Johnny Torres is often the first person at the scene of a shooting in Los Angeles County’s First District.
A crisis and gang intervention worker, Torres isn’t there to investigate a crime, but to support the needs of victims and their family members.
Sometimes that support looks likes covering hospital expenses. Other times it’s helping families relocate for fear of retaliation from local gang members. In worst case scenarios, it could be helping cover funeral expenses. Then, there is the long path of addressing and unpacking the trauma.
“Investigators are gonna show up, they’re gonna get evidence and move on with the case,” said Torres, who works with Soledad Enrichment Action. “But who helps them in the process of healing and the process of rebuilding.”
Throughout the pandemic, homicides and violent crimes rose by 20% to 40%, according to officials. In areas like the Puente Valley, which includes cities including La Puente and the unincorporated communities of Bassett, Valinda, Avocado Heights and Hacienda Heights, serious violent crimes went up by 33% at the start of 2021, mostly due to clashes among local gangs.
With violence continuing to surge, interventionists like Torres, who works with the nonprofit Soledad Enrichment Action, have been stretched thin. In June, Torres and his teams responded to 15 shootings, mostly in East Los Angeles, La Puente and the communities in between. Averaging three to four calls per week, he has already been to about seven in July, including a shooting on the 60 Freeway over the July Fourth holiday weekend in which La Puente resident Luiz Mendoza 35, was killed, and his two teenage sons, 13 and 16, were wounded.
A $5 million plan approved earlier this week by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to reduce violence across the county looks to provide much needed support to community organizations.
Groups like Soledad Enrichment Action will now be able to apply for grants through the county’s Office of Violence Prevention, which will handle the new funds.
“We must work to identify the root causes that lead to increases in violent crime and providing communities with the tools to prevent it, including community-based approaches like gang-reduction efforts,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the spending plan, in a statement on Tuesday after the plan’s passage.
Such root causes of violence are multi-layered and vary between individuals, but are often attributed to systemic problems like joblessness, substance abuse, lack of mental health resources, lack of a quality education, or generational trauma and abuse in the household.
Torres and Soledad have been doing work in the Puente Valley since a surge of gang violence in the summer of 2019, helps fill some of those needs, hosting or connecting people to programs such as worker training, job placement, educational courses, mental health counseling, substances abuse treatment, and tattoo removal.
Six interventionists and one case manager handle the entire Puente Valley and run mostly on funding from Supervisor Solis’ office. Mirna Romero, director of operations with Soledad, said she hopes the county’s $5 million plan is the start of more robust and consistent funding. The goal, she said, is peace and long term changes in the community.
“We want to show residents it is safe to be out here and enjoy the community and interact with your neighbors,” Romero said.
Such assurances and funding are welcome in a city like La Puente, where residents have expressed fear of routine things like going out for an evening walk or watering their front lawns, worrying they could be hit by gunfire.
“We are happy that they are being funded, although we truly think they should be getting a lot more,” said Anthony Orozco, a La Puente resident and community organizer with La Puente Mutual Aid. He and other community advocates met with the Office of Violence Prevention and was encouraged by the offices’ willingness to listen.
La Puente Mutual Aid has been critical of local officials’ penchant to ramp up policing as a fix for increases in violence. The city of La Puente recently approved a plan to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand Sheriff’s Department surveillance throughout the city, a move that Orozco and others protested, citing concerns of privacy violations, racial profiling and harassment of the city’s working class and immigrant residents.
As an alternative to further policing and incarceration, groups like Soledad hope to use the new funding to hire more case managers, intervention workers, mental health counselors and perhaps establish more youth centers.
“This is truly a job where you’re trying to work yourself out of a job, ’cause if we’re successful and violence has been reduced, there’s no need for us,” Torres said. “But unfortunately, that time is not now.”
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