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Are Black vs. Brown race tensions driving homicide?

March 1, 2007 |  4:45 pm


55thandcompton_1

(Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Virgen de Guadalupe on the side of Lupita's Discount Market, 55th & Compton Ave., Florence)

Are Black-vs.-Brown Racial Tensions Driving Homicide in L.A.?

No. A few high-profile cases, including the suspected racially motivated killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in LAPD's Harbor Division, have fueled speculation of rising racial conflict in L.A. But among detectives and police officers who deal daily with homicides, the prevailing view is that the race problem--for now, anyway--remains marginal. "I don't think it's there," says Watts homicide Det. Chris Barling. Det. John Radtke, a South-Central homicide investigator, agrees. "We don't see it happening," he says. Statistics back them up.

Take the four most violent Los Angeles police precincts--Newton, 77th Street, Southwest and Southeast.

These racially mixed divisions cover South-Central Los Angeles and surrounding areas and consistently rank highest in homicides among the 19 LAPD precincts. Last year they accounted for nearly half of all the murders in the city.

But out of a total of 236 homicides in these four divisions last year, just 22 involved Latinos killing blacks, or blacks killing Latinos.

The vast majority--nearly 90%--involved suspects and victims of the same race. In a few other cases, the suspects are unknown, and could represent disparate races. But even in those--a mix of stray-bullet, gang- and narcotic-related killings--race is not believed to be a motive.

Detectives puzzled by racial homogeneity

In areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, too, the pattern of killings on the street is “almost the opposite” of the picture lately highlighted in the media, sheriff's Cmdr. Pete Amico says.

The tilt is so far the other way that some homicide investigators say what actually perplexes them is how little racial crossover there is in killings.

Same-race murder predominates even where blacks and Latinos mix the most. In LAPD’s Southeast Division in Watts, for example, the population is at least 56% Latino and 40% black, according to U.S. Census numbers. But of 70 homicides reported there last year, only one was confirmed as black-on-Latino. No Latino-on-black killings occurred at all.

To be sure, tension between blacks and Latinos does exist in L.A., and a few murders result. For example, a string of racially motivated gang killings in Highland Park in the late 1990s went to trial in federal court last year.

Cherylgreenmom_charlene_lovett And detectives think the December killing by Latino gang members of  Cheryl Green, who was black, was as purely race-driven as a crime can get. (Left, her mother holds her picture; Annie Wells/LAT). The subsequent killing of a witness in that case, and an unrelated racial beating case in Long Beach, has further inflamed public concern about racial violence. 

But even in LAPD’s Harbor Division, where Green was killed, racial murder is an aberration.

Of the 20 homicides in the Harbor City-area precinct last year, only one other is confirmed to have involved Latino suspects and a black victim. That case had to do with a drug deal, not race, said Det. Jim Perkins, supervisor of Harbor's homicide squad.

In two other cases the suspects are unknown and may be of different races. But in general, Perkins said, Harbor-area killings involve Latino gangs fighting other Latino gangs over territory. 

Where the trend is going is hard to gauge. Law enforcement officials throughout the county describe a fairly stable mix of Latino-vs.-Latino and black-vs.-black homicides over the years, punctuated by a few scattered skirmishes between gangs of different races, especially in border areas.

The sheriff’s Firestone area had one such flare-up two years ago. The dispute, purportedly over a drug deal, became so violent and so racially charged that black gangs began hunting Latinos indiscriminately and vice versa, said Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Hartshorne. At least two noncombatants--an older man and a fruit vendor--were killed simply because of race, he said.

More common, though, are black-vs.-Latino gang wars over traditional gang issues--such as territory or revenge, said Det. Kelle Baitx, of LAPD’s Newton Division. “It’s on gang lines. It’s territory, not a race thing,” he said.

Cross-racial homicide motives

Sometimes, black/Latino gang fights suggest as much about racial integration as they do about hostility.

Perkins, the Harbor detective, recalled two such conflicts in his division in recent years:

In one, a black and Latino gang had long agreed to share their drug territory, but a fight broke out over which gang could sell during the day and which at night. Retaliatory shootings played out for months.

In another, a local Latino gang that had welcomed black members was ordered by Mexican gang higher-ups to kick them out, and two people were killed, Perkins said.

Elsewhere, the smattering of black-vs.-Latino killings usually involve motives identical to those driving same-race killings.

In 77th Street Division, for example, a traditionally black Crip gang had welcomed a Latino into their midst, said Radtke, the 77th Street detective. The Latino Crip was later killed as the result of in-house gang argument.

In Newton Division, a black man killed a Latino neighbor in a dispute over loud music, and a Latino man killed a black acquaintance who had criticized his parenting style. There also have been recent black/Latino killings arising from narcotics deals, robberies, parties, insults and fights over women--all garden-variety motives common to same-race murders.

The fact that homicide seldom crosses racial lines here is not unique to L.A. Nationally, whites mostly kill whites, blacks mostly kill blacks, etc. It's been that way for a long time, both here and in the rest of the nation. “When you look at the trends, you don’t see tremendous change,” said Marianne Zawitz, statistician with the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Concern is warranted

Still, there’s reason for concern,  Radtke says.

Racial strife is rampant in prisons, he says, and drug-market competition between Latino gangs and black gangs could someday come to a head.

Black gangs are shrinking as Latino ones grow, he says, and while a balance of power may be keeping the status quo in place for now, authorities should keep watch. “I’m actually glad there has been such a response to the Harbor case,” Radtke says. Gangs that provoke racial conflict “should have the full force of the government on them.”   

But other investigators are frustrated by what they call over-hyped stories of rising violence between races. “Crime here is race on race,” says Barling, the Watts detective. “The politicians always miss it.”

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