Inside The Mind Of A Watts Crime Fighter
“I come out here every day and learn about the people who live in this community.”
Lurie runs the Crime Suppression Detail at Southeast, an elite squad of men and women who are expected to go beyond simply responding to 911 dispatch calls. They know the criminal infrastructure of Watts and take initiative to seek out and resolve dangerous criminal activity in the community.
The unit focuses much of its attention on Watts’ three housing projects.
In Lurie’s office, hundreds of camera monitors display what’s going on in key areas of the projects at all times. Criminal activity is an issue in the projects and each project houses a particular gang. The “Bounty Hunters” Blood Gang operates in Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts falls within the territory of the “PJ” Crips, and Jordan Downs is claimed by The Grape Street Crips.
When members of these rival gangs cross paths, in drug turf related disputes or otherwise, it routinely results in bloodshed.
Lurie is remarkably knowledgeable and contemplative when it comes to his job and the community he serves.
Our patrol quickly morphed into a guided tour of Watts and a candid discussion about what it’s like to be a cop. We explored an impressive range of discussion topics, rarely allowing even a few seconds of silence in our eight-hour shift.
Lurie, an attorney and married father of two, proved he cared about the people of Watts, never paternalistically, but in a genuine, open-minded way, constantly evaluating himself and his role in the community.
As a Sergeant, Lurie occupies a middle-management role on the force. He balances bureaucracy with police work, and guides the cops who work beneath him.
At times, he’s doing paperwork and fielding commendations or allegations of officer misconduct. At others, he’s chasing stolen cars and breaking up late-night gang melees.
I was assigned to ride along with Sgt. Lurie because he has less chance than the cops beneath him of going in blind to dangerous situations and the higher-ups would prefer to avoid handling a dead student ride-along scandal. So, while I wasn’t huffing and puffing alongside Lurie in a foot pursuit, my whirlwind Watts tour did include some interesting scenes.
After a sobering briefing on what I should do if he were to get shot, our first stop was Nickerson Gardens.
The 1054-unit public housing complex was built during World War II. Now, the rigid military design not only makes for unpleasant living conditions for the project’s residents, but also makes things difficult for police who patrol the crime-ridden complex.
We responded to two different robbery calls that came in within a span of minutes. A group of young black men were suspected of stealing a woman’s iPod and jewelry as well as beating up another young man.
Police chased the suspects on foot before they ducked inside one of the units. A helicopter circled above the complex as residents swarmed the streets to see what was going on. Minutes later, five young men were on their knees handcuffed in front of a central unit.
Before the suspects could be identified as the robbers, they had to be driven down the street, where the victims were waiting inside tinted detective vehicles. Lurie explained that if the victim were to identify the men in front of a crowd of onlookers, her life would be endangered.
The whole process took well over an hour, but the crowd of spectators remained. Most were friends and neighbors. Some were mothers threatening to beat their handcuffed sons. Lurie told me that many families have been living in Nickerson Gardens for many generations.
As a small boy clinging to his mother’s leg looked the Sergeant up and down, Lurie told me he often considers children’s perceptions of police officers.
“The only time that kid sees a uniform is when his big brother is in the back of a police car,” Lurie said. “Of course he’s going to grow up to be suspicious of the police. I would too.”
Decades ago, Watts was nearly 100 percent black. Today, Latinos account for 60 percent of the population. The housing projects are still predominantly black, as are the gangs Lurie and his unit work with.
The crimes that demanded Lurie’s attention were few, a fact he attributed to my presence.
The ‘ride-along curse,’ he called it.
To make up for this, he drove me around to different parts of Watts where crimes were prevalent—the sidewalk where a gang member was gunned down weeks prior, the intersection where he once responded to a brutal stabbing, and David Starr Jordan High School, which he identified as one of the most dangerous high schools in the country.
As we drove past the famous Watts Towers—constructed completely from found objects by an immigrant construction worker over several decades, and now a national historic landmark—Lurie said he’d never heard of any crime reported at the site, crediting the neighborhood-wide sense of pride residents feel for Watts.
“Ninety-nine percent of these people are great people, working hard to feed their children and get by,” said Lurie, as we discussed poverty in Los Angeles’ low-income communities like Watts.“Sure, people can complain about systemic problems with welfare or write these people off as lazy, but after the years I’ve spent working here, I’ve become more interested in seeing children with good nutrition and a safe place to sleep at night. I’ll leave the social programs debate for the politicians.”
While Lurie isn’t out to fix all of Watts’ problems, he’s comfortable with the small but measurable good his unit can do each day on the job.
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