The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recorded 106 violent crimes — including homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — in NELA across the first six weeks of 2021, almost equal to the number of violent crimes across the same period of 2020. Assaults have risen sharply, property crimes have decreased, and, according to the same statistics, homicides have remained steady in NELA, even as the city-wide homicide rate has spiked. Community concerns over NELA violent crime prompted the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council Public Safety Committee to host a widely attended open meeting Feb. 10, attended by several LAPD representatives. The LAPD is not certain about the cause of the sharp rise in homicides in 2021.

LA’s average crime rate per thousand has decreased by 34.1 percent between 2010–2019 and 2000–2009, as well as by 65.3 percent between 2010–2019 and 1990–1999, according to the LA Almanac.

Law enforcement representatives at the Feb. 10 meeting attributed recent NELA violent crime to narcotics and renewed gang activity, as well as changes to the penal code which they said have allowed detainees to leave custody too quickly. Propositions 47 and 57, passed in the past six years, reconfigured some felony classifications and parole rules in ways that have slowly reduced California’s prison population, recidivism rates, and the number of felony charges filed.

Other community members said they objected to the language used to describe local youth as well as gang members.

“I feel like it’s important to address the language that’s being used about being afraid to go into certain parts of the community and how offensive that can be to our neighbors and to other people on this call, and also the way we’re speaking about what are obviously children,” community member Diane Garcia said.

Community stakeholders relayed their own experiences as witnesses and victims of crime, including motor vehicle theft, property crime, drug crime and homicide. Several community members said they were not satisfied with the responses of law enforcement and local politicians and that they would like to see an increased police presence in the area.

“Please, bring in the social services, bring in the army for all I care,” Highland Park resident Gemma Marquez said. “But we need a plan.”

Bill Cody, field deputy for CD-1 representative Gil Cedillo, and Sarah Flaherty, field deputy for CD-14 representative Kevin de León, attended the meeting and answered several questions from attendees. Flaherty emphasized the vulnerability of unhoused individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that several local victims of recent violent crime have been unhoused. De León recently filed a motion that would bring small pallet-shelter housing complexes to two locations in NELA.

Arturo Sandoval, captain and LAPD commanding officer of the Northeast Division, said during the meeting that he understands the importance of alternative options for at-risk youth, but he believes the current criminal justice system is too lenient and encourages repeat offenses.

“There are some hardcore criminals, some people that are incorrigible, that are predators, that are being released,” Sandoval said. “The young folks are seeing there are no consequences.”

Additionally, stakeholders discussed forming text chain neighborhood watch groups, improving lighting and surveillance in crime hotspot areas and determining how best to report criminal activity to LAPD Highland Park lead officers Mark Allen and Lloyd Chang, who were also in attendance.

Recent rises in violent crime are not unique to NELA or LA — nationally, an increase in homicides and violent crimes have accompanied the nearly year-old COVID-19 pandemic, even as crime as a whole has fallen by 30 percent in some metropolitan cities, according to NPR. Juvenile involvement in crimes has risen as youth unemployment skyrockets and mental health plummets, with one study finding that one in four of their 18-to-24-year-old participants contemplated suicide this past summer.

Pasadena City College (PCC) equipment assistant and former assistant football coach Erick Valadez, who has also coached at East Los Angeles College and Franklin High School, said he believes the loss of athletics during the COVID-19 pandemic has left many NELA youth without their main outlet.

“If they’re not gonna play, they’re going to get bored,” Valadez said. “We have to figure out a way how to keep them interested in something else.”

According to Valadez, who holds an associate degree in criminal justice and social behavior, the focus should be on providing substantive after-school programming for students, teaching them about career paths and affordable education options such as state universities or junior colleges.

Aldama Street sign at the corder of Aldama and Milwaukee Ave. Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Matthew Reagan // The Occidental

Growing up in Highland Park, Valadez said he always took issue with the way others spoke about his community, believing that the bad often overshadowed the struggles that influence those behaviors as well as the positive contributions of community members.

“I think they leave that out and they sell our community short,” Valadez said. “They’re talking about the crime rising, but you know what? Nobody talked about the 73 kids who got academic jackets at Franklin High School the other day.”

Chris Arrazcaeta, an Eagle Rock High School football alum who now lives in Lincoln Heights, referenced his experience growing up in NELA and said he believes the recent uptick in crime is most attributable  to the lack of economic opportunity that has plagued LA for years.

“When you’re left with not a lot, there are very [few] routes you can go,” Arrazcaeta said. “There has to be that opportunity.”

Arrazcaeta also pointed to gentrification as a trend he believes drives recidivism rates and disconnection in local communities.

“All the people that were in prison that get those release dates, they come back to gentrification, they come back to rent being nearly 10 times higher than when they got put away,” Arrazcaeta said. “They’re out, and what are they greeted with? A kick in the ass.” 

Law enforcement representatives at the Feb. 10 meeting said renewed gang activity was behind much of the recent violence in NELA. Three murders and a shooting have occurred at the S Ave. 60 exit off of the Arroyo Seco Pkwy in the past year, where a memorial erected after the first gang-related shooting has invited repeated violence, according to Rick Stabile, captain and LAPD commanding officer of the Hollenbeck Division. According to KCET, certain levels of gang activity have remained a constant in Highland Park, Glassell Park, Eagle Rock and Cypress Park across the decades — a result of inequality, poverty and demographic change. 

Born and raised in NELA, Tina Padilla is the program manager for Breaking Through Barriers to Success (BTBTS), a violence reduction nonprofit funded through the LA Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD). Padilla said the recent uptick in crime is concerning but does not compare to the levels of violence seen in NELA a decade ago and she thinks economic hardships have contributed to the latest violence.

“I don’t feel it’s all gang-related,” Padilla said. “I feel it’s COVID pandemic-related.”

As a city office, GRYD contracts with 25 community-based service providers who help  youth who have been referred to them by law enforcement and other community actors as individuals at-risk for gang involvement due to family or personal histories. A recent evaluation study of GRYD activities in South LA found that any form of GRYD intervention, such as mediation, after a gang-violence incident reduced the risk of retaliation by 41.2 percent. Padilla said her BTBTS staff are often overworked and on-call at all hours of the day, and with more funding she would hope to increase the group’s visibility by establishing permanent presences in places like Highland Park.

Henry Palacio, a BTBTS intervention officer, said he first learned of the group when he was incarcerated.

“Coming from a lifestyle of gang involvement and historical trauma, I wanted to give back to the community,” Palacio said. “That was my way to make amends.”

Palacio, whose job involves connecting at-risk community members to internships, jobs, counseling and substance abuse services, said he believes boredom, loss of work and lack of resources during the pandemic might have caused some formerly gang-affiliated individuals to relapse into old behaviors and associations. Humanizing gang members was the key to combating negative community perceptions, he said.

Padilla provided a similar description, attributing gang formation to societal changes that have left some youth with few choices or in search of protection and social belonging. 

“As soon as you say gangs, people want to turn their brain off,” Padilla said. “[But] if people knew more about the work that we do as interventionists, and they knew the actual layout of the program, I believe that they’d be 100 percent behind what we’re doing.”

The Feb. 10 meeting did not end with  concrete action. MaryLeigh Roohan, co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, said during the meeting that the committee hoped to host a more formal public safety town hall in the coming weeks. The committee’s next open meeting will be 7 p.m. March 10.