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Surge in South L.A. bloodshed tied to gunfire from high-capacity firearms, gang feuds

LAPD officials blame a surge in gun violence on  gangs and disruptions from the pandemic
LAPD officials blamed a surge in gun violence on gangs and disruptions from the pandemic.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

In recent months, bloodshed in South Los Angeles has increasingly been caused by bursts of gunfire from high-capacity firearms aimed at outdoor gatherings, leaving dozens of shell casings on the ground and multiple victims dead or wounded at once.

The violence has not come as part of a single rivalry, but in “spurts of retaliation” among more than 40 gangs that police believe are actively involved in the carnage — often after one sect disrespects another online and the latter sends gunmen out to exact revenge before police or intervention workers can get a handle on what’s happening, said LAPD Deputy Chief Regina Scott, commander of the department’s south bureau, during a Police Commission meeting on Tuesday.

Los Angeles has seen a surge in homicides this year, to levels not seen in more than a decade, and some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are being hardest hit. More than 40 people were wounded or killed in the last week alone.

Central L.A. has seen a surge in shootings at growing homeless encampments, said Deputy Chief Vito Palazzolo, who commands the department’s central bureau.

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He argued Tuesday that part of the cause was an influx of repeat offenders and older gang members who were released from prison or jail early due to pandemic rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in those institutions.

Within the encampments and on their periphery, drug disputes are being resolved with bullets by people less afraid to carry firearms than before, Palazzolo said. The percentage of homeless homicide victims has shot up as a result.

Detention facilities have seen dramatic spread of coronavirus. In the California prison system alone, more than 26,000 inmates — just over one in every four prisoners — have tested positive, and 95 have died. Critics have slammed prison officials for not slowing the infection rates.

The LAPD has not provided data analysis connecting the early release to the rise in violence. But Palazzolo said that the “information is getting out to the street that if you carry a firearm and you get arrested, you aren’t going to stay in jail.”

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Citywide, homicides are up 30% from last year and shootings are up 34%, and a huge portion of the violence is playing out in South L.A. and Central L.A., said LAPD Chief Michel Moore — with more than half of the latest violence occurring in the Southeast and 77th Street areas of South L.A.

Moore said many of the shootings are linked to gangs, with many involving multiple victims.

“These are not just low-level disputes or fights or disagreements,” Moore said. “They are amplifying quickly into multiple shootings, multiple victims.”

The discussion came at the request of the Police Commission, whose members in recent weeks have lamented the increase in violence — which mirrors surges in other cities across the country — and asked for better explanations from police.

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While gangs were repeatedly cited, the LAPD officials also emphasized their frustration with changes to the criminal justice system amid the pandemic and cuts to overtime spending and other budget restrictions imposed this year as the result of major anti-police protests this summer and city revenue streams being devastated by the pandemic and its associated shutdowns.

Moore said he was extremely concerned about the potential for more than 350 layoffs as the city seeks to close a projected $650-million budget shortfall this year, and the impact that will have on the department’s ability to prevent violent crime.

Scott also said restrictions on overtime and a reconfiguration of the department’s Metropolitan Division had limited her ability to conduct “high-visibility crime suppression” in areas experiencing crime spikes.

The LAPD commanders said residents want more to be done about the violence — a point echoed by two community advocates.

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Lawanda Hawkins, whose 19-year-old son Reginald was killed in San Pedro in 1995 and who works with the families of other gun violence victims as founder of Justice for Murdered Children, said communities beset by violence are concerned about talk of less policing.

“Murder is at its highest in a decade in minority communities and we hear cuts?” she asked. “How can that be?”

Bobby Lopez, founder and CEO of Passion LA, said community members are busy worrying about COVID-19 and how to put food on their tables, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the violence to stop.

Lopez said public safety does need to be reimagined in L.A., but “if you’re going to stop something, you’ve got to start something” in its place, and not enough is happening to empower community groups to fill in the gaps as funding for police is pulled back.

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Members of the commission denounced the violence, and expressed some frustration that more people aren’t calling for an end to it.

Newly appointed Commissioner William Briggs, attending his first commission meeting, repeatedly asked, “Where is the outrage?” — seemingly directing the question toward activists who regularly condemn police and have called for the department’s defunding.

“Why aren’t they as outraged by the harm that is taking place in our own communities?” Briggs said.

Commissioner Lou Calanche said she was equally concerned, but pushed back on the idea that residents should be expected to lead the charge for change given all the struggles of 2020.

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“To ask for them to be outraged? They’re just surviving and hoping that their kids won’t be victims and their kids can graduate and go on to college,” she said.

Calanche also stressed that policing should not be seen as the entire solution. “I really believe that investing in these communities is a public safety strategy,” she said. “It just can’t be law enforcement responding to these issues.”

In addition to police commanders, the commission heard from Anne Tremblay, who directs the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office and said intervention workers and other community workers have continued their efforts, with grant funding from her office, to interrupt cycles of violence and reduce shootings — work that LAPD officials and commissioners lauded.

Commission President Eileen Decker said “everyone should be outraged with the rising crime numbers,” and that all of the officials involved in the discussion realized that putting an end to the violence would take a group effort — involving more than just the police.

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She said she looked forward to the conversation continuing in coming weeks and months.


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