East L.A. Park Users Lambast County On Crime, Park Service

By Gloria Alvarez and Jacqueline Garcia, EGP Staff Writers

It’s been nearly forty-six years since a park on Whittier Boulevard in unincorporated East Los Angeles was thrust into the center of the Chicano movement and the demand for civil rights and equal services long denied. During a community meeting last week organized by the Office of Supervisor Hilda Solis at Ruben Salazar Park, it was clear that for some local residents and park users, anger over too few services and mistrust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department persists today.

Renamed for the journalist killed by a tear gas canister deployed by a sheriff deputy in the violent aftermath of the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, Salazar Park is in many ways a symbol of Latino empowerment. It’s the place where memories of injustice run deep and political and cultural activism has a long history. It’s a place where the struggles that come from being working class in an area where gangs go back generations are just as deep, as is the fear and mistrust of the Sheriff’s department.

Lea este artículo en Español: Comunidad Arremete Contra el Condado debido al Crimen y Servicios del Parque

Over the years, the park has undergone many changes for the better, from programming to infrastructure improvements. Enrollment in recreational activities was up and gang violence was down. Hundreds of children, teens, adults and seniors participate in organized activities at the park daily.

According to some, that’s changing.

The meeting on March 17 was one in a series of meetings Solis is holding across the first district to bring county government closer to residents and visa versa. Representatives from the departments of public works, transportation, graffiti abatement, probation, parks and recreation and the sheriff’s department were on hand to explain what they do and how to get services if needed. What they got instead was an earful from frustrated residents with only two things on their mind: the uptick in gang violence in and around the park and the need for more affordable recreational programs.

Solis’ eastside field deputy, Joseph Martinez, acting as moderator, tried to keep the meeting moving and give all the panelists a chance to speak and take questions, but the audience repeatedly turned the discussion back to crime, park operations and the “high cost” of classes for families with more than one child in a program.

Speaker after speaker complained that park officials and the county are no longer listening to them, or paying attention to their needs.

Before the meeting, senior Chris Mojica, a longtime active volunteer and member of the Friends of Salazar Park, told EGP he was disappointed Solis has not personally come to meet with park seniors and see what’s going on. “She’s been in office for almost two years and she still hasn’t found time to come herself, that’s wrong,” he said. “What’s it going to take?”
Several speakers said gangs are taking over the park and they feel unsafe.

East Los Angeles residents complain to county staff and sheriff officers during a meeting at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

East Los Angeles residents complain to county staff and sheriff officers during a meeting at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Late last year, two brothers were killed in broad daylight while playing basketball. Last Saturday, just two days following the meeting, a male Hispanic allegedly tried to kidnap a young girl at the park, but was chased off by the girl’s mother. The suspect is still at large.

“Why isn’t the sheriff patrolling the area [around the park] more often?” asked Maria Ruiz in Spanish. “Some of us are afraid to come here,” another resident said.

Lt. John P. Anderson is assigned to the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station, which patrols the park and surrounding area. He said he is sorry residents feel unsafe and urged them to call 911 when they see something suspicious.

“We need you to call us, even if you call 911 they will [redirect the call] to the East LA station,” he explained.
In response to the uptick in gang violence, Anderson said the department has deployed more patrols to the area.

But while many spoke of the need for greater law enforcement, long-held feelings of distrust were also evident, with some in the audience wanting assurances that responding deputies would not “just shoot their neighbors.”

Someone might want to call about a domestic abuse situation, but they are afraid to call because they don’t know if you’ll just come and shoot their spouse, a woman in the audience told Capt. Steven Biagini, head of the East L.A. Sheriff’s Station,

“Why [do] you shoot people on and on? We are afraid to call the police because we may get killed,” said Victor Alcocer.
Officers are trained for the job and they don’t shoot unless they feel threatened or feel the lives of others are in danger, responded Biagini.

“I can guarantee you that I don’t come to work thinking I’m going to shoot somebody,” he told the audience. “We are here to help you, not to harm you.”

Biagini said in 2015 there were 12 murders in the eastside community, and three so far this year; figures one woman disputed as too low.  “I counted more than 12 in 2015,” she said.

To date, the majority of shootings have been gang on gang, not random, the captain said.

Property thefts, mainly of Honda vehicles, are up, he noted.

14-year-old Cecilia Cruz takes karate at Salazar Park and said she has seen people having sex, and found used needles in park restrooms,

“I’m seeing things I shouldn’t be seeing,” she said. “How are we supposed to reach our goals if the park is not helping us?” she asked.

Cruz told EGP she and her mother have made several police reports but haven’t seen any action from the authorities.
Armando Garcia, a dance instructor at the park since 1993, said in years past he had as many as 150 young people in his classes, but now only about seven girls attend.

“People were very involved in Salazar Park, but now people are afraid to come here,” he said. “I’m very disappointed with [the process of] the programs here,” he said.

Unfortunately, Biagini said, the “cycle of violence and gang activity” is generational and is not going to be fixed by just be putting gang members in jail. Education starts at home, he said, adding things could change if youth are given access to alternative programs.

You have to have money to be in those programs, countered several people in the audience, including Priscilla Acuna who grew up near the park and now wants to involve her children in park programs. But Acuna said it’s getting too expensive for low-income families who rely on the low- or no-cost park programs, noting that discounts for families with more than one child in a program have been cut.

“We are representing you [the park], but you are not helping us,” Acuna said.

Some blamed park Supervisor Lizette Andrade for making changes they claim make it too expensive to rent space at Salazar Park or raise the money they need for their programs, such as operating a snack bar.

Cruz’s mother, Wendy Rivas, said the karate program used to cost $100 per month for a family of four, but now every student 12 and older has to pay $50 per month, and those under 12 pay $40. Classes have been reduced from 40 students to about 15, she said.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

What many people do not realize, however, is that many of the instructors at county run parks are not county employees, but independent contractors or volunteers who set their own fees. Parks and recreation policy requires independent instructors to sign a 70/30 contract, which essentially means 30 percent of fees collected or money raised must be paid to the park to cover things like security, restroom maintenance, staffing, etc. They do not pay rental fees on top of the split, and it’s up to the individual instructor to decide if they will offer scholarships or discounts for siblings, Alba Ibarra with parks and recreation told EGP in an email.

Some fees can be waived, but groups must apply for them in writing, Andrade said, reminding one of the groups complaining that she has repeatedly asked them to write a letter outlining their request.

Ray Guerrero is an active senior volunteer with Friends of Salazar Park and defended Andrade’s work, saying she has done a good job, but suggested an Ad hoc committee of representatives of the various clubs and groups at the park could help iron out park issues.

“… [You] have to help us continue with our activities because we are the poorest here and nobody helps us,” said Adolfo Arriaga, a 25-year volunteer Aztec dance instructor who also pointed out that traditional Aztec dance costumes can costs in the hundreds of dollars. “We are not here to make ourselves rich, but to enrich our community.”

Martinez, with Solis’ office, started to tell the audience they could start working on new youth programs for the center, but was quickly interrupted by Acuna who felt he had missed their point.

“We don’t need more programs, we need more affordable programs.”

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March 24, 2016  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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