I’m checking City News Service, the local catch-all news wire, from home over coffee this morning, and I see some shootings have gone missing.
The wire service reports that there were six or seven shooting victims throughout Los Angeles County on Saturday night, two of whom died. I know of at least two others—unrecorded even by City News, the first and most comprehensive tier of local media in Los Angeles. I know, because I went to the scene of one of them just after midnight last night, at Jefferson Boulevard and Seventh Avenue. By the time I arrived, the victim, a Latino, had been taken to a hospital, and a group of half a dozen officers, standing around on the sidewalk in the dark, had just arrested a sweaty drunk threatening to disrupt the crime scene.
A sergeant there told me it had been the second shooting that night in the Southwest division: Earlier, two teenage girls had been shot in the legs on Adams Boulevard, not far away. But on City News, I see that neither one of these shootings has been reported.
I have been trying to keep track of injury shootings and homicides in recent weeks, but it is harder than I’d thought. I don’t aim to cover them all, since there is no room in the newspaper for all the people killed, let alone hurt. I simply wanted to get my own picture of the frequency of attacks. But it has been disconcerting to see how much violence goes completely unreported.
Police, paramedics, and residents in South Los Angeles often fault the media’s apparent indifference to crime here. It’s a fair point.
But it is also true that getting accurate information is difficult, even if one tries. You can’t go to all the shootings. City News does not capture everything, nor does the LAPD’s internal press relations unit—although they make a dogged effort, churning out releases on murders that no media outlet follows. Even police supervisors sometimes do not know about everything that occurs during their shifts. And the kind of old-style police reporting I used to do—going to police stations and flipping through logs—has been ruled out by recent court decisions and tighter limits on the press.
To get more immediate information, I work from the LAPD’s 77th Street police station, which covers the area once called South Central Los Angeles (local politicians have recently sought to end use of this name due to its stigma). The station is one of four south of the Santa Monica Freeway, which divides the city north from south like a belt across its midsection. Watts, Compton, and Inglewood are border areas.
I am headed to the station today to arrange a ride-along for tonight. The watch commander’s office is downstairs, a windowless room that’s nearly always packed with people. There is a framed picture there of the actors from Adam 12, a signed portrait of Ronald Reagan, boxes of candy for sale, and a paper Halloween bat hanging from the ceiling. Medals and trophies for achievements in bench-pressing line every available surface. The 77th and Southeast divisions, home to the toughest crime, also have the toughest-looking cops: The two divisions always lead LAPD competitions in weight-lifting.
A 56-year-old lieutenant I know here is, as always, on duty. I can’t figure out his hours because he seems to work them all. Someone has fetched him takeout from McDonald’s; it sits on his desk untouched as he rifles through reports, the grease soaking through the paper bag.
My ride-along is uneventful—or rather, eventful, but only in the grueling, relentlessly depressing manner of much police work. The female sergeant I am with, a mother of four, has an upbeat, businesslike demeanor. We go to a domestic violence dispute in Newton division just north of 77th. A woman is on the sidewalk clutching a toddler, talking angrily into a cell phone. The family is black, living in a neighborhood with almost no black families left: Latino children gawk from across the street. There are industrial sites jammed amid the houses. Guard dogs next door keep up a ceaseless racket.
The specifics of the dispute are byzantine, and there is much “loud-talking” and profanity. However, one protagonist stands out: the couple’s 11-year-old son, his face a sullen, tear-streaked mask of anger. The boy quietly tells the police that his father is the better caretaker, the mother has a drug problem; he says he wants to stay out of gangs and begs to be placed with his grandmother.
The mother rails; her clothes and hair are in disarray, and she is behaving somewhat erratically. The boy stomps away from her, his thin shoulders tense as iron. The situation is made more complex by the cops’ suspicion that the woman has lied, and that the father has committed no crime. But under domestic violence laws, they must arrest him and let her take the kids. So, the distraught boy is packed into the back seat, and the mother drives off to a shelter.
A minute later, the grandmother pulls to the curb—gracious, neat, well-dressed, anxiously looking for her grandson.
The sergeant leaves unhappy. The image of this boy is eating at her.
She refers back to it all evening. She transferred recently from one of the city’s safest divisions, in the San Fernando Valley. Over Chinese fast food later, she speculates about what will happen to this boy, then says, “Before I came here, I never believed that people’s choices were dictated by their environment. South Los Angeles has changed me,” she says. “I no longer think everyone has choices.”