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L.A. mayor and police chief visit Leimert Park after flare of violence

Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, and Police Chief Charlie Beck speak with Felica Jones, director of programs for Healthy African American Families II, during their visit to Leimert Park.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Terrencé Smith smiled nervously as he plugged in his iPhone on Wednesday afternoon and hit play.

A few seconds later, the 15-year-old’s voice rang clearly through the entryway of a Leimert Park performing arts center. He hoped his audience — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck — understood the message behind his words.

“Mother, mother, answer me: Why are you crying?” Terrencé sang along with the recording, as Garcetti bobbed his head. “Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.”

“It’s Marvin Gaye,” Terrencé explained later, noting the legendary singer’s hit “What’s Going On.” “But it’s still relevant to everything that’s been happening.”

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Amid a year of rising crime across the city and days after a series of South L.A. gang shootings left one man dead and several people wounded, Garcetti and Beck took a walk through Leimert Park on Wednesday.

They handed out baseball cards to kids, popped into businesses in the village — a historic hub of African American culture in L.A. — and talked to residents about quality-of-life issues and the new officers they would see in the area.

The Police Department recently added a foot patrol to the neighborhood, meaning officers will spend most of their time out of their cars and walking around, getting to know the area where they work.

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Officers assigned to foot beats often deal with quality-of-life issues: graffiti, illegal vending, homelessness. But a key goal, LAPD officials said, is for officers to become familiar faces in the neighborhoods and gain the trust of residents and business owners.

It’s part of a larger balancing act for LAPD: sending more elite officers into areas where major crime and gang violence is surging while also trying to foster stronger relationships with the community.

Garcetti and Beck said they had long planned to walk the new Leimert Park foot patrol. But both acknowledged the importance of reaching out to South L.A. residents after the rash of gang violence last weekend — and social media rumors that it would continue — left the community on edge.

“I wanted to show that we’re here, city employees are here — we care,” the mayor said. “Thank God things have gotten a lot better very quickly. It shows our ability to do this as a city. But it’s one night at a time.”

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Fears of increased gang activity intensified across social media last weekend after the violence. One of the most alarming claims to emerge was that a gang had vowed 100 days of violence — a rumor police said they had not substantiated.

Many of the shootings occurred in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, which covers some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. Earlier Wednesday, Beck told reporters that the shootings there Saturday were tied to a decades-long rivalry between two gangs that flared after a recent dispute at a funeral.

“Disrespect or physical aggression displayed at funerals often leads to an acceleration of shootings between active street gangs, and that’s what this appears to be,” he said. “Certainly this is a story as old as gang activity in Los Angeles, and had nothing to do with Facebook.”

Still, the chief said, he understood that some residents may still be concerned. He stressed that detectives were “looking very closely” at the online speculation.

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“There are many, many urban myths, and many of them coincide with gang activity,” Beck said. “I would hope that this is one of those.”

The shootings didn’t draw much attention Wednesday in Leimert Park, where residents talked to the mayor and police chief about finding a job or services available to the homeless. Many residents said they were surprised to see the pair walking down the street.

“What are you doing in Leimert Park?” one woman asked a police officer.

“We’re just walking and getting to know people,” the officer replied.

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“Oh,” the woman replied. “That’s good.”

The woman, Rosalie Tatum, said she’s been coming to Leimert Park since the 1960s. The 79-year-old said she was surprised to see the mayor in her neighborhood.

“I just thought, ‘Here are some white people looking at what black people are doing,’” she said. “What else can you say about Leimert Park?”

Tatum and many shop owners welcomed the idea of having more police officers walk through the neighborhood. One 13-year-old said he hoped police would see the way the area has improved.

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But others were skeptical. After Garcetti and Beck got into their respective SUVs and left, Shayba Shaaja eyed the LAPD officials who lingered down the street. The 35-year-old said he also was confused when he saw so many police officers walking by.

“You live in this neighborhood and see so many police congregate, and you wonder what’s going on,” he said.

Shaaja said he wasn’t sure how he felt about having officers regularly walk the neighborhood.

“It depends on what kind of attitude they come in with,” he said. “If they’ve got the right ones walking through.”

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kate.mather@latimes.com

Twitter: @katemather

MORE ON SOUTH L.A.:

Gang feuds fueled surge in South L.A. shootings, LAPD chief says

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#100days100nights: ‘Things have calmed down’ in South L.A., LAPD says

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