Editor's note: This post gives the backstory to a one-hour CNN documentary, "Homicide in Hollenbeck," that airs tonight on "360."
The scale of the gang problem in Los Angeles and other major cities is, in a way, too big for television. Narrowing our scope to one police district, the Hollenbeck Division, in the heart of L.A., gave us the vehicle to take viewers into a subculture most of us try to avoid.
The big question: How do we open Hollenbeck's front door?
Our first step was to listen. For background interviews, we met with police officials, social workers and former gang members. Their different perspectives helped us understand the neighborhood's dynamics, the long history of Hollenbeck gangs, the frustrations of police in gang suppression, the efforts at prevention and the overwhelming impact of intimidation by violent gangsters.
Each expert led us to others. Eventually, we were being introduced to active and former gang members willing to tell us about their lives. The younger ones were typically boastful and impulsive. The older ones ("old" meaning mid-20s) had an outward self-confidence that commanded respect. In this case, being respected and being feared were one and the same, because "respect" in the world of Hollenbeck gangs is earned through violence. A gang members willing to fight are "riders." The ones who are not are "bitches."
A high-ranking official in the Los Angeles Police Department tried to discourage our access, openly fearful that our report would stigmatize Los Angeles as a combat zone. Fortunately, rank and file officers and their immediate supervisors were open to telling us about what they do and why they do it. Several gang cops in Hollenbeck had grown up around Latino gangs. Some had relatives who were members.
Was our work dangerous? It was always in the back of our minds and sometimes at the forefront. One gang member came to an interview carrying a gun and a belligerent attitude. My colleague, Stan Wilson, persuaded him to leave. Other gang members, seeing our camera out in the neighborhood, were simply curious. One smoked grass during the interview; we were aware that if he misconstrued an innocent remark by us as disrespect, it could lead to violence. Still other gang members were hospitable and escorted us to their most impressive gang graffiti. One even offered to have "the little homies" tag an overpass so we could film the action. We thanked him for the offer, but declined.
One veterano seemed to pop up wherever we went. John was in his 40s, drove an old red convertible and some mornings drank from a bottle in a brown paper bag. The last time I saw him, he was coming out of a laundromat with a tiny Chihuahua tucked inside his shirt. The incongruous image of this heavily tattooed vato sheltering the vulnerable puppy symbolized one of the questions we had about what gang-bangers call la vida loca - the crazy life: Why do they join the gangs when it so clearly leads nowhere? To this day, I do not have a complete answer.
We went into Hollenbeck with an open mind - not about the criminal behavior, but about the people who do it. Are they predators or misguided youth? Sociopaths or victims of society? Weak-willed drug abusers or people who need help?
We met gang members from each category. Gang banging is for the young guys. By their mid-to-late-20s, many gang members say they "get tired of being tired" and want to settle down. But the strong pull of the gangs - "homie love," they call it - makes breaking away difficult. Their education had come more from the streets than the classroom. And their horizons have been limited to what they saw in the confines of their gang turf. In some way, these were among the saddest stories in Hollenbeck: gang members who wanted to change their lives but lacked the skills to do it.