Fighting Crime Together

Carol Ann Payne is one of the ones left behind, everyday people trying to blend in but somehow always standing apart

They are the survivors. The people left to deal with the emotional fallout from thousands of killings committed each year in Los Angeles and Orange counties.They are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents. Lovers. Friends. Teachers. Witnesses. Doctors. Nurses

They are the living legacy of a violent nation.

Recent police statistics show crime rates have fallen slightly in parts of Los Angeles County. And a number of studies show the county's rates are actually lower per capita than many other U.S. cities

But as encouraging as that may be, the fact is that there were a record 2,116 killings in the county in 1992. The Coroner's office ruled that more than 77 percent of those victims were shot to death

To many people, the news that things are starting to turn around is no solace at all

Payne was like so many others, repulsed by the horror stories that often dominate newspapers and TV news shows, yet believing the ugliness would not touch her. Her innocence ended in March, when her only son, Willie Browning Brooks III, was gunned down in Los Angeles.

He was shot as he stood outside a house, in a neighborhood where at least four gangs fight for control, according to police.

Two men ran by and fired into a group of people. All the bullets missed except one, which hit Brooks in the back.

He staggered inside, picked up the telephone and managed to dial 911 before dropping to the floor.

The funeral was held a week later at Inglewood Cemetery.

Brooks was 17 years old.

Payne has trouble sleeping and she's not comfortable taking pills, so she stays up nights, composing letters to politicians and police and anyone else who might have some impact. Many go unanswered, although she got a sympathetic reply from first lady Hillary Clinton. Payne begs them simply to put all their energy into stopping violent crime. Somehow.

She's also joined the Lynwood-based anti-gang violence and victims rights group, Drive-by Agony. The founder of that organization, Lorna Hawkins, lost two sons to drive-by shootings.

"I'm asking (leaders) to shed some light on what is going on. Our children are dying in multitudes. We're losing an entire generation," said Payne. "One gunshot, and my son's life was gone. Your life is gone. Your life is shattered. But I'm gonna go on for Willie. And for all those other people, all those other kids who are in danger. They're my babies now."


Police officers often the targets

Last year, a record 800 county residents died in gang-related killings. The grim milestone was hardly news; it followed five straight years of new highs for gang homicides.

Police officers have also increasingly found themselves the targets of violence. Two Compton police officers and a Garden Grove officer have been killed in the line of duty this year. Many more have been shot at or wounded, including a Long Beach police officer who was seriously wounded in August.

County gangs were at least 150,000 strong last year, according to a report by the District Attorney's Office, and some law enforcement officials believe the total is even higher. The state Attorney General's Office predicts the ranks will hit 200,000 or more by the turn of the century unless the trend is reversed.

The question is not whether crime rates are at a critical level. Most people concede that, even police and city officials who point to recent decreases in the number of crimes.

After announcing that the nationwide crime rate dipped by about 3 percent in 1992, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said this was not a good reason to celebrate.

"The amount of violent crime and other grave offenses nationwide remains intolerable,"' he said. "Crime is shockingly high in a country where the rule of law should prevail."

But criminal behavior, especially gang membership, has too often been a normal ritual of adolescence.

"It was all I knew," said Tony Bogard Thomas, who grew up as a Crip in Watts and said he shot "a lot" of people before becoming involved in the truce effort last year. "I never knew anyone who went to college. I would see people getting beaten or shot all the time. It was common."

Daniel Romero, an 18-year-old from Whittier who incurred temporary paralysis after being shot in the stomach and legs two years ago during a drive-by, echoes the shrugged sentiment of many young people.

"Right now," he said, "it's going to get worse."

The result: a new exodus of residents and businesses from the Southland, a generation of youths torn up by the gangs, the destruction of lives and property in a locked-down city with a dislocated sense of community. Attorney General Daniel Lungren said the rates are so high that the United States has become "the most violent society in the world."

For example, the number of homicides per 100,000 California residents was only 2.4 in 1952. That rate was 12.5 last year. Rapes went from 16.7 four decades ago to 40.7 in 1992, assaults from 60.3 to an astounding 632.5 per 100,000 residents, according to the California Department of Justice.

The biggest increases came in the early 1980s, coinciding with a huge jump in gang membership. Crime rates have stayed high or dropped slightly since then.


Overload of spinal injuries

The numbers may be starting to turn around, but who would know by the daily toll?

"It plateaued at too high a level," said Lungren, "but nonetheless we stopped this increase."

Long Beach police detective Norm Sorenson calls Los Angeles County "the gang capital of the world." Long Beach is home to an estimated 11,000 gang members, who account for about 50 slayings a year.

Sorenson has watched gang violence in Long Beach quadruple in the past five years. The impact is felt everywhere, in police departments, in hospital emergency rooms, in boardrooms, in living rooms.

At Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, doctors and nurses struggle with an overload of bullet-drilled bodies. According to a spokeswoman, about 40 percent of all patients in the hospital's spinal injury rehabilitation program were victims of violent crime.

"If you look at the epidemic of violence in the last four years, there's been a dramatic increase. What we're seeing here is a reflection of that epidemic," said Dr. Luis Montes, who heads the rehabilitation program. "It's about random violence, not necessarily gang-related violence. It's mostly random violence, innocent bystanders."

In fact, the District Attorney's Office estimates that 10-25 percent of all gang victims are innocent bystanders, hit by gang members with notoriously poor aim who frequently fire at their enemies from moving cars.


700 young people on probation here

The war on gangs is one in which police and counselors count success in each kid they reach, knowing well that scores of others will be lost to a world of bullets and blood.

There are at least 700 young people on probation in the Long Beach-Lakewood area, said Alvin Bernstein, a deputy probation officer.

The Probation Department focuses on the wannabes, the preteens on gangland's periphery, the ones who must prove themselves to be accepted.

"This particular kid presents the biggest problem to me as a probation officer and a member of the community," said Bernstein. "Because it's easy (for older gang members) to put a gun in his hand and say, 'Hey, you wanna be down? You wanna be part of us?

"That's where these kids, according to them, earn their stripes."

Although Long Beach does not rank as high in total crimes as some other cities, including Portland and Seattle - two popular exodus spots for Southern Californians - it has a much higher homicide and robbery rate.

At the Economic Development Corporation, a business-sponsored agency designed to lure new firms, officials support moves to hire more police officers and establish job and drug diversion programs. But sometimes the civic efforts and statistics can't persuade business owners to move here, said research associate Dina Defterios.

"We try to recruit businesses, and we tell them about everything we have to offer - transportation, good highways, a major port,'' she said. "But they're worried about their kids and whether the schools are safe."


Compton has dip in many crimes

The police, who generally feel they are understaffed and often outgunned, are starting to see some gains. In Compton, Police Chief Hourie Taylor said a decline in the amount of street-level drug dealing has helped fuel a drop in many crimes.

However, Taylor said crime tends to rise and fall over decades.

"We're in a down cycle," he said, adding that he sees the genesis of a community backlash. "I believe the average citizen is more concerned with crime and their personal safety, so you find they're more involved with programs to improve the conditions."

Long Beach is also seeing some improvement, said police Chief William C. Ellis.

However, he said 1990s America is still a more violent place than it used to be.

"If you see TV every night and there are shootings and killings and gang murders running rampant, that's what reality is - and statistics don't mean a lot when people don't feel safe."


More moving out than moving in

Last year, for the first time in almost two decades, the number of people moving out of the state exceeded those moving in.

The top two reasons? What else? Crime and the economy.

Long Beach residents Don and Mary Lowe once thought of this area as paradise. They married in the chapel aboard the Queen Mary and campaigned to keep the ship here last year. Now they plan to join the exodus. They've been scanning suburbs near Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and hope to be on the road in November.

Crime isn't the only reason the couple will leave their cozy Orange Avenue apartment, which opens onto a shady patio with a pondful of slowly circling orange and black koi. Don retired from the Army a few years ago and has had trouble finding a job, although he and Mary have enjoyed working as extras in movies and as part-time employees at the Long Beach Convention Center.

But they become more sure about moving with each daily newspaper.

The shooting of a school crossing guard. Cambodians and Latinos killing one another along the Anaheim Street corridor. A Naples gondolier killed by gunmen who wanted his bicycle.

The Lowes have also had their own brushes with crime

Their Camaro was stolen for a joyride, and they called police twice to report stolen cars parked for days in their Bixby Knolls neighborhood. Mary's purse was stolen, and the same day, she found a stolen .357 Magnum gun in the bushes in front of their home.

Events on April 29, 1992, also helped spur their decision to leave.

They were working on a Frank Sinatra movie at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood when the crew was told to leave as soon as possible because of rioting.

When they finally made it home by traveling a circuitous route on traffic-clogged freeways, they watched with horror a televised parade of prime-time street violence.

"I've been shot at before," said Don, a Vietnam veteran. "But this was a different situation. I was scared to death trying to get home when we didn't know what was going to happen."

"I think that night probably had a lot to do with our decision."

They will miss the weather, but little else.

"It's sad, because everyone looked up to America at one time," said Mary. "Now people don't even want to visit."


Hard to accept loss of her son

And the circle of violence continues to expand.

Payne is still struggling to accept her son's death, coping with the knowledge that she can never hug him or hear his laugh. She longs just to come home and cook his dinner.

She used to pass up invitations for a happy-hour drink with co-workers at the Southern California Gas Co. because she couldn't wait to get home.

There are times she pounds the streets herself, trying to get witnesses to come forward.

"Sometimes it seems like we're working together, like she's my partner," said sheriff's homicide detective Doral Riggs.

Payne picks up an old photograph of Willie in his Sheriff's Department-sponsored Little League baseball team. Just behind him is teammate Michael Ensley, who was shot to death by a gang rival at Reseda High School in February.

Payne looks at the young faces and wonders if she should have talked to her son about Ensley's killing.

Would it have made him more cautious? Could anything she said have kept him clear of that bullet?

When Brooks, her son from a previous marriage, said some other kids had asked what gang he was from, Payne's husband took time to sit in on his classes.

Sometimes they picked him up from school. They kept him home as much as possible, even though he would chafe at the restrictions.

During the summer, they tried to keep him too busy to get into trouble, with jobs at a supermarket and in maintenance at UCLA. But none of that could protect him forever.

As Payne recently watched President Bill Clinton unveil his plans to reform the nation's health care system, she was struck by what she saw as a central absurdity amid the politics. She sat down and composed another letter to the editor.

"Health care reform will not be necessary," she wrote, "if we all become victims of gunfire."