As Los Angeles confronts rising crime rates for the second year in a row, residents in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Pacoima are hoping that hard-fought-for gains against gang violence will prove decisive in the fight against crime.
Just a few years ago, the San Fernando Valley was a bright spot, scoring big gains in reducing its gang-related violence. Many pointed to the hard work of local community groups, law enforcement, concerned parents and faith groups. Residents saw it as a sign that the area - long plagued by gang-related crime - had turned a corner.
But lately, Pacoima, like other places in L.A., has seen an uptick in violent crime. And that's caused some to ask where the community is headed next.
'It was a huge eye-opener'
On a recent afternoon at the San Fernando Gardens housing project, ten boys played basketball on a court.
"Now people can actually go out and walk around and play basketball," said Jaime Zombrano, 17, as he took a break from playing with his friends. The fact that the teens were out on the court was proof that things were getting better from times when he was a kid in the neighborhood, he said.
"Back then you wouldn't be able to do it because parents would fear that their kids would be robbed, shot or whatever the case may be," said Zombrano. "I saw uncles and friends just dropping, just passing away and I didn't want that, their lives were ending so fast."
Now, he said, the community was "more united."
But lately, the area has been hit again by violence. Last October, a 15-year-old was shot and killed on the block in what police described as a gang-related shooting. Zombrano said the slain teen was a former classmate of his.
"It was a huge eye-opener," said Zombrano. "When that happened, I wasn't allowed to go out for about two weeks. I would go to school and then come right home."
Police identified the 15-year-old as Willy Barrios, shot in the head at close range by two suspects in the early hours of October 26. An investigation is still ongoing. The October shooting is part of a rise in violent crime in Pacoima. At the Foothill Division – which also covers La Tuna Canyon, Lake View Terrace, Shadow Hills, Sun Valley, Sunland and Tujunga – violent crime is up about 30 percent from last year, and up 60 percent compared to 2014, according to statistics ending in March.
The October shooting in Pacoima prompted a rare meeting between local police and neighborhood residents, said Fernando Avila, Community Relations Officer at the Foothill Division.
"We wanted to let the public know, to give them a little information about the investigation and where it was headed and what we still needed help from the public to identify," said Avila. "Once you let people know that you care, then they're more willing to help."
The meeting is part of larger efforts to strengthen community ties, according to Avila.
Those ties have been tested over the years. The officers in the 1991 Rodney King beating came from Foothill. And, more recently, during a 2012 arrest of a female motorist in Pacoima, officers were caught on camera slamming her to the ground after she had been handcuffed. The incident led to the removal of the local division commander.
But police have worked hard to improve relations, which also aids in the fight against crime, said Foothill Sergeant Stephen Gomez. The Foothill Division also uses predictive software and real-time data to get officers to focus on high-crime areas – information they then can take into the field.
"Community-based policing is a concept which has been around for a long, long time. And we exercise it at all levels, from our patrol officers [who] we try to talk to about getting out of their cars, talking to people, engaging people," said Gomez. "Some people have bad impressions of the police, so we're trying to change that and it just takes time."
In response to the recent rise in crime, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans last April to double the number of officers in the city's Metro teams to hit so-called hot spots throughout Los Angeles. The use of the Metro teams has drawn criticism by some for undermining community relations because it relies on officers who aren't based in a specific geographic area, but Gomez said the strategy has been effective in the Foothill Division.
"Just the mere numbers of having officers out here will tend to knock down the crime numbers, at least short term."
The area also has several gang injunctions, including one that includes the block near San Fernando Gardens where last October's shooting took place.
'Their world starts to change'
For artist Manny Velazquez, reducing crime is a long-term investment in Pacoima and it's about changing the whole neighborhood environment.
"There were more bars here than there were churches and schools," said Velazquez, 56, standing in front of an unfinished art mural outside Pacoima's City Hall. "This is a community in transition."
To him, the mural of a proud woman and rushing water brings a reminder of a forgotten history and also a hint of the changing neighborhood: a metro stop is scheduled to open in coming years, and plans to revive the business district are underway.
The art is also part of his three-decade-long anti-gang work in the community reaching out to youth.
"You work with them, instead of throwing rocks, and say 'you know what dude? Let's replace that aerosol with a pencil and then a brush and then we'll get you back to aerosol,'" he said. "You start giving them all this information and all of a sudden their world starts to change."
Rising crime rates should be addressed, said Velazquez, but people should also take the long view and see the progress in an area with a complex history between residents and police.
"A lot of things have happened here but as residents and community folks we've managed to live through it, work through it and we're here today," he said.