By Anita Rice
BBC News and Current Affairs
The LA murder rate is going up and the police chief has requested more officers. But California is broke and cannot afford to recruit.
Ms Rice says Chief Bratton needs more police officers in LA
Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice warns that with too few officers to "police humanely", parts of the city may as well be in Falluja.
Los Angeles is notorious for gang violence, but even by LA standards 2002 was gruesome. With 658 murders in just that one year, it became America's murder capital.
Of those murders, almost half were directly related to gang turf wars involving drugs and guns. And of those gangs, most are based in south-central or south-east LA.
With a spiralling murder rate and poor police-community relations following the Rodney King riots and the Rampart corruption scandal, the city appointed a new chief to clean up its act.
Amid much fanfare and hype William Bratton - the man credited with cleaning up New York's once-soaring crime rate under the political stewardship of former mayor Rudy Giuliani - was brought in to get LA under control.
Chief Bratton immediately appointed a second deputy charged with concentrating some officers in gang areas and targeting gangs. He also prioritised improving relations with minority communities.
And 2003 saw the overall murder rate fall in LA by 23%, but so far this year the murder rate is back on the increase across the city.
The LAPD's figures show a 5% year-on-year rise in homicides from Jan to April 2004.
And while the number of homicides fell in some neighbourhoods last year, it only ever continued to rise in the hardcore gang areas.
In civil-rights lawyer Connie Rice's words, the officers are simply "shovelling quicksand" - and without more equipment, back-up, effective witness protection, training and, crucially, more officers, they are fighting a losing battle.
And she should know. Having worked with the community and the LAPD on various initiatives and reform programmes ever since the 1992 Rodney King case sparked riots, she is now about to begin investigating the newly re-opened Rampart police corruption scandal inquiry.
Aside from a rising homicide rate, Ms Rice warns that the gangs are crossing a line that has not been crossed before: They are now targeting police officers themselves.
She says: "It's one thing for gangsters to exchange fire with the police in situations, but we are now starting to see sniping. We are now seeing the ambushing of cops by gangsters and we should be panicking.
"We are on the way to a point of no return and we will end up in a Falluja situation. It is already a Falluja situation in some areas. LA is on the road to Falluja."
Ms Rice also claims potential witnesses are even being murdered by criminals inside jails because the prisons are "so overcrowded and thinly staffed". She says this has happened five times already this year alone.
She also says the situation with gangs was so out of control that even older gang leaders were frightened of today's members because they do not operate within a moral framework at all.
"Who's bringing them up?" one former Crips gang leader asked Ms Rice after telling her even he feared the younger gangsters. She warns when that happens, "We should be very, very afraid."
Ms Rice says the way LA is policed needs to be overhauled.
Ms Rice says even former gang leaders fear today's gangsters
She says the LAPD's tactics resemble those of an occupying army that is effectively at war with the community and only hopes to hold criminals in one area.
"It's a containment model. It's highly aggressive but we don't have enough cops to police humanely, just to keep crime contained."
Police officers routinely stop and search people in a bid to get information and under the law they are free to stop anyone on probation. In these areas Ms Rice says you can presume that 80% of the population are on probation.
She describes these tactics as creating "a police state, it is not a constitutional democracy in these areas", and believes the only way to control the gangs effectively is for the police to become part of the community.
She says the police must "act like part of the community, live there and talk to people because the LAPD needs community intelligence.
"The community is the only place. They are the only ones who know who is psychopathic and who's just wearing gang colours because they might get beaten or even killed."
She claims that while Chief Bratton has made "big changes at leadership level that doesn't mean the desk sergeant gets it."
Ms Rice is not optimistic for the future; she thinks it will take from 15 to 20 years before the changes Chief Bratton has succeeded with at leadership level reach the rank and file officers.
California is broke and the city has not been able to fund recruiting the extra officers Chief Bratton requested.
Ms Rice claims the city is about to close 10 swimming pools and business analysts are warning that teenagers face the toughest holiday job market this summer for 40 years.
With the existing, simmering tensions, without any increase in police numbers and a reduction in facilities and employment, Connie Rice warns LA is facing a "very long, hot summer."
In a statement to the BBC an LAPD spokesman quoted Chief Bratton as saying: "At a time when youth gang murders are on the rise, we need Congress to reject proposed cuts to juvenile justice funds.
"Instead, we must increase investments in the proven community programs working with our police to cut gang crime."
LAPD: To Protect and Serve? was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Thursday, 3 June, 2004 at 2100 BST.
Connie Rice, civil rights lawyer and co-director of the Advancement Project in LA, appears in the above television documentary.