By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I said that’s not the case outside Watts, in, say, wealthy white Santa Monica, where most people have never heard of the Bounty Hunters and would think of them not with respect but disgust.
Perry paused. His eyes moist, he leaned forward and gesticulated with his hands. “If I walk down the street and I see a white dude and he sees the way I look, tattoos and all that, he thinks I am automatic trouble. In a way, that makes me feel good .?.?.” He trailed off. Even he wasn’t buying what he was saying. Suddenly, his Bounty Hunter identity dissolved: “I am this way, but not just because I am this way. I am this way because something happened.”
“People walking through are experiencing this violence over and over again,” says Aquila Sherills, a former Grape Street Crip. “So how do we deal with it? We don’t. Alcohol, sex, marijuana. People are totally numb.”
Two years ago, Sherills’ 18-year old son, home on winter break from college, was murdered by gangbangers, shot five times in the back of the head. Through the grapevine, he learned the name of the shooters. His friends offered to kill them. Sherills said no. “I wanted to meet this young man because he is not only the perpetrator of taking my son’s life, he is a victim as well. We kill out of fear. What happened to him? Where did he lose his humanity?”
Sherills told me he became a gangbanger because he was sexually molested. “But that’s taboo,” he said. “You don’t say that. Feeling worthless, like you are an object. In this neighborhood 90 percent of young men have been sexually abused. I will say 99 percent of ladies. Everybody is operating within the cloud. It’s the elephant that is sitting in the room that no one speaks of.”
Gang cops spend their sympathies elsewhere. Their sole purpose is to throw a lifeline to the neighborhood’s innocents, says Sergeant Sean Colomey, head of the LAPD’s Southeast Division gang unit, which patrols Watts, where 47 percent of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gangbangers call the innocents among them “mushrooms” because they pop up in the way of their bullets.
“Second-graders pissing themselves in school without realizing it,” says Mychelle Charters, a social worker in the elementary school that serves Jordan Downs. “They doodle ‘RIP’ but don’t know what it stands for. Just a kid running by is enough for another kid to stick a foot out or throw a punch. Someone running is a threat — that’s all they’re suppose to know.” When children go home their doors are locked and their lights are off, she says. “Playing with your neighbors doesn’t happen. The idea of a family is not even a concept.”
A young woman named Daisy who grew up in Watts told me, “I don’t have words to describe what it’s like to live among the gangs. There was automatic gunfire every day. We never went out. I left for school no later than 6:40 so I didn’t interact with or see anyone. Even the high school kids were gangbangers. After school you came home and locked your doors and locked your windows and entertained yourself inside the house. I spent my childhood washing clothes, cleaning and doing homework.”
Families like Daisy’s have nowhere to turn. Though the projects are federal property, the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Grape Street Crips don’t just live there, they also run them.
“If you want to live in Jordan Downs you do not ask the housing authority or the city for permission, you ask the Grape Street gang,” says civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “When Latino families call the housing authorities to complain, the staff, the housing authorities call the Grape Street Crips.”
Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunters pay residents $1,000 a month plus rent and moving expenses to use their apartments as crack kitchens and dope shops. “The gangs have control of public property for god’s sake!” says Rice. “And they terrorize everybody in there, family after family after family!”
But Colomey’s unit has only 16 officers on duty at any given time. (One evening last year, three of his officers found themselves in a running gun battle with more than 300 armed gangbangers who had collected in a park.) When I spoke with Chief Bratton, he admitted he had little idea what he was getting into when he took this job. The entire LAPD force has roughly 9,000 officers serving about 3.8 million residents, while New York City has about 38,000 policemen serving a city of 8 million: roughly one cop for every 42,000 Angelenos vs. one for every 210 New Yorkers. And astonishingly, much of the time the number of LAPD officers on duty, in patrol cars and prepared to respond to all the city’s problems large and small, is mind-numbingly low — under 450 and often as low as 300. You might find that many police officers in southern Manhattan alone.
Partly for that reason, Colomey’s LAPD gang unit doesn’t see hope in change; they see escape or death. Every year, John Coughlin, one of Colomey’s senior officers, organizes a fund-raiser among the squad. Usually it’s a golf game. The average salary in the unit is $75,000, but Coughlin usually manages to cobble together $100,000 or so. Then he chooses kids from Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs who want an education and want to live, and gets them the hell out of Dodge, sending as many of them to private school or college as the money will allow.