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Gangland Violence Comes to Dodger Stadium

It was L.A.'s gang culture that killed trendy Westwood Village when a 27-year-old was shot in 1988. Will a recent brutal attack kill a legendary L.A. stadium too?

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

April 12, 2011 - 12:00 am

In a big city, most crime victims suffer in obscurity. In Los Angeles last year, police investigated 21,241 violent crimes, including 297 homicides, yet who outside their own circle of family and friends could name even a single one of those victims?

But sometimes a crime occurs in such a manner or in such a place that it comes to gain far wider significance than one victim’s misfortune. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her Bronx apartment. Many of her neighbors heard her screaming, yet no one came to her aid and only a few even went as far as to call the police. Her murder is still cited as being symbolic of large cities where people remain unknown to their neighbors and indifferent to their troubles.

In 1988, Karen Toshima, a 27-year-old graphic artist, was shot to death in Westwood Village, an area of shops, restaurants, and movie theaters adjacent to the UCLA campus. Toshima was walking on the sidewalk with a friend when two groups of rival gang members squared off.  One of the gangsters pulled a gun and fired two rounds, missing his intended target but hitting Toshima in the head. She died the next day.

Toshima was one of the 736 people murdered in Los Angeles that year, a time when gang violence was on the rise and no one, it seemed, knew what to do about it. It’s fair to say that her death was a catalyst to the battle against L.A.’s gangs, whose violence had until then been confined to the city’s less upscale neighborhoods.

Will Bryan Stow be the Karen Toshima of 2011?

On March 31, Stow, a 42-year-old man from Santa Cruz, Calif., went to L.A.’s Dodger Stadium to attend the opening-day game between the Dodgers and his favorite team, the San Francisco Giants. Near the end of the game, apparently after assessing the behavior of some of the people in the stands, Stow sent a text message to a relative to say he feared for his safety. A paramedic by trade, Stow is a man we may presume doesn’t frighten easily, and indeed his fears were tragically borne out. After the game, as he and two companions walked through the parking lot in search of a taxi, they were set upon by two men who pushed Stow to the ground before beating and kicking him into a coma.

Unlike Karen Toshima, Stow has, at least for now, survived the attack, though he remains in a coma at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. But like Toshima, his misfortune at the hands of uncivilized thugs has galvanized the city and shone a spotlight on a problem that has been festering for years.

When Karen Toshima was murdered in 1988, Westwood Village was perhaps the only place in Los Angeles where people from all over the city came into contact with one another. People from the nearby Westside mingled with Angelenos from the San Fernando Valley and from neighborhoods to the south and east as they dined, went to the movies, or simply hung out. Sadly for Toshima, this eclectic mix included gang members from South Central L.A., one of whom brought along a gun he was willing to use on scant provocation.

That bullet didn’t just kill Karen Toshima; it killed Westwood Village. Though gang violence had been on the rise in Los Angeles for years, for most people in the city it remained little more than an abstraction, something that only occurred “down there” and among “those people.” But with Toshima’s murder that violence escaped the rough neighborhoods where it could be easily ignored by the city’s elites. Suddenly even Westwood Village, in the very center of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, was regarded as unsafe.  It wasn’t long before the once-thriving Village became, if not quite a ghost town, a place to be avoided.  And even now, 23 years later, the vacant storefronts along Westwood Boulevard offer testimony that it has yet to fully recover.

I grew up with the Dodgers.  I still have two baseballs autographed by Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, and every other player on their 1965 World Series-winning team.  All through my youth I went to several games a year at Dodger Stadium, and when I was in my 20s I attended every Dodger opening day and an additional ten to twenty games a season.  But my attendance has trailed off over the years, and in the last two seasons I attended but one game each.  This year I probably won’t attend any.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy baseball as much as I did when I was younger, it’s just that I don’t enjoy the experience of attending the games at Dodger Stadium like I used to.  Putting it simply, I have to watch my back all day at work; I don’t like having to do it at the ballpark, especially at the prices the Dodgers charge for tickets.

When you’ve been a cop in Los Angeles for as long as I have, you can hear even a vague account of a crime and fill in the details yourself.  If I hear that a robbery has occurred at the bus stop at Century Boulevard and Broadway at seven in the morning, I know beyond almost any doubt that the victim is a Latino and that the suspects are black.  And if I hear that someone has had his head bashed in at Dodger Stadium, I am just as certain that the suspects are young Latino gang members.  No one who’s been following the decline of civility at Dodger Stadium was surprised to see the police sketches of the men who attacked Stow.

Civic leaders and the Dodger organization have condemned the attack on Stow (though Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was oddly, even callously silent for days after the crime), and a $150,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the two attackers.

All well and good, but in all the public outcry over what happened to Bryan Stow, there has been precious little said or written about the genuine nature of the problem at Dodger Stadium, which is that Latino gang members have staked out large sections of it as their turf.  Just as they have done on the streets of some Los Angeles neighborhoods, they have announced that they are here, they are in charge, and they will tolerate others only up to a point.  Woe be to any baseball fan who, like Bryan Stow, dares to wear a cap, jersey, or T-shirt signifying an allegiance to the visiting team.  True, attacks such as happened to Stow are rare, but taunts, insults, thrown food, and abusive language are appallingly  commonplace.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has announced that there will be a noticeably increased police presence when the Dodgers return for their next home stand beginning April 14.  But even as he vowed to make Dodger Stadium safe, Beck couldn’t avoid putting his foot in his mouth.  “All of us set the standards,” he told reporters.  “And if you allow fans to misbehave incrementally around you when you attend one of these games then you are part of the problem.”

Sure, Chief.

The world envisioned by Beck is one where unruly behavior is checked with a click of the tongue and a wag of the finger.  That world hasn’t existed at Dodger Stadium in more than twenty years.  Making matters worse is the Dodgers’ policy that prohibits off-duty police officers and others who legally carry concealed weapons from bringing those weapons into the stadium.  Cops attending games run the very real risk of encountering someone they’ve arrested or otherwise angered in the past, and I’d rather not have such an encounter while deprived of the means to defend myself.  Yes, all fans must pass through metal detectors upon entering the stadium, so the gangsters are presumably unarmed during the game as well, but if while attending a game I run into someone who remembers me as the cop who sent him off for a stretch in prison, I can only hope that when the last out is recorded I get to my car and my gun before he can get to his.

The Dodgers have hired former LAPD chief William Bratton to advise them on security measures, and I’m sure they’ll pay him handsomely for a suggestion they can right get here for free: Put the gangsters in check, and don’t back down when the confrontation occurs, as it surely will.

If Charlie Beck and Frank McCourt are serious about making Dodger Stadium safe for baseball fans, the focus of their efforts will of necessity be on Latino gang members.  They will not admit such a politically incorrect thought in public, of course, but they will rely on LAPD officers to stand up to the challenge posed by these gangsters and reclaim the stadium from them even as the hoodlums squeal about being “harassed” and “profiled.”  Every police contact in the grandstand and in the parking lot will be recorded on cell phone cameras and presented as evidence that the police are unfairly singling out Latinos, claims that the local media will exuberantly repeat and endorse.

How will Beck and McCourt respond when this happens?  If the gangsters win, Dodger Stadium will come to be regarded, like Westwood Village years ago, as a place that isn’t safe.  It was L.A.’s gang culture that killed Westwood Village.  Will it kill Dodger Stadium too?

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.
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