Don't forget L.A.'s killing fields

We're aghast at videos of apparent police brutality on YouTube, but silent on the daily war zones of South L.A.

By Constance L. Rice, CONSTANCE L. RICE, a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, chaired the Rampart Review Panel, which released its final report this year.
November 18, 2006


THERE IS A place where gunfire keeps children from playing in front yards or going to school and where 90% of them have witnessed or suffered serious violence. Armed tribes of unemployed men brutalize locals into silence and cleanse their neighborhoods of outsiders. And too few trust the police or other government enough to cooperate in investigations.

I'm not talking about Baghdad but about parts of Los Angeles. In just one of the city's high-crime zones, the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau, 100,000 people have been shot since 1976. The murder rate in that bureau was five times the national average, according to the Rampart Review Panel's 2006 report. And a single subdivision of that bureau — Southeast — racks up more homicides than six states combined. Research for a study coming out this winter found that the risk of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States is 1 in 800,000; in West L.A., the average risk of being murdered is 1 in 78,000; in South L.A., that risk is 1 in 2,000. The Army has sent its surgeons to South L.A. to learn how to repair war wounds.

South Bureau is a kill zone. Yet its catastrophic violence merits not an iota of the alarm and attention showered on recent videotapes of LAPD arrests.

Now, I'd be the last to deny that those videos raise serious use-of-force questions. In one, an officer shoots pepper spray into the face of a handcuffed, possibly deranged and ranting but apparently unthreatening suspect, and then encloses him in the squad car as the man screams and writhes in pain against the rolled-up windows. That an LAPD supervisor stood by like a tree stump while this was happening raises not just questions but hackles. I'd start with an inquiry as to what substance a district attorney was on when he concluded that this use of pepper spray was "compassionate," and why that supervisor failed to intervene.

And then there's the video that premiered to rave reviews on showing LAPD officers repeatedly punching a suspect in the face. It prompts the question of whether a reasonable officer could reasonably view the prone suspect's reactions as threats that warranted those punches.

Although our collective déjà vu is understandable, the investigations need to vet all the facts before judgment. The good news is that unlike 15 years ago when the words "LAPD use-of-force investigation" triggered laughter, today — depending on who is doing the investigating — there is a good chance that an actual inquiry and not an automatic exoneration will take place. And today there is at least a debate in some LAPD echelons about these videos; 15 years ago most of the force would have viewed these tapes and asked, "So what?"

That's progress, and so is realizing that what outsiders view as excessive force, many police view as good policing — or survival. One officer said about the videos: "Police work ain't pretty; get over it." No, we shouldn't "get over it." As LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said, we should investigate it, demand reasonable use of force by our officers and punish gratuitous cruelty.

But despite all that, the fact is that the videotapes are getting disproportionate attention. A much bigger travesty than these officers' actions is the fact that we Angelenos seem to ignore L.A.'s kill zones. Videos of two arrests should not command more public concern and media coverage than the hundreds of deaths yearly in these neighborhoods. But they do. No civilized people should accept such violence as the norm. But we do. It is past time to end that norm. And we know what it will take.

Every sector in L.A., from city and county government to the education, economic, law enforcement, civic, family and neighborhood sectors, must coordinate their efforts to reduce violence. It will take saturation strategies that don't leave children to face gangs by themselves. It will mean the end of bureaucracy and ineffective expenditures as we know them. And it will require the end of the gang culture of destruction.

Most of all, it will require guts from political leaders who care more about ending this deadly scourge than the safe posturing needed for their next run for office.

We must tell bureaucrats, school officials and civic leaders to change their missions and how they do their jobs. And we must tell parents and families to get their acts together.

But above all else, we must stop leaving the children of the kill zones to dodge bullets and to just "get over it."