight that started when gang members opened fire, killing a man near Aragon Elementary School in Cypress Park as he held the hand of his 2-year-old granddaughter.
As the gunmen drove off, several people who apparently knew the victim started firing at them. Minutes later, police pulled over a white sedan in Glassell Park.
Three men jumped out and opened fire; officers returned fire, killing one man and wounding another.
Residents said the shootout was an isolated incident and bemoaned the negative publicity it brought to their area, even as they acknowledged they are so fearful of gangs that they sometimes use code names when calling police to report gunfire on their streets.
About 100 residents went Saturday to Washington Irving Middle School, some with young children in tow, others using walkers to navigate the carpet-lined aisles in the dimly lighted hall, to hear from police and city leaders and to air their frustrations about continued violence.
“It’s time to stop talking” and find new ways to be more effective in preventing gang activity, said Laura Gutierrez, president of the Glassell Park Improvement Assn.
She conceded that Saturday’s turnout wasn’t large, particularly given that Garcetti’s staff and others had distributed hundreds of fliers in a nine-square-block area last weekend and sent notes home with students publicizing the event, but, she added, “It’s a beginning.”
Residents scribbled questions on index cards and handed them over to council deputies. “What are we doing with our schools, it’s not just the streets?” one read in Spanish.
Others asked how the assailants in the Feb. 21 shooting acquired an AK-47 assault weapon, how residents could build more trust between themselves and police, how to rid the area of graffiti and why property owners aren’t held accountable for what happens in their homes.
Saturday’s event was one of many Garcetti’s office has planned this month to teach residents how to organize.
Garcetti and Bratton told residents that they shared their frustrations about a lack of resources for gang intervention and prevention programs, obliquely referring to a recent turf battle among city leaders over who should control these programs and the millions of dollars to pay for them.
“We’re finally reaching the point where we have the resources on the suppression side,” Bratton said, referring to additional Los Angeles Police Department officers and the city attorney’s efforts to prosecute gangs.
“We’re still struggling with our intervention effort,” he said. “Today in the city, there’s a great debate over how to control and measure and manage these resources.”
City officials said they are increasing efforts to find additional money for gang prevention. Less than one penny of every dollar spent on suppression goes toward intervention now, they pointed out.
“If we do not figure out how to cut off the supply of young people who see gangs as their only choice, we will never stop this,” said Jeff Carr, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s anti-gang czar.
“We have to get those 15% of kids who are at risk of joining gangs.”