When someone gets shot in Skipp Townsend’s community, he is often one of the first people on the scene. Sometimes he knows the victim personally. A former gang member, Townsend now works as a gang interventionist with the LAPD. His job is to find out why shootings happen and to prevent retaliation. Townsend sees himself as a “cushion” between the police and the community. “The police, of course, know protocol and procedure and the community doesn’t know that protocol and procedure,” said Townsend. “It’s just a matter of being bilingual.”
As an interventionist, Townsend deals with angry and grieving survivors: young men proving themselves and mothers facing their worst fears. It is painful, dangerous work, and the pay is terrible.
At 17, Townsend became a full fledged member of the Rollin’ 20s, a Bloods street gang from the West Adams neighborhood. He did jail time for selling drugs and stealing cars.
Skipp Townsend shares his story in the 2008 documentary, “Crips and Bloods: Made in America.”
At 34, Townsend was arrested again, facing two life sentences on an attempted murder charge. He says he was innocent. But he was in jail for nearly a year. “It was probably one of the worst times in my life, knowing I wasn’t the person they said I was,” he said. “But I still had some things that were in the closet, some things that had never been uncovered that I was wrong for doing, things that I didn’t get caught for. So I gave it to God and said you know this must be my fate.”
At the trial, the victim testified that Townsend was not the person who shot him. Two jurors still found him guilty and the trial ended in a hung jury. That close call changed his life:
“And I’m thinking wow, there’s an individual who was shot who came to court and said Skipp did not shoot me. And still two people voted that I was guilty. So when I saw that I’m thinking to myself: ‘I want to protect myself and not allow myself to ever be in a situation where people who don’t know me can make a decision, a permanent decision on my life.’”
Townsend quit selling drugs, stealing cars, and associating with the Rollin’ 20s. He reached out to activists working to reduce gang violence, and these community leaders became his mentors. He founded 2nd Call, a nonprofit that works to address the root causes of violence. “It’s much more rewarding much more fulfilling,” he said. “I may not have a street named after me or a park bench or something but I know that I have saved lives.”
Giving Kids a Safe Route to and From School in South LA
One way community members work to make sure kids stay safe is through a program called Safe Passage. The program helps LA students get to and from school safely by hiring community members to monitor the streets around schools in neighborhoods in gang territories. There are currently six Los Angeles schools with Safe Passage programs, five of them are in South LA. Watch a video about how Safe Passage operates near South LA’s Dorsey High School.