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On Which Way LA? Monday at 7 p.m. Talking About LA’s Homicide Drop

December 27th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

LA’s murder stats are down to under 300 for the first time since 1967. There are many possible causes for that single heartening number, all of which is what I chat about with Warren Olney’s winter vacation replacement, Sara Terry, for Which Way LA? which airs at 7 p.m. on KCRW.

Just to be clear, however, while the numbers are improving, the tragedies have not gone away. The Homeboy Industries staffer killed two weeks ago, 27-year-old Luis Diaz, was buried amid much heartache and many, many tears last Thursday. And I just learned of the death of another young man, Cesar Guerrero, who was shot to death on Sunday.

So while the statistics released this week give us something to celebrate, there are still nearly 300 deaths to mourn in our city, just under 170 more in LA County (which has experienced a similar drop in homicide numbers).

Listen live or click here for the podcast link.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, LAPD | 27 Comments »

Taking a Winter Break (Sort of)

December 27th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Hi, dearest readers.
I hope your between-holidays week has at least some down time.

WLA will be dark-ish this week, as I’m taking a break to work on other things (and to drink coffee in a leisurely manner while explaining to Lily-the-puppy why she may not eat the next Christmas ornament she has spotted).

I will likely be posting occasionally as there are some stories—like one horrific foster care situation that has just been brought to my attention—that I cannot leave unacknowledged.

So cruise by. But full-fledged business-as-usual will reboot in January.

Happy waning days of December.

(Now for another cup of coffee as an excuse to have another of my sister-in-law’s di-vine homemade almond biscotti. And, of course, a cookie for the fast-growing little critter pictured here.)

Posted in Life in general | 2 Comments »

A Merry Christmas to All

December 25th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

(Gotta post Fairytale of New York again every year or two. Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl are still wondrous.)

And late in the day, as we’re lazily doing cleanup, here are a few more.

(Not strictly a Christmas tune but, hey, close enough.)

And then just one more. Here is Rufus Wainwright singing Minuit Chrétiens at the Royal Albert Hall. He does it without a mic, with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, accompanying him on the piano and visibly enjoying her son’s waggish performance. The concert took place on December 9, 2009. It was Kate’s last. She died on January 18, 2010, of clear-cell sarcoma.

Posted in Life in general | 5 Comments »

Follow the Gang Money, Part 3: Six Suggestions for Moving Forward

December 23rd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Two of the 39 recent graduates of The Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy or LAVITA

Earlier this year, Witnessla and Spot.Us collaborated
on our first joint project under the banner of The LA Justice Report.

The resulting two-part investigation was called Follow the Gang Money, and was reported and written by Matt Fleischer. It examined how the city of Los Angeles spends its $26 million per year in gang violence reduction dollars.

Just to recap: LA’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, or GRYD, as it is called, has mapped out the city’s most troubled communities into 12 zones. Inside those 12 GRYD zones, the city’s gang strategies are divided into two categories: Prevention and Intervention. Prevention tries to keep high-risk kids out of gangs. Intervention, in the most general sense, deals with those who are already in gangs. In LA right now, the intervention side of GRYD consists primarily of a form of pro-active peacemaking that attempts to interrupt individual cycles of violence and retribution by literally going into the street to talk to the participants.

Part 1 of Follow the Gang Money looked at the Prevention side of the equation. Part 2 looked at Intervention.

Those of you who read the two Follow the Gang Money stories know that, in both cases, we were critical of GRYD.

Yet, over and above the criticism, we want to support the fact that LA is committed to having a rigorous gang strategy and that significant strides have been taken since 2008 when the city’s fractured and ineffective LA Bridges program was disbanded in favor of a single entity housed in the mayor’s office, the now more than two-year old GRYD initiative.

With the positive strides taken in mind, we offer Part 3 of the Follow the Gang Money series: 6 Suggestions for Moving Forward

To arrive at these suggestions we spoke to approximately 20 different experts in the field, both national and LA-based. Some of those interviewed were academics and researchers such as:

Louis Tuthill, social science analyst for the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice)
Thomas Abt, Chief of Staff of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs
Dr. Jorja Leap from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs
• Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice from the Advancement Project
Dr. Barry Krisberg from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice
Dr. Denise Herz, of Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.

Just as many were practitioner/experts working on the ground, including people such as:

Blinky Rodriguez from Communities in Schools
Aquil Basheer from the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI)
Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries
Hector Verdugo from Homeboy Industries
Guillermo Cespedes. Director of LA’s GRYD program

All of the LA based people I spoke with—those within the GRYD structure and those outside it—unmistakably care very much about healing the violence afflicted communities in our complicated city—even if they might occasionally disagree about what path we ought to take to get there.

It is in that spirit that WitnessLA and the LA Justice Report offers our list of recommendations:



One of the things that the mayor promised when he allowed GRYD to come under his roof was that the city’s new gang programs would be evaluated from Day 1.

The thinking was that, this way the new GRYD programs would be evidence based. We would know what was working and what was not. It wouldn’t be like the bad old days of LA Bridges when no one had any idea if any of the programs receiving big bucks from the city were doing any appreciable good.

Yet despite all the promises, the GRYD office did not follow their own dictums. Evaluators were eventually hired, but they were not brought in at the planning stages. This error led to a year’s worth of wasted time, money and opportunities when data was either not gathered properly or not gathered at all. [All of this is outlined in Part 1.]

“The purpose of a real evaluation,” said Dr. Jorja Leap, “is to determine how to make a program better and what is not working and should be eliminated. As a research evaluator I’m saddened by the loss of opportunity missed to do a real evaluation, and that is one of the things I’d most like to see changed.”

Jim Mercy of the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention agreed: “Good data helps cities to change their plans so that they get better results.”

There are signs that the city is taking seriously the need to revamp its evaluation strategy. Most notable is the fact that the GRYD office has retained Dr. Denise Herz, which was a great move. Herz is loaded with experience and is knows what needs to be done.

“We need a model that is informed by best practices and then evaluated to see if it works,” she told me on the topic of evaluations. “That way everyone is held accountable.”

She pointed out that the public is unlikely to support additional investments in the city’s gang strategies “unless they can see some quantified results”—in other words, solid and ongoing evaluations.

Let us hope that Dr. Herz will be allowed to make sure such evaluations are launched quickly and correctly.


GRYD’s intervention programs have, to date, primarily consisted of what is described as hard core street intervention—a kind of “proactive peacemaking” in which former gang members and others with street clout in various communities reach out to gangs to broker peace treaties and stem retributive gang violence.

No one can argue that saving lives and diverting violence is a worthy goal. In addition, the GRYD office has worked to professionalize hard-core street intervention by creating an intervention training academy called Lavita.

Monday morning, I attended the second Lavita graduation (a picture from which is posted here). It was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement the 29 graduates felt at the ceremony. As we watched them pose over and over for photographs with their diplomas, Connie Rice pointed out that some of these men and women have never before graduated from anything in their lives.

Yet, even at its best, violence interruption is a tourniquet to stop the bleeding temporarily so that, hopefully, the underlying condition may be treated. It is a single puzzle piece in a very large and complex puzzle. Every study done on the matter, every piece of research and every prominent researcher tells us that violence interruption alone (AKA hard core street intervention)—without some kind of services offered as an alternative to gang involvement—(job training and placement, mental health services, reentry programs, community support, etc. etc.) does not lead to a sustained drop in crime nor does it lead to healthier communities.

Gangs are not nation states that, in addition to warring with an enemy, build roads, schools, electric grids and hospitals. Neither are they equivalent to armed separatists and/or guerrilla fighters who engage in violence to achieve a political end. Thus if young men and women are to walk away from gang violence, they must have something other than gang life that is visible to them to walk toward.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Gangs, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | 3 Comments »

The Writer, Chapter 4: A Christmas Wish – by Dennis Danziger

December 23rd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The non-fiction story below
is part of a series written for WitnessLA by author and Venice High School teacher, Dennis Danziger.

The series is called The Writer.

It explores what happens when a really great, really decent, really talented kid you know is accused of doing something terrible.

Below you’ll find chapter 4: A Chistmas Wish for a Pro Bono Lawyer

(Chapter one and two and three are here.)

Dennis is a former TV writer, a memoirist, and the author of the very funny new novel, A Short History of a Tall Jew.

A Christmas Wish for A Pro Bono Lawyer

I grew up around lawyers, good ones, ethical ones, an uncle and three first cousins, the stars of our family. My father-in-law is a lawyer, a general practitioner, who for half a century has counseled sanity and compromise over all-out combat. My brother-in-law is a litigator turned law professor who can speak passionately about the law, literature and the Cleveland Browns with equal insight, subtlety and passion.

So, despite the frequent portraits drawn in film, television and literature of lawyers as thieves in Armani suits, I know most lawyers are tough, smart, and fight like hell for their clients. This is why I was disheartened when someone close to me needed his lawyer to come out swinging, but instead paid a pile of money to a criminal attorney who took a dive.

In my two decades teaching high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve worked with kids of immense talent, but no one more talented as a writer than John Rodriguez, 19. But John will spend this Christmas as he did last year. In fact, he’ll spend the next 20 Christmases in state prison unless he can find a lawyer who will step forward and fight the excessive sentence he received one year ago, after one year of waiting inside a cell to receive it.

Neither John nor his family has money for such a legal battle, though he does spend time in the prison library trying to learn how to challenge his sentence.

As I said, before he was sentenced, John did have a lawyer. I’ll call him Attorney Doolittle. He charged John’s single mother, a waitress at a local diner near LAX, a $25,000 retainer, to defend her son. And he was paid.

The problem is, Mr. Doolittle did little lawyering, especially after the initial plea bargain discussion that started out with an offer of a sentence of 1 to 4 years suddenly ballooned to a life sentence. Instead of fighting for something more proportionate, Attorney Doolittle urged John to take the DA’s final offer, 22 years. Putting up a fight would have required Attorney Doolittle to mount a vigorous defense, and he knew there was no more money to collect. Of course, even if Attorney Doolittle had fought, he might have lost.

And Attorney Doolittle knows something about losing.

Just prior to defending John, due to an ethics violation, Attorney Doolittle lost his California law license for 30 days, his second such suspension. He said nothing to John or John’s mother about these black marks on his resume or about the fact that on the day of John’s arraignment in a Norwalk courthouse, he was barred from practicing law.

Knowing it was illegal for him to act on John’s behalf at the arraignment, Attorney Doolittle did so anyway.

That morning a concerned party, a lawyer who has spent his career defending the poor, attended court, and following the arraignment, met with the judge before whom he had argued many times. In chambers he presented documentation that proved Attorney Doolittle was practicing law on a suspended license; he hoped the judge would boot Doolittle off the case, return his fees, and that John’s mother could hire someone more competent, and more honest.

The judge did nothing. Evidently, like Attorney Doolittle, he didn’t think John mattered.

John was 17 years old at the time of his arrest for attempted murder.

Although John had never previously been charged with or convicted of a felony, he was nevertheless tried as an adult. His crime was a serious one.

According to John, he and his older brother decided to enjoy one last hurrah before his brother, who had enlisted in the army, reported for duty the coming Saturday. So the brothers headed to a bar for a few good-bye beers. Inside the bar, the brothers got into a scrap with two other patrons. Words, shoulder bumping, and drunken macho nonsense led the bouncer to boot all four of the guys into the parking lot. There his adversaries were joined by a group of their friends. John says this pack of guys, about a dozen, chased him and his brother across the parking and surrounded the Rodriguez Brothers’ car, trying to get inside to beat them.

There was a gun inside the car and John decided to grab it.

The bullet he fired—and according to him he fired it into the air—was meant to scare off the would-be attackers. But it instead it struck an innocent bystander in the shoulder, a young man standing by his car in the lot. After spending three nights in the hospital, the victim was released. He has physically recovered though a piece of the bullet could not be removed because it was lodged too close to his heart.

This is the way the episode went down as far as I know it from John’s mother. I have not been able to talk to John directly since his arrest.

It may be, of course, that my gifted writing student has concocted a piece of fiction to ease his conscience; it could even be that he has fired random shots from cars for years, and only this time was he caught. But John says that isn’t so, and that the videotape that shows him firing a shot—the videotape that is the heart of the DA’s evidence–does not capture what happened immediately prior to the shooting, does not reveal the mob of angry guys trying to beat him and his brother senseless. John admits to firing the gun, admits that the bullet he fired struck an innocent man. What frustrates him is that his side of the story, what led up to the shooting, was not caught on video.

I’ll never know the absolute truth.

What I do know is this: Everyone has a right to competent counsel and my gifted student, on the advice of what appears to have been incompetent counsel, took the plea offered. Twenty-two years.

I doubt Attorney Doolittle cares. After I wrote a letter to the court on behalf of John and asked if I could be of any further help, Attorney Doolittle did not return my calls. When I met Attorney Doolittle for the first and only time in a Norwalk Courthouse where John was to be arraigned, (that hearing was postponed), he brushed me off when I asked a few questions, and hurried to his car and to a hearing in Van Nuys.

Months later he called and asked if I would testify at trial on John’s behalf. I agreed to, but never heard from him again. He did not bother to call or have his secretary call and tell me that John took a plea and there would be no trial.

I would guess that the vast majority of people reading this are thinking something along the lines of, “Tough luck. Do something stupid like firing a gun from a car, live with the consequences.”

I understand that.

But what I can’t understand or accept is why the DA asked for a life sentence for a juvenile, with no priors. (At least no felony priors. John had been charged with misdemeanor vandalism at 12, but nothing since), for a crime that was not pre-meditated, for a crime in which no one was killed.

Obviously I don’t fully comprehend the laws of this land.

Still, Attorney Doolittle is paid to know those laws, and so is the Norwalk judge, and in this case they chose to ignore the law. That’s what’s been haunting me. As is the vision of another wasted life.

So for Christmas this year I thought I’d ask for a lawyer to step up, to write to me to offer to ask a few more questions. To look into the file which I have. I’d like someone to offer to read the People’s case against John Paul Rodriguez and to let me know if he or she thinks there’s any possibility for an appeal.

I hope I hear from you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Those who wish to contract Dennis Danzigner may email WitnessLA and I will forward it on to him.

Posted in American voices, The Writer - Dennis Danziger | 2 Comments »


December 21st, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


Alright, it’s finished. AND it’s going up late tonight, rather than dumping it midday.

And so now I’m leaving the computer behind to go get A Christmas tree. (Wooo-hooo!)

Due to circumstances—
rain, minor floods, unruly puppies and other forces majeure—beyond my control (like, for example, the need to finish final grading for USC by 5 p.m. Tuesday) Follow the Gang Money Part 3, will be out by noon. late tonight. shortly. (Finishing it now.)

Photo of The Great & Pesky Topanga Fallen Rock of 2005 by Damian Dovargenes/AP

Posted in Gangs | 2 Comments »

On KPFK’s Deadline LA – Previewing Part 3 of “Follow the Gang Money”

December 20th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Part 3 of the “Follow the Gang Money” investigative series
that is a joint project of WitnessLA and Spot.Us, will appear here Tuesday morning.

(Part One and Part Two, reported and written by Matthew Fleischer, appeared earlier this year.)

Today, Monday, however, I’ll be previewing and discussing Part 3 on KPFK’s Deadline LA with hosts Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume.

The show airs today live at 2:30 p.m.on 90.7 FM

(NOTE: DeadlineLA has recently moved from Friday to its new Monday afternoon slot.)

Part 1 and Part 2 were critical examinations of how the city of Los Angeles spends its $26 million per year in gang violence reduction dollars.

Part 3 surveys a series of experts in order to offer suggestions as to how LA’s gang existing program—GRYD— might expand, change and evolve in 2011.

So tune in live.

Or listen to the podcast here.

Posted in Gangs, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | No Comments »

The Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Passes. A Gift for All of Us

December 18th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


The Dream Act had enough votes to pass, 70 percent of Americans wanted it, but Republicans kept it from coming to a vote in the US Senate. So, again it died again on Saturday, and many of our nation’s outstanding young residents are still relegated to the shadows.

DADT looked like it would meet the same fate.

But it didn’t.

A sincere thank you to those eight Republicans who crossed over to be on the right side of history and human decency.

Olympia Snow, Maine
Susan Collins, Maine
Scott Brown. Mass.
Richard Burr, N.C.
Lisa Murkowsky, AK
John Ensign, NV
John Voinovich, OH
Mark Steve Kirk, IL

We are genuinely grateful to each you for standing up and, quite literally, being counted.

Merry early Christmas. This is a gift to all of us.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, LGBT | 2 Comments »

Just Like Compton – The Novel

December 18th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Okay, I’m late in telling you about the book reading for the new urban novel,
Just Like Compton, unless you can race over immediately. (Info below.)

But the book itself looks intriguing and I like what the author, Kevon Gully, is striving for.

Kevon Gully’s background has all the elements that predictably lead a kid to gangs. He grew up in Imperial Courts housing project, which is one of the city’s toughest. There was no dad around, his mom was on drugs. In fact she was in such bad shape, she left her 10-year-old son completely on his own for three months until his grandmother discovered her grandson’s situation, and moved him to Compton. But the grandma didn’t keep him and soon the kid landed in foster care, bouncing from foster home to foster home, spending most of his life on the streets.

Unsurprisingly, Kevon ended up in lock up. First he was sentenced to ten years as a juvenile in California’s Youth Authority for carjacking and kidnapping. In 2003, he again was arrested, this time for fraud and receiving stolen property. A staggeringly long sentence was eventually pleaded down to 8 years because all of his crimes to date had been committed while he was a juvenile.

In the second stint in lock-up, Kevon writes that he was determined to change. He got himself a Liberal Arts Associates Degree while behind bars, and vowed that he wouldn’t be coming back.

He also began writing.

He happened across the genre of novel known as urban fiction, and connected with the form. However, he objected to the books he read on literary grounds. He found the plotting predictable and wanted to try his hand at doing better.

It took Kevon a while to develop a voice, and a method of storytelling. Finally, Just Like Compton was the result.

I’ve not read the book, but I know others who have. They tell me it’s surprisingly good. At the very least, it is a look into what it is like growing up on Compton’s streets.

From 3-5 p.m. Saturday, he’s reading and signing books at Smiley’s Bookstore, 20220 South Avalon Boulevard, in Carson.

However the book is also available in independent book stores and on Amazon.

Take a look.

Posted in American artists, American voices, writers and writing | No Comments »

Dog Bites Baby, DCFS Bites Baby’s Mom

December 17th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


Okay, here was the initial story, as reported Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times:

A Great Dane snatched a 6-month-old baby from her mother’s arms in Monrovia and ran with the girl in his mouth before dropping her in the street, authorities said Wednesday.

The baby’s mother was talking in the doorway of a neighbor’s home Monday when the 180-pound dog rushed out, slammed into her, snatched the baby with his jaws and ran off, said Lt. Michael Lee of the Monrovia Police Department.

The dog ran about 200 feet, carrying the baby by her right side, before dropping her in the street, Lee said. Police and paramedics found her there and airlifted the baby to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center after the 2:45 p.m. incident in the 600 block of Laurel Lane.

As of Thursday afternoon, according to the Monrovia PD, the baby is in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery, even thought the entire situation was damned scary.

But, as if the whole horrific baby snatching incident wasn’t bad enough, there were these lines embedded in the story.

No criminal charges have been filed, but the Department of Children and Family Services is “pushing an investigation” into whether the mother did enough to protect her child, Lee said.


Let me get this straight. A mother and baby are both traumatized, the baby nearly killed when a neighbor’s humongous, out-of-control dog lunges out from inside the neighbor’s house, snatches a 6-month old out of its mother’s arms, and DCFS plans to further traumatize all concerned by investigating the mom?

I called the Monrovia police department and spoke with Captain Jim Hunt about the whole DCFS issue. He was unequivocal. “There’s absolutely nothing that mother could have done,” said Hunt. “Nothing. The mother actually had a cut on her hand from trying to protect the baby.”

According to Hunt, it was someone at the hospital that called DCFS, meaning that social workers were honor bound to look into it.

“Hopefully family services will talk to officers and see quickly that there’s no way this is a case,” Hunt said, making no attempt to hide his frustration at the whole DCFS matter.

Yes, let us hope.

The dog attack was Monday. I talked to Captain Hunt on Thursday—enough time, one would think, to talk to police and witnesses and conclude that there’s nothing to see here, folks.

Anyway, a case worth keeping an eye on.

UPDATE: The National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform director, Richard Wexler, who pointed out the Great Dane story to me, has a post on the issue in which he expresses concern that DCFS may be more likely to wrongly pursue a case like this one, for fear of being labeled lax if they do not, because of the publicity around recent child deaths where social workers did not correctly read the signals.


My very smart pal, Tom Lutz-–author of (along with other works) Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears“—has written an Op Ed on the matter of John Boehner’s tears that is by far the best of the essays on the matter that have been floated.

Posted in Foster Care | 7 Comments »

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