2 drive-by shootings interrupt peace in Watts

Imperial Courts

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

This is Imperial Courts, another L.A. public housing development patrolled by LAPD officers at the Southeast division.

Two drive-by shootings Monday night in Watts left two men dead and a community busy trying to maintain the long peace residents enjoyed before summer began.

Before the summer began, there hadn’t been any homicides in the Watts public housing developments of Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts in nearly two years.

The area has always suffered from gang violence, but in recent years Los Angeles police began working with community leaders, gang intervention workers and the gangs themselves to resolve differences. The partnership has seen success in reducing violence in the housing developments.

But over the last three months, there have been three homicides, including one of those from Monday night. One homicide occurred in Imperial Courts in June, another in August at the Nickerson Gardens complex and the third homicide happened Monday near the gym at Imperial Courts. 

“Every one of these is like one step forward, five steps back,” said Capt. Phil Tingirides of LAPD’s Southeast Division. “But it’s better than 10 steps back that we used to take.”

For example, police made a traffic stop about an hour after the drive-by shootings Monday thanks to tips from residents who have fostered a rapport with certain police officers. Tingirides said that has been one of the biggest differences.

“When we talk to people we’re getting some information, even though it’s not information people want to talk about publicly,” he said. “But they call our officers on their cell phones.”

When a particularly violent incident like a homicide or shooting happens in the housing developments, the community tightens up. When you try reaching sources on the ground after something like that, you’ll get messages that make it clear that the area's gang interventionists have turned off their phones to zero in on controlling rumors before they spread and turn into heated emotions that lead to retaliation.

In fact, police believe Monday’s shootings grew out of presumptions.

It all started earlier in the afternoon with a non-fatal drive-by shooting that happened at Jordan Downs. A man survived the shooting but suffered a serious head injury from a bullet. Tinigiridies says he believes rival gang members jumped to conclusions and assumed that afternoon shooting was retaliation for an August homicide that occurred at Nickerson Gardens.

“So it looks like the suspects just went and hit both neighborhoods, because it was pretty arbitrary,” he said. “Neither of the people really had anything to do with anything that was going on.”

One man died in the shooting that happened Monday night in the 1600 block of E. 114th Street around 7:30 p.m. A woman in her early 20s was shot in the leg; she's doing OK, police said.

Ten minutes later, the same suspects did a drive-by at Imperial Courts, killing one man who was walking near the gym while using his cell phone.

Three suspects were arrested and weapons confiscated, but police believe there are more people wanted in connection to the shootings.

“I hope they nip this in the bud,” said Watts resident Robert Lewis Sr.

He volunteers with the neighborhood’s Safe Passage program, where adults try to be visible on the sidewalks in the mornings and afternoons to help walk children to school campuses in order to keep the kids safe while they’re crossing gang territories.

“The kids need to feel safe out there,” he said.

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