“Maria Ortiz’s civic awakening began when her husband fired a pistol into their front yard to ward off a gang member who had insulted him.
“Jose Ortiz hailed from a mountain village in Durango, Mexico, where residents were sometimes forced to take matters into their own hands because law enforcement was so far away. “But Ortiz was no longer in rural Mexico, and he spent time in jail for his actions.
“But Maria Ortiz said no. Short and garrulous, she had come to the United States from Mexico at age 6 and knew little about how government worked. She knew, however, that her poor and crime-ridden neighborhood was in trouble, and she wanted to do something about it.
“So, in late 2004, Ortiz volunteered when Herman Barahona, of Los Angeles County’s Community Development Commission, showed up a few months later asking for help in organizing residents to battle crime and blight. It was part of a larger county campaign launched to reach long-neglected communities.
“Barahona started by holding meetings at local churches and schools with a few immigrant parents, teaching a kind of Civics 101 class. Among the parents were several mothers at Lillian Street Elementary School, including Ortiz, who worked as a campus aide and whose son attended the school.
“Barahona taught them about each county department, such as Code Enforcement and Public Works, and how and where to go for help. Mostly he wanted to give them a sense of empowerment.
“At the time, Florence-Firestone was in the middle of a surge in violent crime, with 41 homicides recorded in 2005 — surpassing the homicide rate in some of the nation’s most dangerous big cities, authorities said. About half of those killed had no gang affiliation.
“At a community meeting, Sheriff’s Lt. John Babbitt surprised Ortiz and others by asking for their help in combating crime.
“Babbitt had been tapped as the first lieutenant assigned to Florence-Firestone as part of the county’s civic experiment.
“It was a tough assignment for a former SWAT supervisor with no experience in community policing and who didn’t speak Spanish.
“To complicate matters, many in the immigrant community were distrustful of law enforcement.
“‘We thought only negative things about the police,’ Ortiz said.
“But residents were impressed when under Babbitt, the Sheriff’s Department assigned 60 more deputies to Florence-Firestone. A special prosecutor was also sent to try neighborhood homicide cases.
“Babbitt renovated a sheriff’s substation and moved his offices there. When Ortiz asked him to speak to Lillian schoolboys who were forming a small gang, Babbitt and three deputies showed up in uniform.
“To help build trust in the community, Babbitt gave his cellphone number to neighborhood leaders. He also called in code enforcement officers on gang and drug houses — two of which have been destroyed. With the help of Public Works, he cleaned up a block of 93rd Street that had become another illegal dump.
“And at his urging, some 200 residents have gone through the Sheriff’s Department’s Community Academy, where they are taught about homicide investigations, the jail system, domestic-violence laws and emergency preparedness.
“‘We learned how they do their job, which is something we didn’t know,’ Ortiz said. ‘What’s been achieved is unifying the community with the police.’
“Since the Florence-Firestone experiment began, the neighborhood has had many successes.
“Crime is down. Last year, homicides dropped in half to 19 after a major law enforcement crackdown.”
Residents of Florence-Firestone flex their civic muscles. An L.A. County program helps the neighborhood organize, clean up blight and make civic government more responsive to their needs, by Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, November 25, 2007
Maybe things are getting better in LA.