Gang Wars Push L.A. Murder Rate

The nation's second-largest city is experiencing a killing spree fueled by gang violence that threatens to make it the nation's homicide capital.

A five-day shooting spree that began a week ago left 14 dead and turned the spotlight on the gang wars playing out in the streets of South Los Angeles.

"I need this city angry about gangbangers shaping the perception of Los Angeles," LAPD Chief William Bratton told the Los Angeles Times.

Police officials believe that the victims or assailants in 10 of the 14 recent homicides were known gang members. Overall, authorities hold the city's estimated 150,000 gang members responsible for 25 percent to 50 percent of homicides in Los Angeles.

"Most of it is over turf, which is usually drug-related, and generational hard feelings. 'We hate this gang because we hate them,' like in Northern Ireland and the Middle East," said police Captain James Miller of the 77th Street Station.

Murder Rate Up

The recent killings bring the city's homicide tally for this year to 596. That's the most since the 10-year low in 1998 of 419, but is still below the all-time high of 1,092 homicides in 1992, which was the year that LAPD officers were acquitted for beating motorist Rodney King.

Nationally, violent crime is creeping up. According to recently released FBI crime figures for 2001, serious crimes rose 2.1 percent and murders increased 2.5 percent.

The FBI figures show significant regional differences. Crime rose 3 percent in the West while it dropped 1.9 percent in the Northeast. The murder rate in the greater Los Angeles area rose 3.4 percent from 2000 to 2001 while it dropped 3.6 percent in New York City.

Tuesday night in Los Angeles was particularly violent. Shootings of seven people in the southern part of the city left one man dead and two others critically wounded within a 35-minute period.

The night's violence began at approximately 6:45 p.m. when Ernest Williams, 17, was shot in the head. Williams, who died from his injuries, is not known to have any connection to gangs.

About 30 minutes later, a woman and two men were shot in a gang-related argument just blocks away from Williams' shooting. Minutes later, three more men were shot within the same general area. Police say that at least two of the men in the third incident were gang members.

On Wednesday, as police officials met with frustrated community leaders, protestors accused the police of not doing enough.

"The community and neighborhood is not being protected," said Dante Lamar Woods of the Community Coalition on 82nd and Vermont Streets.

Bratton Getting Angry

Police officials and community leaders responded by vowing to crack down on crime. "The community is tired and we will take it to the streets to simply stop the killings," said Ed Turley, director of the Gang Intervention Group Central Recovery and Development Project.

Bratton, the former New York City police chief who assumed the same job in Los Angeles three weeks ago, toured some of the murder scenes over the weekend. To keep up, Bratton said he asked to be notified of all murders in the city.

"I want to go to homicide scenes so that I can get angry," said Bratton.

This year, 40 percent of the city's homicides occurred in the heavily gang-infested 77th Street, Southeast and Southwest divisions of the LAPD's South Bureau. The latest eruption of shootings worries residents.

"There is a full sense of fear related to the level of gunfire taking place," said L.A. Council Member Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Woods acknowledges that community members are concerned, but says that the neighborhood is no stranger to violence. "Innocent bystanders can get caught in the crossfire but this is not a new situation to our community," said Woods.

Even before this week's shootings, Bratton identified gang violence as a significant problem for his city.

"It is quite likely this year we will become the murder capital of the United States," Bratton told LAPD leaders last month. "In the long term, gang violence in the city will destroy the city. It is in their [good neighborhoods'] interest to get into this fight."

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