“LAPD goes from longtime oppressor to community partner,” read the headline over an April 22 column by Times columnist Sandy Banks. I’ll allow that Banks probably didn’t write the inflammatory headline, but while the piece itself is worth reading for the interview with three police officers who worked through the riots and are still patrolling South Central L.A., it repeats the most tired of tired clichés about how that area once was policed. The LAPD, writes Banks, was “an occupying army.”
Like the three officers interviewed in the Banks piece, I too was working in South Central L.A. on the day the riots began. In 1991, the LAPD had about 8,000 officers, or 2,000 fewer than it has today. But while in 2010 the city had a Part I crime rate of 273 per 10,000 residents, in 1991 that figure was a staggering 1,010. And in 1991, in the four police divisions that patrol South Central L.A., the department put no more than 80 cops on the street on a typical night, hardly anyone’s idea of an occupying army. And while the LAPD now investigates fewer than 300 murders each year, in 1991 it handled 1,025, the greatest share of which occurred in South Central L.A. On those infrequent occasions when the department did manage to muster a larger number of officers to patrol the area, it was in response to a level of violence that seems all but incomprehensible today.
And though there is much less violent crime in L.A. than there was twenty years ago, a disproportionate amount of it still occurs in those same neighborhoods. This is a fact evidently lost on Henry Watson, one of the central figures from the opening moments of the Rodney King riots. It was Watson and Damian “Football” Williams who were the primary culprits in the assault on Reginald Denny, who on April 29, 1992, was dragged from the cab of his big-rig dirt hauler and beaten nearly to death at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. In one part of a retrospective series on the riots produced by the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, Watson spoke of his anger on hearing that the four LAPD officers had been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
“Enough is enough,” Watson told KNBC. “And you know, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you understand? So it’s boiling. It’s hot right now with the [Trayvon Martin] issue in Florida. . . . You can’t keep killing black folks. We’re not going to allow it.”
He apparently prefers to leave the killing of black folks to other black folks, about whom he expressed no outrage in the interview. According to the Los Angeles Times, since Jan. 1, 2007, there have been 166 people killed within two miles of the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the great majority of them young black men killed by other young black men. And many of them, victims and killers alike, were members of the same street gang to which Watson and Williams once belonged. (To no one’s surprise, Damian Williams is serving a life sentence for killing a man in 2000.)
And I may have missed it, but I didn’t catch Al Sharpton commenting on L.A.’s black-on-black crime problem while he was here in town, either. How many more will be killed in the time it takes to get a resolution in the Zimmerman-Martin case?
Unless some previously undisclosed evidence emerges against George Zimmerman, he will not be convicted of any crime, and in any event I’m confident he will never be convicted of murder. When he is acquitted, or when a mistrial is declared with a hung jury, what will happen? When that day comes, the prudent citizen will avoid the intersection of Florence and Normandie.