Essay: Crime in L.A.

January 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I saw the headlines. There was the corroboration of what you’d been feeling and sensing, that your city, your much loved, huge sprawl of a city, was now the murder capital of the country. The dream factory had a nasty underside, and the world couldn’t help but take notice. Congratulations, L.A., your golden name is one of infamy. So what was the reaction here at home? A strange sense of sadness and disconnection. One the one hand, yes, your city was making headlines again, but the bad kind as if the real city was just one film noir spread of murder and mayhem.

But there was also a definite sense of disconnect because the killing spree was happening over there, down there in the southern part of this great, big suburbopolis that calls itself a city. It was in the predominantly black 77th Precinct. That’s where the gangs were back in business, killing themselves and each other at a rabid clip. The question is, how to make the rest of the city care? That’s what our new police chief, William Bratton, is trying to do: Challenge us to get angry. That was the word he used riding in on a wave of publicity from his previous New York stint as head cop there. He worked magic, it is said, going after the little stuff: The car windshield-washing squeegee men and the graffiti artists and on up the food chain of crime; planting his troops in the community, making them felt, known, a grassroots presence in a tough, urban landscape. Can he do it here? That’s the question we’re all asking.

For the first time in my memory, people are talking openly and hopefully about the cops, certainly the top-cop. He’s making the rounds — the party rounds and the precinct rounds — and we’re watching him like hawks, eager hawks, this after being chagrined and horrified at the Rodney King video that plays in our collective mind’s eye over and over — or watching the cops squirm on the stand during the O.J. trial or the stories of police corruption and criminality in the rampart division. The weird thing is, in the middle- and upper-middle class parts of this city, you feel tethered to the mess and yet blissfully away from it, too. In the ’80s, the last time there was an upsurge in crime, it did finally spill into the safer suburbs like mine — gang members getting off the freeway here, and trolling through with guns looking for quick money. That, of course, gets everyone’s attention.

But the underlying issue is one for the country, not just my city, an issue that was partly hidden by the prosperity of the 1990s: What do you do with an intractable underbelly of undereducated kids weaned in and around violence, drugs, drug money, prison stints. How tough should we be? How tender? How, to use Bratton’s word, angry? The other day, I was talking to a friend whose niece is about to move back to Israel. I said, “Wow, what a scary time and place to go back to.” She said, they read about L.A. and say the same thing about us. I winced. My city bleeds, and I am ashamed. Maybe that’s where we start.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.