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PART II: On the Front Lines

In a city that prides itself on its diversity, the Pico Neighborhood remains a world apart. In a special three-part series The Lookout explores the physical and psychological boundaries that separate Santa Monica’s poorest neighborhood and the crime that often plagues its youth.

By Blair Clarkson

December 2 -- May 9, 2003 should have been a night of peaceful celebration for 27-year-old Marizsa Bravo-Casillas. With her sister at home babysitting her four young children, she and her husband had gone out to enjoy a quiet birthday dinner alone at a favorite restaurant. It was a rare treat. But it wouldn’t last long.

While her kids watched TV and readied for bed, a storm was brewing on the streets outside her apartment on 17th Street and Michigan Avenue in the Pico neighborhood. As she waited for her entrée, Bravo-Casillas had no idea how close she would come to losing one or more of those children when the storm broke.

At around 9:30 p.m. -- before her food had even been served -- her cell phone rang. It was her sister. In a panic.

A staccato burst of gunfire had erupted on the street outside her apartment and a stray bullet had ripped through the wall of her children’s bedroom.

The bullet, which missed the head of her sleeping 8-year-old daughter Leanna by mere feet, punched a hole through the wall above the girl’s dresser, sliced through the opposite wall above her 10-year-old son’s dresser, shattered a glass shower door in the adjoining bathroom and clattered to a halt in the bathroom sink.

Leanna, who attends Edison Elementary, holds up her drawing with a bullet hole.

“The bullet went in at their dresser level,” said Bravo-Casillas, still shaken by the year-old shooting. “Had it been 15-20 minutes earlier my children would have been standing at their dressers getting their pajamas. That’s a scary thought.”

Unfortunately for many Pico residents, chilling incidents like this one have become all too common in the blocks surrounding the I-10 Freeway, where decades of housing segregation and overcrowding in low-income developments have contributed to some of the highest rates of aggravated assaults, gun violence, gang-related activity and juvenile crime in the city.

The violence was highlighted by a rash of retaliatory killings in 1998 that left four Pico youth dead, and a flare-up last May, which claimed no lives but resulted in a Police raid of the neighborhood.

“I really had no idea that’s what I was moving into,” said Bravo-Casillas, who brought her young family from Inglewood four years prior. “Ironically, I left Inglewood because it wasn’t a good neighborhood, and I left there to come here and have a bullet actually go through my house.”

Over the last ten years, the Santa Monica Police Department has made numerous efforts to combat such sporadic outbreaks of violence within the Pico neighborhood and the city as a whole, with steadily decreasing crime statistics to show for it.

Officials proudly tout a citywide violent crime rate that is down 62 percent over the last decade, and an overall crime rate hovering at its lowest level in 40 years. Figures for all major crimes (including rapes, assaults, robberies, larcenies and car thefts) have shown marked declines since 1994 both in Pico and citywide.

Yet despite these rosier city statistics, “the shootings continue” in Pico, said Bravo-Casillas, who works with at-risk youth in the Pico Youth and Family Center as a result of her family's brush with violence.

While citywide crime rates have generally fallen, over the same ten-year period Pico has remained the only neighborhood plagued by violent assaults, according to Police Chief James T. Butts.

In 1994, there were 490 aggravated assaults reported in the city -- including the pier and Promenade -- and 56 in Pico (11.4 percent). In 2003, police records show 290 aggravated assaults citywide and 25 in Pico (8.6 percent).

Eleven of the City’s 47 reported homicides over the last decade occurred in Pico, according to police records, and between 1989 and 1998, 22 youth lost their lives on Pico streets.

Excluding the heavily trafficked tourist and commercial areas of the Promenade, pier and downtown, no residential neighborhood has seen more violence in its streets than Pico.

According to Butts, while the total number of incidents has declined over the years, “Pico is more challenged by incidences of assault and violent crime than other neighborhoods.”

Frustrated residents point to the City’s history of squeezing all the low-income and assisted-living housing into the Pico neighborhood as a source of the overcrowded conditions that have spurred much of the violence.

“There are always higher concentrations of gunfire where there are higher concentrations of low-income housing,” said former Pico Neighborhood Association board member Peter Tigler. “They go hand in hand.”

Indeed, weekly police crime reports routinely show more crimes occurring in Pico neighborhood districts, where population densities are among the highest in the city, while areas north of Montana and south of Pico Boulevard -- in neighborhoods predominated by larger single-family homes -- have less crime.

“There’s a correlation between crime and poverty,” said school-board member and neighborhood activist Oscar de la Torre, who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center. Crime “is a symptom, a product of a much larger problem.”

That problem is made worse, many argue, because of the lack of attention the neighborhood receives from the rest of the city.

“It alarms me how many people in Santa Monica don’t know that this (violence) is going on,” said Bravo-Casillas, who has been disappointed by the degree of neighborhood exclusivity here. Santa Monica, she said, feels less like one city and more like a group of diverse boroughs that share nothing more than common borders.

“I don’t understand why other people don’t feel that this is a community-based problem,” she said. “It’s almost as if north of Montana or north of Wilshire (they say) ‘that’s over there, that’s the Pico neighborhood.’”

While this sense of isolation runs rampant, perhaps more alarming to residents and civic leaders is the increasing number of youth crimes and violence spilling out onto neighborhood streets.

Although overall crime rates have dropped steadily over recent years, a recent RAND study found that juvenile arrests jumped dramatically over the same period. From 1996 to 2002, youth arrests swelled from 153 to 347 citywide (a 127-percent rise).

Much of the increase was spurred by a rise in arrests for minor offenses like vandalism and truancy and a new emphasis on juvenile intervention by the SMPD, according to the study.

However, the figures also include a 260-percent bump in assaults, a 300-percent rise in weapons arrests and a 57-percent hike in drug busts.

This is particularly troubling for the Pico neighborhood, which has the highest concentrations of young people in the City, according to census data, including 32 percent of all 15-19 year olds and 36 percent of all 20-24 year olds.

“The crime profile in the City is made unique only by the levels of violent behavior primarily conducted amongst and between males in the age group of 17-29,” said Chief Butts. “Absent that profile, Pico would have a better aggregate crime profile than the rest of the City.”

Concerned residents agree.

“If you exclude the gun play and teenage violence,” Tigler said, “we mirror every other neighborhood in Santa Monica. But when you look at the amount of gunfire and teenage violence, that’s the issue” that links together Pico and crime in people’s minds.

Much of that crime, Butts noted, can be attributed to a small faction of delinquents.

“I believe that we have an indigenous group of repeat offenders,” he said, “that tend to be over-represented as suspects and victims of crimes and that are responsible for the preponderance of aggravated assaults that are committed.”

They “engage in conflicts with one another” and with others outside of Pico, he said, leading to “incidents of retaliation.”

In a word: gangs.

Part III: A look at gangs in the Pico Neighborhood

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