"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol”—Charles Dickens
Walk with me down the mean streets of the U.S.A., accompanied by the three spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future.
The Holiday Season can be a very dangerous time in the gang-infested urban neighborhoods.
The season brings the same problems to the ghettos and barrios that face the rest of us, except in an exaggerated way. Problems like poverty, lack of education, illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and the desire to give and receive gifts we can’t afford, are all seemingly intensified by the lack of real opportunities. The resulting depression that sets in the minds and spirits of individuals and the community is often temporarily self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. This results in desperate acts by desperate people, and horrible violence.
During this time of year, domestic violence calls of every kind are at a peak. Child abuse and spousal abuse arrests increase. Criminal predators intensify their searches for victims for that one last big score. The gangs know that neighborhood houses even in the ghetto will be filled with quick turn items to burglarize. Christmas shoppers will be distracted by their last-minute shopping and become easy robbery victims, and stores and markets will have their cash registers full of Christmas money.
And the Cops? They will be busy rolling to those domestic violence calls, operating at minimum staffing, and they themselves will be distracted by the holiday hustle and bustle. What better time to take sweet revenge on your gang enemies?
Ask your local coroner, and he will tell you that an increase in accidental deaths, murders, and suicides accompany the holiday season. This sometimes makes the mayhem more tragic than at any other time of the year. The gang mugging of the Salvation Army Santa, a gang rape of a young Hispanic girl, the burglary of the already disadvantaged local grammar school in East Los Angeles, and a mother weeping over her gang member son shot dead in the middle of a rain soaked L.A. street are visions that flash back in my mind at Christmas time.
And we can become victims too. Several of the officer-involved shootings that stand out in my mind took place in this holiday season. December 23, 1976, was one of those nights for the LASD Firestone Park Station. The FPK Gang Unit, Dep. George Arthur and Dep. Mike Waters, had encountered a Black Guerilla Family robbery team on its way to a gambling house robbery. At about 9 PM they attempted to stop the group of gang members on foot in a nearly empty bank parking lot.
The police radio suddenly crackled to life with a 998 request for assistance broadcast of “Shots Fired” and “Deputies Down!” Two of the three suspects who had attempted to kill them lay dead in the parking lot, but Dep. Mike Waters had been shot in the face at close range and George Arthur was badly beaten his skull fractured by a pistol butt. The Deputies had prevailed in a firefight and hand-to-hand combat only by their sheer will to survive.
Sgt. Al Kopperud responding to the 998 request and rolling “code 3” was moments later critically injured in a traffic accident. Only a few minutes after the shooting the three deputies lay in the same St. Francis Hospital emergency room fighting for their lives. But it was still a long way to Christmas. The calls for service continued, the station lobby was full of people, and the search for the third suspect in the deputy shooting had begun.
The radio continued with priority calls. “Firestone 11 David from the station to handle, any unit to assist, gunshot victim on the sidewalk at 83rd and Compton” followed quickly by “11 Adam handle any two SEB (Special Enforcement Bureau “SWAT”) units assist, CHP (California Highway Patrol) requesting assistance at Florence and Holmes major 415 (disturbance) in the street”. Then the dispatcher returned with “11 Adam the 245 gunshot victim is now 187 (homicide).”
Firestone Station had virtually no more units available. Several units were still assigned to the deputy shooting scene, and other priority calls had also become manpower draining. Two units were working the 83rd and Compton murder and assisting units from Carson Station and SEB (SWAT) were assigned to cover the Willowbrook section of Firestone Station. But this night is still not over.
An Aero unit helicopter, piloted by Dep. Doug Travis, began transmitting the description and direction of a speeding vehicle moving eastbound away from the bank parking lot. It matched the description of a vehicle seen at the shooting. Intercepting police units were soon in pursuit with Sgt. Joe Smith and Dep. Doug Dolan behind the suspect. The pursuit ended with the suspect vehicle spinning out of control and stopping in front of SEB units. The desperate suspect suddenly came out of the vehicle shooting, and Dep. Dolan is hit. For a second time, only four hours after the first, another radio call goes out, “998 Deputy Down!”
The situation now became a foot pursuit through the Firestone streets and alleys. The Aero unit maintains coverage and relocates the fleeing suspect. This foot pursuit also ends in a frantic firefight, and the suspect is mortally wounded. Four Deputies are now in the emergency room at St. Francis hospital. Deputy Dolan had luckily not sustained a life-threatening wound, however, the nightmare before Christmas was not over yet.
The night continued after only a short respite, “15 Adam to handle, 15 David to assist burglary now 18000 Bandera!” As 15 Adam arrives at the location the deputies are confronted by a lead pipe swinging hostile suspect. Yet again the radio echoes the request for assistance, “15 Adam is requesting immediate assistance. 245 (assault with a deadly weapon) on a deputy, shots fired!”
By midday of Christmas Eve the follow-up investigations and reports are finally in and weary cops headed home to what is left of Christmas 1976. It will be a less than merry Christmas with their thoughts on their brother officers lying on their beds in intensive care at the hospital. The blood and death of the night will haunt their memories for many holidays to come. But they are all survivors.
For me a police funeral at Christmas time would be the most tragic of all circumstances, except possibly for the death of an immediate family member. Even the criminals and gang members grieve for their fallen soldiers. Sometimes this can be a time of peacemaking. My ELA Gang Unit Partner Dep. Jim “Kojack” Vetrovec and I would often attend the required gang car wash that gang members used to raise money for burial expenses of their homeboys. We would donate five or ten dollars to the cause. We never excepted the car wash, but used the ritual to let the gang members know that we did not subscribe to the Scrooge philosophy of; “...If they be to die, they better do so, and decrease the surplus population.”
After recovering from the Firestone shootout of 1976, Dep. George Arthur became my partner in the Lynwood Operation Safe Streets (OSS) gang unit in 1979. Despite the numerous deadly encounters he had experienced, he often expressed concern and kindness to young gang members in my presence. He had many loyal informants and friends in the gang areas of South Central Los Angeles. He survived all that and was promoted to Sergeant, only to be murdered by a fellow deputy in 1985.
No matter how many gang members you arrest, no matter how effective your gang unit is, we will not end crime and gang violence through arrests and prosecution. We must do what we attempted to do in Viet Nam, we must win over the minds and hearts of our enemies. Do your job, but acts of kindness, respect, and concern for their loved ones, even in the face of the bad guy’s own indifference, does sometimes have a positive effect. Sometimes you must be more than just a cop, you must be a role model, councilor, coach, and chaplain. This is not weakness; it is what makes us human. This is gang prevention.
Just one more quote to remember in the Holiday Season from “A Christmas Carol”: “God Bless us everyone!”
For more on Firestone Station and the gang units go to http://fpk.homestead.com/