News And Politics

Summertime and the living's – well, a little more dangerous

April 25, 2012, 7:43 a.m.

The rampant graffiti in South Los Angeles is indicative of the area's heavy gang presence. In the nine-square-mile Newton Division alone, gang unit officers estimate between 50-60 gangs. Those gangs are a big factor in the crime spike that occurs each summer. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

OnCentral's writers have been on a number of ride-alongs with LAPD's Newton and Southwest Divisions, but it always seems to be on slow nights.

The officers all seem to repeat the same mantra: Wait until summer. That's when crime goes up.

"It's a combination of things," said Sergeant Ike Ornelas, who works in Newton and has more than 30 years with the department under his belt. "The primary factor is the heat. It gets a little warmer, so people start to drink alcohol a lot more. People are close together, tempers start to rise."

When police officers say "summer," said Ornelas, they mean when it's warm – generally the period from May to September.

"The primary calls we handle during the summer are party calls," he said. "They could start out as a simple family gathering which becomes a full-blown party with outsiders coming in. And that's basically where everything is generated from."

The prevalence of gangs hardly helps.

"Gang members, they're just like everybody else," said Ornelas. "But they have access to weapons, and then tempers start to rise. Add that to alcohol and narcotics, then machísmo starts popping and that's where you start getting your shootings." Summertime, in particular, is when the gangs start to encourage younger, sometimes-prospective members to go commit petty – and sometimes violent – crimes for the gangs. "And that starts to take over the division."

And then, on top of all that, there's realignment.

"More unsupervised parolees are going to be hitting the streets, and of course they've been in prison," explained Ornelas. "Again the gang component jumps in. They're introduced back into society and they want to bring their former gang back up to what it was before. So they start claiming territory that's been lost to a rival gang, get back together with other gangsters and start pumping each other up."

Police in the area have also seen instances where a gang leader is imprisoned, released and then tries to re-establish himself as the leader of his old gang. That's how "internal strife among a gang begins," said Ornelas. "And that's when we start to see shootings taking place within the same gang."

The sergeant was quick to say that not every summer party turns into a crime scene. But if there are 50 parties, and an incident occurs at 10, he said, that's when it becomes a "big issue" for the division.

"It's a derivative of poverty," said Ornelas. "A small minority of hoodlums and gangsters is responsible for most of the strife that happens in South L.A." He added that the same problems occur across the city – although not at the rate they do on the southside – and that the race of the offenders isn't a factor, but instead is simply reflective of the demographics of the area where the crime occurs.

"It's not based on racial lines," he said. "It's across the city – the heat, the alcohol, the gang activity."

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