After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.
Homicide has fallen by 66 percent in the Los Angeles area during the past 20 years, according to Los Angeles Police Department records. “It’s a new day now,” says LaWanda Hawkins, founder of Justice for Murdered Children, who sees the families of victims on a day-to-day basis. “I am thankful [even though] I hate that someone had to lose their life for this to take place,” she says. But for mothers, such as Hawkins, whose children have been slain on the streets, the 283 homicides that took place in 2015, and the 267 that have occurred year-to-date are still far too many.
The nonprofit organization Justice for Murdered Children guides families through the next steps following the murder of their loved one. Although the name implies Hawkins only works with cases involving minors, she works with murder victims of all ages because, she explains, whether a victim is 9 years old or 90 years old, “Everyone is someone’s child." Services include counseling, guidance through the complicated criminal justice system, assistance with burial expenses, agency referrals, youth education, and advocacy initiatives. Volunteers and staff members organize fundraisers and holiday events, such as the full turkey dinners that were provided to victims’ families this past Thanksgiving. Sometimes, helping just means picking up the phone. Other times, it means accompanying a family at a graduation. Hawkins helps every client in different ways. “We can’t make it right but we try to at least assist,” she says.
The organization was founded following the murder of Hawkins’ adolescent son in December 1995. His unsolved case was one of 838 homicides recorded that year. Hawkins spoke with the parents of other murdered children and they felt as frustrated as she did. “There were a whole bunch of homicides and nobody was getting any help,” she said. “They had turned their backs on us.”
Soon after, she met then-homicide detective Sal LaBarbera, who worked out of the LAPD’s 77th Street Division. He was key in starting a dialogue with the community, Hawkins recalls.
“Sal got to meet the families and got to build a personal relationship with these people,” she says.
Now retired, LaBarbera is working on projects related to his 28 years in the force, such as the documentary “South Bureau Homicide” (airing locally on KCET and nationally on Link TV on Wednesday, November 30). According to Hawkins, the film captured the communication channel that has been established between the police and citizens over the years. Today, she assures she can call South Bureau Deputy Chief William “Bill” Scott and get immediate response. A monthly meeting has been set up for families of victims and police officers at the 77th Street Police Station, a type of collaboration that was unheard of in 1995.
“[Police officers] are used to seeing the bodies, but now they get to see the parents of these murder victims and hear what they’re saying and how they feel,” she says.
Justice For Murdered Children is currently working with the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff to create a homicide response system. Unlike domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, drunk driving, or pet abuse cases, there is no first response team in place to assist the families of murder victims at the scene, she says. This level of support is particularly necessary to prevent the common case of hysterical family members being arrested at the scene. Officers should receive training on how to respond to distraught family members while protecting themselves as well, she says.
“Putting a gun to my head because I’m crying about my child being murdered is not treating me with dignity and respect,” she says.
Also, the organization has advocated for the creation of public databases that list unsolved homicides to prevent them from falling by the wayside. Among many factors, limited funding and lack of transparency about unsolved homicides receive major blame for the one-third chance of getting away with murder in the U.S., according to an NPR investigation. With only four of every 10 U.S. law enforcement agencies accounting for unsolved homicides in computerized systems, police could be much more effective at tracking and solving homicide cases, says former journalist Thomas Hargrove of the Murder Accountability Project. Data collected by this project shows that while 65 percent of Los Angeles murders were solved between 1985-1994, this “clearance” rate decreased to 55 percent between 1995-2014. The decreasing share of solved murders is troubling to Hawkins. She continues urging different law enforcement agencies across the region to expand their efforts to solve cold cases in a more strategic and integrated way.
In addition to improved response and investigation methods, Hawkins says the community must work together to police each other and hold each other accountable.
“We are the law enforcement,” she says. “We have to take responsibility for what goes on in our community.”
For now, Justice for Murdered Children is focused on fundraising (the nonprofit organization receives no government funding because it doesn’t work directly with gangs, she says), preparing Christmas gifts for victims’ families, and forming critical homicide response teams with the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department. She is also celebrating a recent win for her organization. Arrests were made to solve two of her unsolved cases in November. This is one of Hawkins’ most rewarding metrics of success — achieving justice for the family of every single murder victim in Los Angeles.
Top image: Photos of murder victims are displayed during National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims on September 25, 2009. The rally to honor murdered loved ones and fallen law enforcement officers was organized by Justice for Murdered Children (JFMC) founder LaWanda Hawkins and Southern California Crime Victims' organizations. David McNew/Getty Images