The years of violence had worn them down. How could it not?
Ray Bercini and Curtis Woodle, two veteran Los Angeles law enforcement officers, felt a growing futility as their battles against gang crime were overwhelmed by continued cycles of death, retaliation and more death.
Bercini, a detective who has spent 15 years working on gang investigations for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, remembers being called into meetings designed to introduce officers to a different way of communicating, of trying to interact in ways other than just arresting and locking up offenders.
“I felt it was a waste of time to go through a bunch of feel-good stuff,” Bercini said, admitting that he sneaked out of the second meeting.
Sgt. Woodle of the L.A. Police Department recalled being forced to attend the first meeting in which then-University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll was scheduled to speak.
“I thought, ‘OK, somebody’s playing games,’” Woodle said. “Fine … whatever … it’s just another show.”
Except it wasn’t just another show. “This was one guy who actually followed through,” Woodle said.
As it turned out, Carroll – who would later become the coach of the Seattle Seahawks – didn’t just pop in to spread sunshine and rainbows, or imply some ludicrous connection between coaching football and the ability to quash the epidemic of violence that was eroding Los Angeles from within.
Carroll asked more questions than he offered answers. He said he had no idea how he could help, but he was willing to do whatever he could: Raise money, elevate awareness, go into the neighborhoods and talk to the offenders and victims … whatever it took.
Bercini and Woodle had seen too much blood to believe it was possible. Carroll changed that.
“Let me put it to you this way, when you’re immersed in dealing with death and violence for long periods of time, you sometimes come to believe there isn’t any hope,” Bercini said. “And then maybe somebody makes you think we do have something. With (Carroll), I think it was his being able to connect with people from the top levels and also with those on the streets. So, if you’re asking me, ‘Can one guy come in and stir people up and get them motivated?’ I have to say, yes, he really did.”
How? By offering more than rhetoric. Carroll used his position and visibility to create a nonprofit organization, A Better L.A., that helped involve corporate and monied entities. It brought together government and law-enforcement agencies, and helped support and fund the critical liaisons with the community.
He began showing up in the neighborhoods in the middle of the night for face-to-face talks with gang members. And the most important thing … he didn’t make a splash and run. He committed.
Can Carroll really be making a significant difference in the quality of people’s lives? Maybe even saving lives? Seriously, saving lives?
“Oh, please … yes … absolutely … absolutely,” Woodle said emphatically. “That man is my hero … and trust me, I don’t have that many.”
It was “Notre Dame” week of 2002, and Pete Carroll was driving up Figueroa Street on Monday morning when a radio news item caught his attention. Four people had been shot and killed over the weekend.
“By Thursday, with retaliations, 11 kids had been killed,” Carroll said.
Carroll is friends with Lou Tice, the founder of The Pacific Institute, a Seattle-based organization that touts itself as a group of “culture transformation experts.” Tice had made an open-ended offer to Carroll to collaborate if the right project ever arose. That day in the car, the need reached out and grabbed Carroll: Young people were dying in the streets of Los Angeles, sometimes on the very streets he was taking to work.
“(Tice) said, sure, I’m in,” Carroll said. “It took us quite awhile to get anything going, but once we did, stuff started happening. We had no organizational concept or understanding of how to do anything. I had no idea we’d have the ability to convene people the way we did. I was totally surprised by that.”
Emily Williams, formerly with the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and one of the early technical advisors for A Better L.A., said “the people who interface with the community always had trouble developing public-private partnerships and drawing press attention.” Recidivism rates near 80 percent, she said, made programs for ex-offenders a tough sell to those with the kind of money it would take to have an impact.
The A Better L.A. program helped build the necessary bridge.
“Once Pete Carroll got involved, it brought things to a whole other level,” she said. “Having his name on a flier meant at least a few thousand more people in attendance” at any event.
Bercini first was exposed to the group when he was asked to be a part of a “common language” training session set up by The Pacific Institute. At the time, there had been an effort to build a “multi-agency collaboration” to fight the gang issue, Bercini said.
When Carroll stepped in, it wasn’t as just a figurehead. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I can do, but I need to bring a voice to this,’” Bercini said.
The idea that Carroll and Tice promoted was to “create a different type of ‘normal’ for these children so that violence was no longer the ‘normal’ in their lives,” Bercini said.
Aside from the idea, Carroll brought instant visibility. “Sure … he was a celebrity, if you will, who helped champion our efforts on a bigger level,” Bercini said. Carroll’s profile as coach of the national championship USC program caused people to notice, and perhaps for some to awaken to the fact that the young victims weren’t just statistics on the news reports.
“Most people had been afraid to talk to or about these people (in the afflicted communities),” said Brian Center, executive director of A Better L.A. For Carroll to get involved “was a big symbolic gesture … (it showed) someone who is so successful who was there and caring about them.”
Carroll was surprised by the fuss.
“Hey, I didn’t know what I was doing … I was making it up as I went along,” Carroll said. “It surprised me that anybody would find it unusual or unique, but people did, and it got a lot of interest going. For me, I think it was just a matter of caring and listening. The biggest thing I did was just listen and try to understand what was going on.”
Bo Taylor, a former gang member who dedicated himself to gang intervention, plunged Pete Carroll into the middle of it all.
“He taught me by throwing me in the back seat of the car … let’s go,” Carroll said. “He wouldn’t tell me as much as he showed me. The more I went with him the more I felt comfortable understanding what the plight was, what the work was. And with that grew the connection, the bond. He introduced me to what was going on in the streets, and the cause got more clear to me, and the energy and passion for it became more obvious.”
On one early stop, Taylor took him to the home of a recently released felon who had a partner and baby to support, with no hopes of finding work.
“He wanted to work; he wanted to do the right thing; he wanted to be a good guy,” Carroll said. “He screwed up a couple times early in his life and now what is he going to do? Is he going to let them not eat … or is he going to try to figure out a way?”
Carroll gave him a start by hiring him to work at some football camps, and now he’s a gang-intervention worker. “The system is supposed to turn out a person who is fixed, but he’s labeled, and you can’t get rid of that.”
Taylor died of cancer in 2008, but he taught Carroll that the only way to address the issue was to walk the ground where it lives.
A “60 Minutes” feature on Carroll in December 2008 showed him talking to young gang members on one of his late outings, urging them to “save a life … save somebody’s life … give that gift to somebody’s mother.” To one young man, he gave his cell number, telling him he could call if he found himself in trouble. He asked them to imagine how amazing it would be if they could be the ones who put an end to the violence and death.
“He invited gang members into his world,” Woodle said. “I mean, here was the USC football coach out there with them in the middle of the night. Some of these guys … they’re not listening to anybody else, and they don’t care about anybody else, but Pete Carroll comes in there and stops them dead in their tracks. Even the bad guys … stops them dead in their tracks.”
Getting to the young people before the gangs do is a key, Woodle said. “We always say, if you can catch ’em before they taste blood, you can save them.”
And that’s a part of the primary message Carroll spreads: That they can follow a different path.
“If you’re a kid who grows up in the streets, and they believe they’re either going to die or go to jail, then that’s their vision of their life, and that’s what’s going to happen. What you envision, you create,” Carroll said. “We have to help them to develop the ability to see a vision that’s better than that, that has hope.”
“The cops … everybody … is totally behind it,” Center said. “For the first time in L.A., every top law-enforcement official agrees, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem … that strategy alone wasn’t working.”
Carroll frequently reiterates the importance of the point that is stated in the slogan for A Better L.A.: “Helping change communities from within.”
The “real MVPs,” Carroll said, “are the guys in the neighborhood, the intervention guys; they’re the guys doing the real work. We support every guy we can, but we can’t support them all. The state and city governments have a hard time thinking they’re going to write checks to former felons.”
The nonprofit A Better L.A., then, is a connection from the money to the people doing the job in the community. And while Carroll’s visibility is crucial to the legitimacy and fund-generating capability of the program, he has to be cautious that it’s not exploitative.
“He’s very, very humble and careful,” Bercini said. “He understands the dangers to all of us, in law enforcement and the guys on the street. He didn’t want cameras involved (on the “60 Minutes” feature) because he’s connected to these people, to the gang members, to the people in the projects, to the moms. He goes and talks to them all; he wants to know their stories and all they’ve gone through.”
And maybe the most important message that Carroll sends into the troubled communities, according to Bercini?
“That we’re not going to forget you.”
Playing three sports at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., Pete Carroll didn’t have much time for social consciousness. But it was the 1960s, and he recognized that “the whole world was changing around us, and I was a little frustrated at the time that I couldn’t do much.”
Dave Perron, vice president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, saw in Carroll some of these qualities when they were junior-college teammates. “He’s not much different than he was 40 years ago,” said Perron, who always recognized in Carroll something he calls a “high EQ – emotional quotient.”
“Great leaders have really high EQs,” Perron said. “Pete’s had this forever – great empathy and sympathy; it makes him someone that people love to be around. He lifts people up … there’s nobody like him. He makes you proud to have him as a friend because he’s absolutely genuine … one of a kind.”
Bob Troppmann, Carroll’s 87-year-old high school coach, put Carroll to work at camps even when he was so small he was barely allowed on the football team. “Other kids were always around Pete and his family; that family had an open door. All those guys have stayed close to him. He’s always been the same guy, very humble, very loyal.
“There’s been no changes in him … always upbeat, always grab you and give you a hug.”
Although Carroll wears some of the merit badges that resonate in the football community (a nose that testifies to his willingness to tackle with his face, and a right ring finger that looks like a diagram of a dog-leg par-5), he is a fast-talker with a degree of polish, and he is open to nontraditional techniques. In some coaches, those things are seen as veneer.
But a number of sources offer examples of Carroll’s unseen substance.
Asked about Carroll’s social involvement, Troppmann said: “He doesn’t do any of that stuff for credit; and he does so much that nobody ever knows. There’s really a lot to love about that guy … sometimes it makes me cry.”
For example? “He called me from the sidelines before every game at USC,” Troppmann said. “Very short, but always very nice. Just a little thing like something somebody would do for their father.”
After USC placekicker Mario Danelo died from a fall off a cliff in 2007, Carroll “did so much for our family,” said father Joe Danelo, a former Washington State University and NFL placekicker.
On the first placekick of the next game, Carroll sent 10 men onto the field … no kicker … as a missing-man salute to Mario.
“It was surprise to us,” Danelo said.
More surprising were Carroll’s personal visits. “He came to the house a few times to talk with my wife and I after Mario passed, and that was important to us,” Danelo said.
Beyond the emotional support, “he donated the money from his speaking engagements after the season to a scholarship fund for Mario at USC,” Danelo said. “People don’t know about that. He didn’t have to do that. I can’t say enough about him; he’s an honest and generous person. Any of the stuff he does … it’s never to get anything in return. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful human being, and as real as it gets.”
Stories abound of coaches sleeping in their offices to accommodate their 20-hour work days. So where does Carroll find the time for his off-the-field projects as well as coaching?
“Spaces between the spaces,” he said. “You’ve got to maximize.”
On Feb. 20, comedian Will Ferrell hosted a show titled “Make It Better” at the Nokia Theatre in L.A., with proceeds going to A Better L.A. The show drew 7,000.
The flow of money is making a difference, Carroll said. He’s seen places like Helen Keller Park, that was once nothing but gang territory, turned into a community gathering place.
“Everything feeds off the violence,” he said. “If there’s no violence, the community can grow and flourish, and the education process is better because kids aren’t afraid to go to school. City parks are bubbling with activity instead of nobody going there because of the violence.”
His move to Seattle will not affect the existing L.A. programs, Carroll assures, because “it’s not me, it’s the people doing the hard work down there, the guys who get up every day and work on this. The effort that we began years ago isn’t stopping. The work is way bigger than me.”
Is Carroll interested in starting a similar program in Seattle … a place that officer Woodle said has a surprising “gang subculture”?
“My interests are everywhere,” Carroll said. “I hate it that I can’t go to Haiti. I hate it that I can’t go downtown Seattle, that I can’t go back to L.A. and do all the stuff that needs to be done.”
For now, the focus is on the program in L.A. “because if we are able to be part of a cause-and-effect, to uncover a system deemed effective there, then we could do it anywhere.”
These are the “hows” and the “wheres.” What is the “why?”
“Oh, I take a lot more out of this than I give,” he said. “But the real reason for doing it is because, for me, it’s the right thing to do; there’s so many causes, so many issues, I just have to find ways to contribute.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440