Los Angeles: Officials fear that racial attacks by black and Hispanic gangs are rising
The headlines are among the most stark documenting gang violence. A Latino gang member, without saying a word, guns down a 14-year-old black girl standing on a sidewalk. A black gang member shoots a Latino toddler point-blank in the chest.
For the most part, though, the role racial animosity has played in gang crime has gone unexamined, largely undocumented in crime statistics and often tamped down by politicians and law enforcement officials anxious about inflaming tensions.
That changed this month when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William J. Bratton and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca all spoke with unusual candor of their concern that an increasing number of gang crimes appear to be born out of racial hatred. In a few instances, the Los Angeles Police Department has identified Latino gangs they say are indiscriminately targeting African American residents in what appear to be campaigns to drive blacks from some neighborhoods.
The acknowledgment by top officials, some activists say, has been a long time coming.
"What is happening is similar to small earthquakes taking place along a major fault line," said Khalid Shah, executive director of Stop the Violence Increase the Peace Foundation, who said he has heard from numerous communities across the region reporting rises in racially motivated gang attacks. "Ultimately the danger is that there will be an explosion, particularly, I think, if we put our heads in the sand and try to act like this issue isn't real."
But getting a handle on how much gang violence is rooted in racism is difficult.
A Times analysis of Los Angeles Police Department statistics gives a partial picture, with numbers available only in cases in which a suspect's race is known.
The tracking shows that the vast majority of the most serious gang crime remains intra-racial: Latinos attacking Latinos, blacks attacking blacks.
Last year there were more than 2,700 black-on-black or Latino-on-Latino incidents compared with slightly more than 500 interracial attacks.
Harder to determine is intent. Without an admission of motivation, and often without even a suspect to question, knowing why a victim was targeted by a gang member is difficult: Was it skin color? Did they or family members have direct ties to gangs? Was it just bad luck? Mistaken identity?
In cases where gang-related homicide, aggravated assault or robbery crossed racial lines, LAPD tracking shows an 11% jump in incidents from 2002 to 2006; from 213 to 240 black-on-Latino attacks; and from 247 to 269 Latino-on-black attacks. As those interracial crimes rose, intra-racial gang attacks fell by 23%, from 3,577 to 2,780.
In a city where blacks and Latinos make up 96% of known street gang members and often live in proximity, it would not be unexpected that the two groups account for the vast majority of interracial gang crime.
"It should be no surprise to anyone that gang members have racist tendencies," Bratton said. "Both street and prison gangs are constituted on race. But the reality is, most gang crime is motivated by greed and territory. Nevertheless, it is right that penalties are enhanced for hate crimes, and the LAPD will continue to aggressively investigate them."
While citywide statistics show small bumps in interracial attacks, some neighborhoods are seeing troubling increases.
Of the 13 attempted murders involving gang members in the west San Fernando Valley since July, 10 involved black victims and Latino suspects, Lt. Tom Smart said. In many cases, the black victims were not affiliated with gangs, he said.
Still, Lt. Paul Vernon, an LAPD gang expert, said the citywide figures should be looked at in context.
Latinos and blacks are not equally represented in either the city's population or documented gang membership. About 49% of Los Angeles residents are Latino and about 10% are black, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates.
Of the city's estimated 39,000 street gang members, the LAPD reports about 56% are in Latino gangs and about 40% in black gangs.
Of homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies committed by black gang members, about 2 in 10 are against Latinos. About 1 in 10 of the crimes committed by Latino gang members are against blacks.
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