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Despite Spotlight, Gang Violence Down

By Joyce Tse
Special to The Lookout

April 7 -- Gang violence has become a hot topic in Santa Monica, with the City and State Sen. Sheila Kuehl holding a second workshop this weekend in the wake of the fatal shooting of two young residents a month ago.

But while the workshop will likely focus on the kind of violence that claimed the lives of Hector Bonilla and Jonathan Hernandez late on the night of March 5, police reports, news articles and interviews with residents indicate that gang-related crimes have dropped since 2000.

The Santa Monica Police Department could not provide an official breakdown of recent gang-related crime rates -- as it did in 1999 for previous years -- because the department stopped counting, police officials said.

"What happened is that the numbers are so low now that they're not measurable, so we don't track that (anymore)," said Lt. Frank Fabrega, the department's spokesman. "However, the city's crime rate is at an all-time low," he added.

Residents from the Pico Neighborhood -- where much of Santa Monica's gang activity has been concentrated -- believe gang violence has declined.

"It feels like gang violence is down," said Yomi Perry, a Pico resident. "I used to be scared to just go out my door five years ago. The area was just so scary."

"It's not bad," said Marilyn Daugherty, another Pico Neighborhood resident. There are gang members "sometimes writing graffiti, but you can walk anywhere.

"Things can happen anywhere, but here (in Pico), it's not like you're scared to go out," Daugherty said. "You know your neighbors and others. The cops are good, and they are patrolling all the time."

The decline in gang violence comes after high-profile shootings drew attention to the problem in the late 1990s, capping a decade of violence that had led to 22 deaths on Pico Neighborhood streets between 1989 and 1998, many of them gang-related.

In 1998, warfare between Santa Monica and Culver City gangs resulted in five homicides in the span of two weeks, including the killing of two brothers in broad daylight in a shop on Lincoln Boulevard.

Another gang-related slaying took place in the Pico Neighborhood in December 2000 during a shooting spree that spanned the holidays.

But between December 31, 2000 and the fatal shooting of Bonilla and Hernandez at a private party in Sunset Park last month, two of the city's 11 homicides were gang related, and only one of those took place in the Pico Neighborhood.

The first took place in a beach parking lot near the pier in February 2002 and involved suspects belonging to a gang outside Santa Monica. The second killing took place in a Pico Neighborhood alley, where local resident Jalonnie D. Carter was gunned down in September 2003. No suspect has been arrested.

While fatal incidents involving gangs have waned, gang warfare continues to plague a small pocket of the Pico Neighborhood, occasionally garnering local headlines.

In the spring of 2003, a series of shooting incidents in the Pico Neighborhood -- none of which led to injuries -- prompted frustrated residents to take to the streets in a cry for peace.

And in October 2004, a gunman fired 14 rounds at a bicyclist near the playground at Edison Elementary, spurring another community call for action that resulted in a unanimous City Council vote to move forward with an extensive plan to curb youth violence in the area.

The staff-drawn plan calls on the City, School District, non-profit groups, social service agencies, churches, neighborhood groups, police and even the Federal and State governments to enter into "partnerships" to end the cycle of violence that is often linked to gang activity.

The community has already been coming together to tackle the problem, some residents said.

"I think gang violence has gotten a lot better because of parents, the community, the City, police, Parks and Rec, and the college," said Perry. "Everybody's working together to keep these kids busy and to give them another outlook."

While gang violence appears to be down, a few attention-grabbing incidents have refocused attention on a problem that doesn't seem to go away, some City officials said.

"If you ask me, I think gangs have been more active lately," said Council member Herb Katz. "But it could be a few people being active, or sixty people being more active.

"Everything runs in cycles," added Katz. "For instance, graffiti runs in cycles. I mean, we may not get graffiti for weeks or months, and suddenly we'll get more."

Regardless of why gang violence has gone down in Santa Monica, there is always room for improvement, Katz said.

"Since we seem to have problems in the Pico Neighborhood, that's just one neighborhood, you have to get to know the people there, get out of the car and not just patrol," said Katz, describing ways the local police can become more effective at curbing violence and crime.

Judy La Patka, a Santa Monica resident who volunteers at the Police Activities League (PAL), where youths ages six to 17 can hang out and participate in activities and classes, cautions against focusing on one trouble spot or neighborhood, as happened during the first gang workshop in late February.

"It's not fair to paint a broad brush over a street, section or group of people," La Patka said. "They talk about the Pico Neighborhood as if you should put bars up around (it).

"If people want to know about the City, they should come and see it," La Patka said. "Get to know people. They have names, stories, families.

"I have no idea if gang violence is up or down," she added. "It doesn't matter. We mourn them," she said, referring to the victims of violence.

Saturday's Community Workshop on Gang Violence hosted by State Senator Sheila Kuehl and the City of Santa Monica will take place from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at John Adams Middle School, 2425 16th Street, in Santa Monica.

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