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LA's Response to Its Gang Epidemic

LA County has 850,000 children trapped in its gang hot zones. The City of LA has 300,000 of those kids in its boundaries.
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After six years of crime declines, Los Angeles has never been safer. Right? If you live outside of LA's gang hot spots, the answer is yes. If you're a kid living in a gang hot zone, the answer is, LA is less dangerous than it used to be, but you still can't go to the gang controlled park in your neighborhood, and you still face being shot dead for answering the question "Where are you from?" the wrong way.

No provisions in the federal stimulus, bailouts or plans for new jobs address the conditions of LA's gang hot zones. Fifteen percent unemployment would be a gift to these areas that have disintegrated under chronic rates of unemployment and incarceration that hover at 40% and higher. The new Promise Neighborhoods initiative aims in a better direction, but is not geared to deal with the gang reality on the ground in LA.

LA County has 850,000 children trapped in its gang hot zones. LA City has 300,000 of those kids in its boundaries. Ninety percent of the kids living in these zones report exposure to serious violence as victims or witnesses. A third suffer PTSD levels that match those of soldiers returning from dangerous missions in Iraq. After spending $25 billion in a thirty year 'war on gangs,' and after locking up 450,000 youth 18 and under in the last decade alone, Los Angeles had six times as many gangs and twice as many gang members. Estimates for the County are 800 to 1,000 gangs and anywhere from 70,000 to 90,000 gang members, only a small minority of whom are violent.

Something was seriously wrong with LA's approach to gangs. In a 2007 report, "A Call to Action," the Advancement Project and other advocates recommended moving from suppression- and incarceration-only approaches to the comprehensive public health approach that reduces the attractiveness of gang ideology and to holistic "wrap around" safety programs that keep children out of the reach of gangs and other dangers. Former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton and LA County Sheriff Lee Baca endorsed the report. As Chief Bratton has said, "You cannot arrest your way out of gangs." He is right - at least not anymore than the military can bomb its way out of an insurgency.

Despite this seemingly intractable problem, there has been notable progress. In the last three years, LA City has responded by establishing its first Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD). Mayor Villaraigosa designated twelve Gang Reduction and Youth Development Zones, all in gang hot spots throughout the City, and rolled out a Summer Night Lights safe parks program that gives parks back to neighborhood kids and families with late night activities that reduce crime, keep kids safe and build community cohesion among neighbors. In each of the GRYD zones, the City invests $1.5 million into targeted prevention programs for youth at risk of gang joining as well as hard core street gang intervention to interrupt the cycle of retaliatory gang violence.

Experimental and controversial, especially the gang intervention piece, the City is learning from past mistakes and creating new safeguards to support these programs and to ensure accountability, such as the City's first Violence Intervention Training Academy. The new Academy will train ex-gangsters to teach other former gangsters the skills of gang intervention--everything from keeping kids in a gang zone away from gang activity, to how to stop thinking like a predator, to protecting hospital emergency rooms from retaliation shootings. Unlike other high profile efforts in the Country, LA's gang intervention experts also train the police to work with gang intervention on the streets. Former Chief Bratton and his successor Chief Charlie Beck back this Academy, which is historic news in the world of policing. The heads of the LA Police Department and LA Sheriff's Department, LA's Mayor and City Council are beginning to push in the right direction with bolder action and a better approach. Although experimental, given the expanding gang epidemic, we have to push the boundaries by creating, testing and implementing new tools and strategies.

Even with falling rates of gang crime, the power and influence of gangs both in our prisons and hot zones are expanding. In LA's hot zones, they still control underground commerce, public parks, schools and housing. It goes without saying that they continue to exert their influence from our maximum security prisons. LA has a long way to go. The ultimate goal is to keep kids safe by reversing the attractiveness of gang ideology and culture, reducing the levels of PTSD, and changing our cultural norms that glorify gangs and violence. It is unclear whether the progress made in the last three years may be too little not soon enough. Stay tuned.