Violence at Watts Pool Raises Questions of Safety in Areas Troubled by Gangs

John L. Mitchell, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2008

A day after opening the summer swim season in the midst of a ferocious heat wave, the L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks shut down one of the more troubled neighborhood pools in Watts after a band of young men took over the pool deck, attacked the manager and threw him, a lifeguard and a locker room attendant into the water.

The 109th Street Swimming Pool is between two public housing projects, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, and two competing neighborhood gangs. And it wasn’t the first time the facility had experienced difficulties.

Last year, the city stationed armed guards at the pool during swimming hours and installed video cameras in an attempt to monitor and control unruly crowds that had become a threat to the pool staff and younger swimmers.

But in the sweltering heat Sunday, trouble turned into terror. The pool was packed with more than 200 swimmers, and the two armed guards and six pool workers were easily overwhelmed when up to 30 men went on a rampage.

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“I want that pool open again, but it has to be safe for the staff and children,” she said. “Now we have 200 children who are out on the streets and doing what?”

News of the closure was not welcomed outside the pool, where a group of teenagers showed up expecting to escape the heat with an afternoon plunge.

“It’s hot out here,” complained Antwon Miller, 15, who briefly contemplated a trip to the county pool on 103rd Street. “There’s nothing to do. If we go over to 103rd Street we could get popped.”

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Some of the adults were complaining about the $2.50 fee to enter. There was rough play in the water, which grew cloudy because some swimmers did not rinse off before entering and because others jumped in wearing their clothes. Then came an announcement that the pool needed to be temporarily closed for cleaning.

“The water wasn’t safe,” pool manager Christopher Molina said. “It is our responsibility to make sure the water is safe. But they wanted us to know this was their pool and we just worked there.”

The atmosphere grew even more tense Sunday when pool officials announced, again, that the water had become too cloudy and the pool needed to be closed. A group of men in their 20s and 30s were told first in an effort to enlist their help, but they refused to go. “We asked them to leave and things went out of control,” Molina said. “They weren’t listening.”

Molina watched as his staff was quickly overpowered. The lifeguard on the tower was thrown into the water, followed by a locker room attendant. Molina said he was grabbed as he tried to make it to his office to dial 911. He was punched and thrown in the water, he said, and the armed security guards were unable to stop the crowd.

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At last week’s meeting, the task force vowed to come up with a comprehensive plan to guarantee safety at the 109th Street pool.

At Monday’s meeting, the plan focused on what it would now take to reopen the pool.

“You can’t open it,” insisted Roderick Wright, a task force member and Democratic candidate favored to win a state Senate seat in November. He added that the concerns of safety and liability weighed heavily on any decision to reopen.

The city would also face the task of staffing the pool. Molina and others refuse to return, insisting it is no longer safe. “The children in the neighborhood can’t enjoy the pool,” he said. “They need to empty the pool and never open it again.”

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The task force decided to look into tightening restrictions at the pool, better communication of rules of behavior, and enlisting the aid of older men who are respected in the community—the kind of efforts that have made a success out of a nearby midnight basketball league. They talked about imposing age limits, requiring swimsuits and even providing snacks for the children.

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