Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Usual Tijuana Tale

I've just finished a Mexican crime novel called The Uncomfortable Dead, authored in alternating chapters by two people, the great pro crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the great Zapatista insurgency theorist-leader (and not-so-great crime novelist) Subcomandante Marcos. The contrast between the two sets of chapters is interesting for anyone who likes crime fiction or wants to write some themselves: the folksy voice of Marcos's detective is not too convincing, the politics, though generally admirable, are too obvious for the genre, and the detection structure is, well, not so good. To be fair to Marcos, he's trying to keep up with a master of the genre, which is impossible for someone with his kind of full-time job. There's some interesting stuff about the Zapatista judicial system, among other things, but my main point here, given the Tijuana story I'm linking to, is that together Marcos and Taibo write an entire crime novel set in Mexico without a single, hour-long shoot-out between SUV-driving narco-gangs armed with military weapons.

It's a good potboiler, and might even be true. But it would be nice to see the LA Times cover Tijuana - or East LA County for that matter - without the B-movie theatrics, which cover up what's really going on.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Vacation Crime Against LA Schools

L.A. crime is rising where it hurts
Sandy Banks

LA Times January 5, 2008

On the same day that a smiling mayor and police chief stood side by side at a news conference hailing a citywide drop in crime, grim-faced teachers at a South Los Angeles elementary school painted over obscenities on classroom walls, swept up broken Christmas ornaments and tried to salvage students' art projects.

Crime may be dropping on the streets outside, but inside Los Angeles Unified campuses, holiday breaks are criminals' party time.

According to an article this week by my colleague, Times reporter Paloma Esquivel, 60 campuses were hit by thieves and vandals during the Christmas break that's about to end.

At McKinley Avenue Elementary the burglars didn't steal much -- a few laptops, cameras, VCRs and boom-boxes. But they went on a rampage on the vacant campus, urinating on floors, dumping ketchup on computers and drawing pornographic images on classroom walls.

The 80-year-old building has motion sensors that should have tripped a silent alarm but didn't. Once the vandals made it over a spiked iron fence and snipped the wire blocking windows, they were free to roam the campus.

Now, school police are trying to find the culprits. In most school break-in cases, they turn out to be neighborhood teens. Police have put up posters, asking students to alert authorities to vandalism. And they're using grant money to distribute refrigerator magnets imprinted with that same plea.

Too few police

During vacations, deserted schools are sitting ducks. Los Angeles Unified campuses are burglarized about 400 times each year, and almost half of those break-ins occur during the summer vacation, holiday breaks and long weekends all across the sprawling district.

Part of the problem is the district's puny police force. It hasn't been expanded in 20 years, even though the district has grown by more than 100,000 students and 70 campuses during that period.

L.A. Unified Police Chief Larry Manion has 362 officers and responsibility for more than 800 schools scattered over 710 square miles. His priority is keeping kids safe as they travel to and from school and while they're on campus, he said. "The vast majority of our officers work during the school day. That's what the community demands."

On nights and weekends, he's too short-handed to give campuses much patrol attention. "We don't have the troops," he said. Taking a page from Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton -- who credits the city's crime drop to more officers on the streets -- Manion wants to double the size of his force within five years. But even then, he wouldn't have enough officers to watch district schools 24/7.

Holiday break-ins have become a criminal tradition, he said. "And 95% of the time, when a burglary is committed, it's accompanied by vandalism or some distasteful comments written on the wall."

School social worker Petra Galindo is often called on to counsel children -- and teachers -- who return from vacation to find their classrooms defaced. "You try to protect the kids from seeing it. It's so disruptive to the psyche of a school," she said.

I told her I was stunned by the viciousness of the damage at McKinley Elementary. Smearing ketchup on children's writing projects? Urinating on classroom floors? But Galindo said she has seen worse: "Feces smeared on walls. Incredibly racist and obscene scrawls."

The vandals are typically teens "with an ax to grind," she said. "If they don't feel respected, in terms of how they're interacted with at school; if they're not doing well, truant a lot, disconnected at home . . . any little thing can set them off.

"Holidays bring on a lot of depression and sadness for people who don't have that sense of connectedness," Galindo said. "The schools are empty, no one's protecting them. The kids go in there as a group, it escalates, things get out of hand. . . . It's violent anti-social behavior. Schools are an easy target."

Some arrests

School police sometimes collar the culprits. Officers nabbed four burglars inside Budlong Elementary in South Los Angeles on New Year's Day and recovered $26,000 in stolen property. On Christmas Day, a silent alarm at Pio Pico Elementary drew officers "who caught the suspects in the commission of the crime," Manion said.

They could prevent more burglaries if all schools had security cameras and alarm systems that actually worked. "We'd like a monitor in every school, up and operable," he said.

District officials told me that most of the district's 700-plus schools do have "intrusion detection systems," though they couldn't tell me how many actually function. They're maintained by the district's information technology division, the same group that saddled school employees with a perpetually malfunctioning payroll system.

I guess it's too much to expect a district with a computer system that can't accurately pay teachers to provide campus security systems that are able to protect millions of dollars of equipment and students' priceless psyches.

If this kind of destruction were happening at churches or synagogues instead of schools, it would be considered a hate crime. City officials, civic leaders and law officers would be up in arms. But when vicious burglars rip through children's classrooms, we quietly hand teachers mops and ammonia and shrug it off as teenage vandalism.

I'm relieved that citywide crime is going down. But I wish politicians would stop patting themselves on the back long enough to figure out if there's a way to spread the good fortune to beleaguered schools and neglected students.

Last month, when he was stumping for endorsements for his reform plan, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa bragged that he "raised 50 million bucks like that" to spend at schools that sign on. Two years ago, alarmed by housing project crime, the mayor persuaded Motorola to donate $1.2 million worth of surveillance equipment to monitor Jordan Downs.

Spring break is not that far down the line. We know the thieves have wire cutters. Let's give more than refrigerator magnets to school police to fight crime this time.


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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another L.A. Classic

How low can thugs go in Echo Park?

LA Weekly, Wednesday, December 12, 2007 - 4:00 pm

LITTLE UNSHKINS CAN FLY. Not a transatlantic flight, but short trips of 10 feet or so. Last week, Unshkins made one of those flights and helped save his owner. Unshkins is a cat.

Peter Choyce, wheelchair-bound by a bad spine, was enjoying a sunny afternoon in the driveway of his neighbor’s house on Benton Way near the Silver Lake–Echo Park border in Los Angeles. He was typing on his laptop, working on his memoir, his cat by his side.

Two men in a white car drove by, apparently saw what they thought would be an easy mark and stopped. One of them, described by Choyce as a light-skinned Hispanic in his 20s, got out and approached his wheelchair. The suspect may not have noticed the cat.

In the space of a second or two, the assailant punched Choyce in the face, grabbed the laptop directly out of his lap — and was attacked by little Unshkins. Unshkins, a black cat with white paws, flew up in the face of the attacker, clawing frantically and bloodying the criminal’s face, Choyce says. And Choyce managed to get off a solid punch to the mugger’s throat.

“I know to go for the larynx,” says Choyce, 48. “I didn’t know it, but I have the killer’s instinct. Go for the throat. But Unshkins just flew at him, though. And that was the main blow.”

Choyce says that, as he looked up from writing his memoir, the attacker “came out of nowhere.” His cat is not the friendliest beast, with a cranky and aggressive personality. “I don’t think she did it to protect me,” he says. “I think she did it purely for selfish reasons, thinking she was the one being attacked. It happened so fast... This guy was one of those skinny, flabby guys, if you know what I mean.”

Choyce, who can barely walk without a cane, says an adrenaline rush so inspired him that, after Unshkins’ facial attack and his own punch, he actually got up and “ran like hell” after the attacker, who had taken off running with the cherished laptop toward an awaiting getaway car.

During the foot chase, the laptop, a Dell Inspiron E1505, was smashed against a concrete wall of the neighbor’s driveway and ruined.

“That laptop was my connection to my world and my family,” says Choyce. “It was the only way I can write my book. Now it’s ruined because of this punk.”

Because Choyce suffers from kyphotic degeneration of his vertebrae, he must be in a wheelchair. He cannot drive, although he sometimes can get around with a cane. A friend of Choyce’s in San Francisco is now worried that he won’t be able to communicate via e-mail with his friends and family — or finish his memoir — without his laptop.

“He’s in such a depressed state of mind, feeling completely alone. His laptop was a connection for him, and he is very unhappy without it,” says Sandra Derian, who has known Choyce for 19 years.

“He is hoping he can get money from someone to buy a new or used laptop until he can pay them back in a month or two,” she says. “His mom is 88 years old, living in Ohio. He has a sister living in Asia. There is no one he can rely on in L.A.”

Alvin Baligad, manager of the 16-unit building on the corner of Benton Way and Reservoir Street where Choyce lives, came upon the scene shortly after the attack on December 5. “I saw that Peter was bleeding from around the bridge of his nose and the paramedics were working on him, but I didn’t see that attack,” says Baligad.

WITH A HINT OF PRIDE, Choyce says that some of the blood on his face was from the attacker’s bleeding and scratched-up face.

Apparently, no one saw the assault — at least no witnesses have come forward. The attacker fled into a waiting vehicle, described by Choyce as just a white car. That’s not much for police to use in their investigation, and Los Angeles Police Department Detective Jeana Franco adds that she has no leads.

“I have very little to go on,” says Franco, who works the robbery table at LAPD’s Northeast Division. “The description is a male Hispanic in his 20s and a white car. Basically, that’s the whole report. I think it is pretty horrible to attack a guy in a wheelchair. That’s about as low as it gets. But unless he [the attacker] does something else and we can link this to him, it is not looking like we’ll catch him.”

The LAPD’s Northeast Division covers a mix of rough, gang-ridden and gentrified hilly areas, including Eagle Rock, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, Cypress Park, Los Feliz, Franklin Hills, Solano Canyon and Atwater Village. As of December 1, the division had recorded 480 robberies in 2007, in addition to 17 homicides and 665 aggravated assaults.

By Los Angeles standards, that puts the area in the mid-range of crime. In comparison, the toughest area of the city, 77th Street Division, which covers South-Central and parts of South Los Angeles, has seen 1,334 robberies, 47 homicides and 1,280 aggravated assaults in 2007.

Despite LAPD ChiefWilliam Bratton’s claims that the city is safer than it has been in decades, many residents don’t feel the city is even close to being safe, especially with crass street crimes committed in broad daylight by lowlifes who would nab a laptop from a crippled man’s lap.

“Peter and others I know feel that the neighborhood still feels unsafe, with many drug crimes taking place, despite claims it is an up-and-coming neighborhood slowly gentrifying,” Derian says of Echo Park and Silver Lake. “Him being assaulted in the middle of the day is just an example of how misleading it is to see reports of the neighborhood being a livable place for people to move to, when he isn’t safe on his front lawn from the thieves trying to make a buck to buy their next fix.”

After the attack, Choyce was upset with the treatment he received at an area emergency room, saying he was dealt with extremely coldly: “All they did was be rude to me and call me ‘sir,’ ” he says. “I was bleeding, my computer was ruined, and I was getting ‘sirred’ to death.”

It wasn’t the first time Choyce, who has been openly gay since he was a boy, has been attacked. As a youth, he says, he was often beat up and called “faggot.” Choyce, who was raised in New Hampshire, was a nude model for many years in his 20s, before his body was ravaged by disease. His apartment is full of photos of him and other males, sans clothing, along with shots of tigers, elephants and religious images.

He was also a disc jockey in Boston for a time, and at his Benton Way apartment enjoys playing an eclectic collection of CDs. One recent day, Bruce Springsteen was singing about Spanish Johnny in “Incident on 57th Street,” followed by a song from Leonard Cohen that Choyce says is the only one ever written about his illness, kyphosis.

He’s not shy about his deformed body. He takes off his shirt and shows off his twisted back. It has a severe, hunchback look. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a city like Los Angeles where every other person is trying to get into “the industry,” Hollywood has tapped the unique-looking man. He has worked as an actor on Monk and Dexter, and openly touts himself as the “Hollywood Hunchback.”

“Central Casting has been very good to me,” says Choyce, but in recent years he has worked far less, not been well, and has struggled with pain medications — and addiction.

Despite his pain, he still swims and tries to stay fit, working out in a friend’s pool for up to four hours a day to stay strong. There’s not much more he can do, with five of the six lower discs in his spine virtually wiped out. But he still has a lot of hope, and takes a minute to plug a book by physician John Sarno, Mind Over Back Pain, saying, “I love this book.”

Facing the holidays, and thinking about the mean streets around him, Choyce says, “I think they saw a guy in a wheelchair and figured I would be an easy mark. But in the end, me and Unshkins kicked his ass... I just wish I had a laptop.”