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They See Dead People

Commander Patrick Gannon’s office is filled with dozens of mementos of his 29 years as a Los Angeles Police Department officer. There’s the glass globe he received for his community service, his police association coffee cups, his cop father’s oak billy club, and, to protect him, a guardian angel — a gift from his wife. Plastered on his walls are at least a dozen award certificates — and two photos of the 1992 riots.

“Whatever mistakes we made,” says Gannon as he points to the photos of the riots, “I don’t want to see that happen again.”

Promoted to commander in January, he was asked by the brass to re-evaluate the way homicide probes are handled in South L.A. In March, Gannon — who feels compelled, in part, by a need to make a bigger difference in his final years as a cop — launched a new unsolved, or cold-case, unit composed of 14 investigators from LAPD’s Southwest, Southeast and 77th divisions.

These 14 men and women, along with 10 specially assigned members of the FBI, will look into the area’s staggering backlog of roughly 1,000 unsolved murders — the dead who never saw justice, and whose slayings date as far back as 1978. They include prostitutes killed along the Figueroa Corridor and a cab driver killed for the price of a fare. The majority of the victims are black males between 18 and 25 killed in drive-by shootings or “walk-ups.”

“It is a violent part of the city that has endured a lot of murders over the years,” says Gannon. “This is a little reorganization to make it better.”

These three LAPD divisions have led the city in murders for 20 years. Today, they make up 40 percent of the city’s homicides, but have a “clearance rate” of just 50 percent — well below the national average of 65 percent.

The goal, says Gannon, is to focus on those cases that have workable leads and a high probability of being solved.

“They are looking at solveability,” says Gannon. “We have kept a lot of the evidence in the majority of the cases, but it still requires good, old-fashioned police work — knocking on doors, trying to gain confidence.” The unit will also get help from two full-time assistant district attorneys who specialize in gang-related homicides.

“We are trying to figure out where to put them,” says Gannon of the FBI partners joining them. The detectives recently moved to the second floor of the 77th Division station, where they will be housed alongside existing homicide and gang details.

The sign above the door inside the cold-case unit offices reads: “Play like a champion today.” That’s a welcome philosophy for residents who say it’s about time city bureaucrats focus on South L.A.’s roughly 600,000 residents — who have had to endure years of violent crimes.

“I grew up in South-Central,” says Najee Ali, a former gang member turned director of Project Islamic HOPE. “I am very well aware of the gang murders that are still unsolved, and I think [Chief William] Bratton is sending the right message to South-Central that our lives do have meaning.”

But the task won’t be easy with 80 percent of the cases gang-related, thus generating little public interest or media attention. Indeed, despite the area’s high poverty rate, even cash rewards offered by politicians fail to generate clues. Since 2003, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks’ office has offered rewards in 60 homicides and assaults — but not one award has been given out, says spokesperson Purvi Doshi.

Most of the time, the cops work with very few leads, and residents who might know something tend to stay mum, either because their own children or relatives were involved in the killing, or because they so deeply fear the retaliation of gang members. For example, cold-case detectives are trying to solve the April 27, 1984, shooting of a 23-year-old black gang member who was gunned down at 3 a.m. on a sidewalk between 49th and Figueroa streets. No witnesses ever stepped forward.

“None of these cases are easy,” says Detective John Radtke, who is supervising the cold-case unit under Gannon. “These are some of the toughest cases. This is the toughest area in the city. Gangs are embedded into the community. Some will take months or years to solve.”

But the cops are hoping that the passage of time — which usually spells trouble for a homicide case — will help. “The hardest part is finding someone who will step forward and say this person is responsible for the murder,” says Gannon. “Now we may find an ex-wife who said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you 10 years ago, but I will tell you now.’ If you hit them up right, they will tell you who did it.”

The large body count is partly attributed to the proliferation of crack cocaine in the late 1970s through the ’80s, says Gannon, when gun ownership soared and a deadly war broke out in various parts of South-Central among gang members fighting to control the drug trade. Dealers openly sold dope on street corners. “We spent hours chasing people off the street,” says Gannon.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, under then–Police Chief Daryl Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley, 77th Division averaged 150 to 160 homicides a year, but the powers that be saw fit to assign just 12 detectives to investigate the bloody onslaught. It was common to see six to eight murders over a weekend. (By contrast, last year the division suffered 68 murders — but with 20 investigators assigned to probe them.)

“There were so many cases coming at us in the ’80s,” says Gannon. “It was difficult to investigate... You just aren’t physically able to investigate that many cases. We just didn’t have the time to put into them.”

“That was when I was very conscious that I could be a statistic,” recalls Ali. “I lost a lot of friends who were killed by rival gang members whose cases have never been solved.” Ali’s friend Kevin Crouch was killed in the mid-’80s at age 20 in his home over a drug dispute.

Along with the cold-case unit, Gannon has merged the rest of the homicide detail from the three divisions into one command, the newly formed Operations South Bureau Criminal Gang Homicide group, which Gannon oversees. The idea is to distribute the flow of cases more evenly so some detectives won’t get saddled with more cases than others, and to improve communication between patrol officers and detectives. “You can’t just overwhelm one area with multiple murders,” says Gannon.

It’s the LAPD’s third attempt to reorganize homicide investigative efforts in investigation-resistant South L.A. In the 1990s the three divisions — including a cold-case unit — were located in the Crenshaw Shopping Mall, away from the other stations. In 1999, former Chief Parks dismantled the unit and moved the detectives back to the three divisions.

This new initiative is Chief William Bratton’s latest effort to crack down on gang-related homicides. Recently, Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dramatically publicized a list of the 11 worst gangs and a list of most-wanted fugitives. Both lists were widely criticized for giving unwarranted attention to the gang life, and experts questioned how dangerous some of the targeted gangs were, claiming that they made the “worst 11” list for political reasons.

Some also believe the answers lie elsewhere.

“We are assigning homicide detectives to deal with issues that have taken place already,” says Khalid Shah, director of Stop the Violence. “We have to look at how we prevent those crimes from happening in the first place... There [are] not enough police officers and jails. A large number of those folks will be back on the street if there aren’t programs and a change in attitude and attention being paid... The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same outcome.”

But Gannon and his team know that the unsolved cases of nearly 1,000 dead — ranging from innocent bystanders to career criminals — demand justice. “The families are haunted by the murders,” says Gannon. “They just never forget... It is a tough conversation to have when a mother and father pleads with you.”