It is freakishly hot in Los Angeles for October, and the city is more frustrating than usual. The bus drivers are on strike, and so are the grocery clerks. Traffic is terrible, and it’s hard to get food. An officer outside the 77th Station tells me that he saw unusually large numbers of people—idle, unable to travel—getting drunk this morning as he patrolled. Despite all this, there have been hardly any shootings. The pattern of killings and maimings is infernally random. Police occasionally attribute a given spurt to this or that, hot weather, holidays, but you never know.
Before heading to the 77 th division, I stopped in at the Los Angeles Times building downtown to make changes to a feature I wrote last week. The story was about how the bereaved scream and sometimes become quarrelsome or dangerous at homicide scenes—how this creates practical difficulties for police trying to protect evidence and adds to the suffering of survivors.
People typically find out about homicides on the street, called there by friends, or upon arriving home. They will show up at the tape, frantic, breathless, still hoping for a miracle, demanding information. When they learn of the murder, they scream or wail, or run away, or lose their balance. Twice I have seen mothers taken away in ambulances shortly after learning of their children’s deaths. Many people talk about the screams. A paramedic from Compton told me it is the only part of his job he finds unbearable—that distinctive homicide scream. Emergency workers sometimes tell of being attacked by hysterical family members. Last week, a 77 th detective told me how the grief-stricken brother of a murder victim once brandished a gun at him.
Large emotional crowds of mourners at scenes sometimes menace police. But quiet grief can also rattle. Two weeks ago at a homicide scene east of the Harbor Freeway I met the Mexican widow of the murder victim a few yards from where her husband had been shot in the head by gang members driving off after a shootout. The police were still at the crime scene, and she was waiting on the edge of the yellow tape: a tiny, elderly woman in a blue housecoat who spoke no English. She had been standing there at least an hour, just staring at the bloody pile of clothing on the street where he had lain.
Some of the most uncontrollable scenes unfold at the local hospitals, which take critically wounded shooting victims. A nurse at Martin Luther King/Drew Hospital’s trauma center once told me she hates bringing families into the morgue for viewings after a shooting victim dies: The room is so small, she fears for her physical safety, she said. People sometimes turn on the staff. Or they tug on their loved ones’ arms, trying to yank them to their feet, insisting they come back to life.
On some nights, especially when shootings involve multiple victims, large, combative crowds of friends and relatives seethe in the wide hospital hallways. A security guard is posted between the waiting room and the trauma bays to keep people back. A doctor there told me about several occasions in which distraught young men, bent on retribution, race out of the waiting rooms, only to be brought back later in ambulances, having been injured in retaliatory shootouts they initiated.
It’s not discussed much, but it is clear that some element of gang fighting is rooted in acute grief. Detectives keep close tabs on the process of mourning; it can lead them to the next crime. Police routinely monitor funerals. I drive down to Southeast station in the afternoon to talk to the city’s most overworked detectives. The division covers Watts and has been buffeted by a spate of retaliatory shootings in the past few weeks, four so far, all related.
The killings started with a brawl at a party but have since been propelled by loss after agonizing loss. An early victim, a 6-year-old boy, lingered on life support for two days before he died earlier this month. Shortly afterward, a man who gang members suspected of killing the boy was shot in the face. A Southeast detective says that even some family members of the victims in this revenge chain have closed ranks, refusing to help the police. The detectives seek to crack this cycle of street justice—to reassert justice by law.
“How will you stop the cycle?” I ask one of the homicide detectives. “Doing what we are doing,” the detective says. “Find ‘em. Book ‘em.”