L.A. reels from alarming spike in killings, shootings amid fears of a violent summer
A bloody Fourth of July weekend that left a dozen people dead across Los Angeles accelerated an already troubling increase in homicides and shootings in 2021, with some of the city’s poorest communities suffering the heaviest toll.
Homicides are up 25% so far this year across Los Angeles, although the brunt of the increase has been felt in South Los Angeles, where killings have jumped 50% over the same time last year.
Shootings citywide, meanwhile, have spiked by half this year. Police and community activists are bracing for tough months ahead as the summer traditionally brings with it a rise in bloodshed.
Like with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise in violence has not been spread evenly in Los Angeles. Watts, Westmont, downtown Los Angeles, Westlake and other largely poor neighborhoods have endured much of the upheaval, though there have been some exceptions. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire division had recorded no homicides this time last year. It now has at least 10.
“Black and Latino communities are suffering,” said Najee Ali, a community activist.
The worrisome trend is playing out in cities other than Los Angeles. After experiencing decades of historic declines in homicides, many big cities nationwide saw that crucial bellwether sharply reverse course in 2020 and have been helpless to stop the surge in killings in 2021. Last weekend, at least 189 people were killed in violent incidents across the U.S., according to gun violence archives that gather data from police and media reports.
Los Angeles police officials say guns are fueling the rise here.
The percentage of homicides that involved a firearm has climbed from 66% in 2019, to 70% last year and currently is running at about 75%, said Los Angeles Police Capt. Paul Vernon, who is soon to retire from his job tracking crime trends as head of the LAPD’s CompStat program.
“There are too many guns in too many hands,” said Capt. Stacy Spell, the department’s main spokesman who once oversaw its South Bureau Homicide Division.
Officers are finding guns at significantly higher rates as well. As of last month, the department had seized 661 ghost guns — unregistered weapons that cannot be traced to an owner — compared to 813 in all of 2020. “At that rate, we could collect 1,500 ghost guns in a year,” Spell said.
Spell echoed recent comments by LAPD Chief Michel Moore, who has argued the increased violence is inextricably linked to the pandemic. The lockdown restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the virus, Spell said, further eroded already fraying social safety nets and devastated families’ finances. Gang intervention workers, for example, were unable to break cycles of retaliation by visiting shooting victims or calming mourning family members in hospital emergency rooms.
The July 4 weekend saw a spike in violence, with a dozen people killed in L.A. and several in surrounding communities.
While gangs have undoubtedly played a role in the killings, police point as well to what they say is a newfound willingness to settle disputes with a gun that goes beyond any gang affiliation.
Police say it’s impossible to know where the numbers are going. If the current pace of killings continues, L.A. would end the year with about 433 homicides — a sharp increase over the 254 killings recorded in 2019. Vernon cautioned, however, that 2020 — with 349 killings — was a very unusual year for homicides with a small increase in killings in the first half of the year, followed by a dramatic rise in the second. The volatility makes it difficult to project what might happen in the remaining months of 2021, he said.
And while the ongoing rise is troubling, Spell noted the current numbers still pale in comparison to the early 1990s, when more than 1,000 killings in a year were common.
Police also took some solace and hope in the fact that the spike in homicides has not been matched by a rise in other types of crime. Overall, violent crime is down slightly from 2020 and property crime is up only by a small amount. Violent crime arrests are down by nearly 10% compared to 2019 levels for the same period, while homicide arrests are up for that time by 60%.
So far in 2021 the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which includes Watts, has seen the city’s largest increase in homicides —24 — compared with 10 during the same period last year.
Violence over the last week cut short lives across the city.
Ty Bray, 18, a 2021 Venice High School graduate, was driving home with a friend in his restored 1979 Cadillac when shots rang out about 2:30 a.m Monday. Surveillance footage shows the Cadillac being chased by another car for several blocks. Police said the pursuer repeatedly fired into the car before Bray flipped it into the yard of a home on Rose Avenue. A passenger was taken to the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, and Bray was pronounced dead at the scene
Bray’s mother, Kena Evans, heard the gunshots outside her Venice apartment and, fearing the worst, called her son. “The [passenger] was the one who answered the phone,” Evans said. “She didn’t know where she was.”
Fatima Johnson, a mother of six, was studying to be a licensed vocational nurse at Westchester College of Nursing and Allied Health in Los Angeles.
On Friday, Shalonda Madison was trying to get through to her sister on the phone. The two were supposed to be ironing out details for a memorial celebration for their mother, who had died of COVID-19.
But calls to Fatima Johnson kept going to voicemail.
The following day, Madison’s nieces contacted her asking whether she’d heard from their mother. They too were having trouble getting in touch with Johnson. They hadn’t heard from her in several days, and she hadn’t been to work or responded to their text messages. She was a no-show at her mother’s celebration of life that morning.
By Saturday night, Johnson’s family was frantic. They went to her home in the 7600 block of South Western Avenue in South Los Angeles and made a gruesome discovery.
“She was wrapped in a sheet, tied up,” Madison said. “Duct tape over her mouth, and she had wire around her hands. She was bound and hog-tied.”
The coroner’s office has not yet determined the cause of death, but one of her daughters, Tyesa Harvey, said Johnson had been strangled.
“What happened to my mother is something that no child should ever see of their parent,” Harvey said Tuesday.
Johnson was a little more than a week away from celebrating her 54th birthday. The mother of six was studying to be a licensed vocational nurse at Westchester College of Nursing and Allied Health in Los Angeles. She was halfway through her program.
A natural caregiver, Johnson worked at a retirement home in South L.A. while juggling classes, her niece Mia Daniels said.
“I told her, ‘Aunty, you can’t work that much,’” Daniels said. "[But she said], ‘I like taking care of people. [It’s] not even work for me.’”
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