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Police Step Up Park Security After Shooting

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 11 -- As police beefed up safety measures at the recently opened Virginia Avenue Park, a Pico Neighborhood activist and school board member advised parents to steer their kids clear of the scene of a gang-related shooting Friday night.

Police huddled with park staff Monday to discuss the July 7 incident, when a teen -- who is not affiliated with any gang -- was reportedly shot by gang members during a water break of a pick-up soccer game around 8:45 p.m. The teen was sent to a local hospital and is recovering, police said.

“Any time there is something that happens in the neighborhood, we are hyper-vigilant when it comes to safety,” said Scott Wasserman, a human services administrator for the City and head of the Pico neighborhood and park initiative programs.

“I would say the City is committed to making the park as safe as possible,” he said.

Despite such precautions, at least one prominent voice on gang relations in Santa Monica and the Westside is warning that the shooting may just be the beginning of gang and gun violence, which escalates each year as school lets out and the summer grows longer.

“Because of an escalation of (gang) activity… parents should consider the area (around the park) a red zone,” said School Board member Oscar de la Torre, executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, which works with at-risk youth.

“I would tell parents that they should be aware where their kids are at all times and know exactly who they’re hanging out with,” he told The Lookout Monday.

The shooting -- the first since the expanded park re-opened in December -- came in the midst of a week of gang tensions in the Pico neighborhood that included two other shootings, and a little more than a month after another teenager narrowly escaped being shot just outside the park’s borders.

The Police Department -- which announced it would mobilize an “overwhelming police presence” -- is investigating whether the crimes are related and whether gang members from outside the City are involved.

Police will also focus foot and bicycle patrols in the park itself, and add more car patrols around park boarders, Wasserman said.

Despite Friday’s shooting, the park was packed over the weekend, drawing as many as 300 people on Saturday, park officials said. Rather than discouraging people to visit, park staff said they are working overtime to ensure their safety.

“With the increased police presence, I’d say it is a safer place to visit,” said Wasserman.

Betty Macias, a senior administrative analyst with the City who oversees the park’s operations, said this is the first time in her 14 years with the City that she can recall a shooting inside park grounds.

“I don’t want the park to be depicted the wrong way,” Macias said. “We are always concerned if there are people walking around armed in the park.

“People come to the park because it is a safe place to be,” she said, noting that only a very small percentage of park visitors may be related gangs. “We serve so many in programs here,”

This is the first summer that the newly expanded 9.5-acre, $13 million park has been open. It includes a recording studio, computer lab, two “space age” playgrounds and two state-of-the-art fitness gyms, and may eventually serve as a hub of anti-gang programs, such as Big Brothers and Sisters.

Wasserman said park officials are not “at this time” considering shortening the current hours. The park stays open until 11 p.m., and many teens and young adults play basketball or soccer under streetlights.

A police substation on park grounds, which had closed forty-five minutes before Friday’s shooting at 8:45, will not be staffed longer hours, he said.

However foot patrols -- which Wasserman described “as more effective” -- will remain in effect late into the evening and early morning.

In addition, park staff will meet with police more frequently each month to discuss gang-activity, such as graffiti, and offer chaperoned rides to and from the park.

Park staff also plan to hold a meeting for concerned parents and community members in the coming days, Wasserman said.

Meanwhile de la Torre said such violence is a replay of past summers in Santa Monica’s poorest and most ethnically diverse and gang-prone neighborhood.

“Every Summer we can expect an increase in gun activity,” said de la Torre, who has called for a reform of the police department’s community neighborhood policing model with an emphasis on prevention and more information from police on gang activity.

“For every instance (of gang violence) you hear about, there are several instances that you don’t that led up to that event,” he said. “You can not expect to protect people solely with a police approach.”

Almost a year and a half after Santa Monica sponsored two conferences on gang violence, there is much that needs to be done to end youth violence, de la Torre said. But the goal is attainable, because Santa Monica has so few gang members, he added.

Police estimate that the number of gang members in Santa Monica may be as few as 50. (see story)

“But what has the follow through been?” de la Torre said, refering to the conferences.

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