L.A. Aims to Rebuild Sense of Community
Civic leaders focus on breaking down barriers, teaching political skills, and helping to deter future rioting in the city
TWO issues charge the air in this tense city: widespread concern for personal safety and how a responsive, civic environment can be forged in a city that increasingly acts and sounds like a war zone.
"Post-riot L.A. is a place now where a lot of 15-year-olds don't think they are going to live to 16," says a staff member of an antigang organization in the city. There were 800 gang-related homicides in the city last year.
Los Angeles is also a county where several members of the board of supervisors use heavily armored cars, some driven by armed drivers.
"We didn't get to this point overnight and we're not going to move away from this overnight," says Los Angeles police Lt. John Duncan about safety in the city. "But once the city gets past these trials" - referring to the civil trial of police officers in the Rodney King incident and the trial of trucker Reginald Denny's assailants - "then maybe we can get on with what we need to do." No time to lose
What needs to be done in Los Angeles cannot wait, according to many of the 21 candidates in the mayoral race. Mayor Tom Bradley is retiring after 20 years in office. The city's long-range problems are the same as in the rest of California: how to revive a sagging economy, create more jobs, and unravel the knot of social problems that leads to crime and fear.
"What is wrong with L.A.," says mayoral candidate Richard Riordan, "is that we are atomized. We don't know our neighbors, and we need to help each other make our communities safe and clean."
Another candidate, Julian Nava, proposes an urban civil corps of 8,000 to patrol streets in armed pairs as a supplement to the police. "The patrol would give residents the feeling of security [and meet] our immediate needs [as well as] long-range image restoration," Mr. Nava says.
Rebuild L.A., the organization started just after the riots last April and chaired by Peter Ueberroth, has identified 11 "neglected areas" in Los Angeles County with a poverty level of 20 percent or more of the population.
Within some of these areas Mayor Bradley started a Neighbor to Neighbor program this January to empower neighborhoods to act together for change. "We want to leave a foundation in a community," says Marcello Howell, a special counselor to the mayor and director of the Neighbor to Neighbor program, "so that people know how to organize with real clout to get things done. If the neighbors want to get rid of the guy selling dope on the corner, or solve a housing problem, they'll mobilize to do it."
The program has hired and trained 23 organizers who, in turn, train hundreds of community people and volunteers in leadership and mediation. Some of the volunteers have gone door-to-door conducting surveys to determine the high-priority neighborhood issues. Another part of the program is the involvement of 700 at-risk students from 14 high schools in after-school activities, including training in leadership and mediation. Funding for the program comes from state and federal sources, and includes summer e mployment for teenagers.
"We also hold neighborhood forums," Mr. Howell says, "to break down cultural barriers and get people talking to each other."
On April 4, local television station KABC will televise a three-hour community town-hall gathering put together by the Neighbor to Neighbor program. Twenty billboards sponsored by the program have been placed throughout the city to promote racial harmony. The billboards depict huge hands of all colors clasped in harmony.
The Neighbor to Neighbor program may serve another purpose: to help deter future rioting, no matter what verdicts are handed down in the trial of the L.A. police officers and Mr. Denny's alleged attackers.
"We want people to know how they can mobilize peacefully, how they can voice their displeasure in a pro-active way," Howell says.
As a result of the riots, the Los Angeles Police Department has initiated community advisory councils that meet with area commanders to discuss and solve community problems. "We've also initiated unusual-occurrence training for the police, using new techniques in specifically dealing with large crowds during civil disorders," says Lieutenant Duncan. "Before, we had only a general plan to fit all occurrences, including earthquakes and floods." Few foot patrols
Lack of resources and the size of the city have prevented police Chief Willie Williams from putting a large number of officers on foot patrols. "Community policing has been a little hamstrung, " Duncan says. "We have around 7,700 policemen, and about 425 square miles to cover. Our first priority is responding to calls for service. People want the police to respond, and every time we assign police to the special units or the streets, that's one less person answering radio calls."
Violence in Los Angeles schools, the nation's second-largest school system, has been occurring more and more often. Two recent fatal shootings of students at Fairfax and Reseda High Schools led to a $1.7 million expenditure for hand-held metal detectors to be used at all schools.
Previously the Los Angeles Board of Education had resisted metal detectors on school grounds because of concerns about creating a police-state environment. Educators also doubted that detectors would stop the flow of guns. In January the board adopted a policy of automatic expulsion for any student coming to school with a gun. Many parents want more security guards or undercover agents at schools to protect their children.
Violence has become so commonplace on school grounds that each school in the Los Angeles Unified School District has its own "crisis team." At each school, teachers, nurses, psychologists, counselors, and administrators are ready to provide help at a moment's notice. Another 30-to-40 school psychologists are ready to go to anywhere there is an emotional crisis.
State Attorney General Dan Lungren has recently proposed that every school in the state create an anticrime plan, and all prospective teachers must take a course in school safety. He said schools should be "islands of safety" with "gun-free" zones surrounding school campuses. Antigun curriculum
Last month, following a visit by former White House press secretary Jim Brady, the Los Angeles school system adopted an antigun curriculum to be taught in 20 elementary schools. Developed by the Center for the Prevention of Handgun Violence, the program helps children learn the difference between TV violence and the real thing, how to be safe in the presence of a gun, and how to resist pressure to play with or carry a gun.
Severe education-budget cutbacks have limited school programs in Los Angeles for the last decade. "What is happening in L.A. schools," says Mike Davis, a writer on Los Angeles issues and a teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, "is that the opportunities and resources are being reduced.
"We are disinvesting in our schools. We spend over $20,000 a year to incarcerate someone, and only $4,000 a year on a kid in school. The opportunities that I had as a kid have virtually disappeared in L.A."