LOS ANGELES — As he wheels his black-and-white cruiser around the corner of Wilmington and 105th, Sheriff Deputy Peter Hecht's police radio crackles to life: "African-American male, heavily armed, wearing black pants and blue pullover, last seen running down Zamora Ave. and 98th."
Gunning the accelerator, Mr. Hecht steers down graffiti-scrawled alleyways, past barking junkyard dogs, rattling his cruiser's shocks - and partner's head - like a Maytag stuck on "wash" cycle. Two blocks away, he screeches into place alongside 15 other cruisers forming a two-block "containment zone."
As a helicopter circles overhead, a tailgate command post is set up. Canine patrols are called in, and house-by-house pursuit ensues. The target: a gang member. "This is pretty much the way it is here all the time," says Hecht. "We're getting a lot of practice at this."
After years of decline, the leading gang "war zone" in the country is seeing a disturbing spike in street violence that is raising concern from here to Washington.
In the past year, Los Angeles - home to 1 of every 8 gang members in the US - has experienced a 131 percent jump in gang-related homicides. Statistics have risen in every other category as well: felony assault, robbery, kidnap, rape, arson, and carjacking.
The sudden jump is causing apprehension not only in the stucco sprawl of Watts, East Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley here. It may also be an omen for what will soon be happening on the streets of other American cities.
Like other crime, illegal gang activity is tied to many social factors - from family life to economic issues, program funding to cultural changes. Some criminologists have warned that the nation's 10-year drop in crime may finally be on the way back up, citing isolated blips like the Los Angeles numbers as evidence.
"When you look for indicators for where the nation is headed in crime, you see more and more signs that our long drop-off has plateaued and might be headed back up," says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
As such, Los Angeles is being seen as a city to watch for lessons - both good and bad. On the positive side, the number of gangs in the city isn't growing. It has held steady in recent years at about 250, encompassing 56,000 members. Another 35,000 members are active across the county. Despite the flat growth, however, the number of gang-related homicides has risen by 111 so far this year - to 439, well over one a day.
View from the squad car
The scandal plaguing the Los Angeles Police Department - resulting in a temporary dismantling of antigang patrols - hasn't helped to keep the level of street violence in check. But other factors are at work as well. An evening cruise with sheriff's deputies Peter Hecht and Dennis Barron - and interviews with community leaders, law enforcement, and social commentators - reveal the complexity of the picture.
Social programs to help youth are down. So are intervention and law-enforcement programs targeted at gangs. Poor neighborhoods here have not shared in the nation's 10-year prosperity, ratcheting up all the incentives for youths to join gangs: a sense of community and identity, protection, recreation, and income.
Secure family life is scarce, while drugs and alcohol are abundant. Some of the reasons are more specific. Scores of paroled gang members have reignited turf wars. Imprisoned in the late 1980s, many are now returning to the 'hood without rehabilitation or new job skills - and they are taking up old habits of robbery, drug dealing, and burglary.
Because of these underlying forces, the rise in crime is seen by many as more than just a casual statistic. Deputies Hecht and Barron draw a picture of entire neighborhoods held hostage by just a few gang members "out to make a name for themselves."
"They sit in front of their houses or hideouts, drinking beer and cradling weapons," Hecht says. "Ninety-nine percent of the community may be good people, but they get stuck in a tit-for-tat local war over someone who stole someone else's shoes or coat at school."
It's not uncommon to be confronted eye to eye, say Barron and Hecht, by grammar-school kids holding a Mack 20 machine gun, AK-47 assault rifle, or a Dirty Harry-size revolver they can barely lift.
"Over the past few years, we have definitely become outgunned," says Hecht. "The only thing we have going for us is that we are trained in how to shoot. They are not."
A chief reason for the growing violence, many say, is the loss in recent years of community, church, school, and other programs aimed at turning kids away from gangs. These emphasized both counseling and alternative activities to hanging out on the street.
"We had a spate of intervention and prevention activities that were working well for a number of years," says Najee Ali, a local minister and newspaper editor. "Little by little, funding for those has dried up as officials have concluded the success of these programs meant their money was now better spent elsewhere."
No midnight basketball
One of the starkest symbols of this is at the Imperial Courts housing project in the center of Watts, where contractors three years ago stopped work on a community gymnasium. It was supposed to replace an earlier building that had been the center of area sports leagues and other youth programs. The structure stands half built, with skids of cement blocks sitting where jumpshots were expected to take place.
"They started building this years before Staples Center [downtown arena] was even on the drawing board," says Jerome "Smiley" Simmons, a former gang member who now works with youths. "This city has no problem building a multibillion-dollar palace in time for the Democratic National Convention. But it has turned its head away from finishing a tiny project like this because it's in a poor neighborhood."
Many gang-suppression efforts have been disbanded as well. One was a city-county effort known as Community Youth Gang Services, which put intermediaries on the streets - many of them former gang members - to try to contain violent outbreaks.
Another program, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), was temporarily disbanded in the wake of this city's so-called Rampart scandal, in which dozens of police officers have been indicted for using excessive force, planting evidence, and lying to courts to obtain convictions.
"By the temporary disbanding of CRASH units, done to improve the accountability of officers, gang members have been at least temporarily emboldened," says Cindy Miscikowski, a Los Angeles city councilwoman, who chairs the public-safety committee. "Unfortunately, with the disbanding of CRASH, we also eliminated senior lead officers. We depleted both avenues of community resources simultaneously."
Others see more fundamental forces at work that are endemic to Los Angeles - notably the wide gap between rich and poor neighborhoods here.
"These kids have grown up in a world in which the only way to make it is to join in the culture of choice - gangbanging with drugs, stealing, carjacking, and all the rest," says Perry Crouch, a former gang member who now counsels kids.
The gang as family
Still others see the rise of social permissiveness - reflected in the pervasiveness of gangsta rap, movie, and video-game violence - and the decline of the American family as other causes.
Los Angeles Police detective Tony Moreno, for instance, notes that only 1 in 4 American families now includes two married parents with kids living under one roof - half of what it was just 20 years ago.
"The real answer to this," adds Wes McBride, a 35-year veteran who heads up the sheriff department's gang unit, "is not just stopping gang activity on these streets or even in neighboring counties and states. The point for me now is, how are we as a society going to provide alternative lifestyles for these youths?"
Such lofty ideals were not on the minds of the officers pursuing a gang member on this inky-black night near Zamora Avenue. Drawing guns and flashlights, dozens of officers flip open street maps and speak sideways into shoulder-strap radios.
They plotted strategy. But after two hours, the operation is called off: The suspect can't be found.
Concludes Hecht, with a bit of dark humor: "This is his own gang neighborhood, so he might be inside his own house in his pajamas watching 'I Love Lucy,' by now."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society