As gangs rise, so do calls for US-wide dragnet

Los Angeles takes lead in cooperation effort, with national conference and regional database.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At one end of Sgt. Steve Edward's office is a list of Los Angeles county gang homicides, up last year to 184. At the other end hangs a national map peppered with colored push pins, showing the migration of L.A. gang members to every state in America.

The twin points of data highlight what l.a.w enforcement experts say is a sobering trend nationwide: Gang violence is up sharply, and increasingly police say the problem requires national - not merely local - solutions.

Now, even as Congress is considering a bill to vastly expand federal antigang efforts, Los Angeles is becoming a leading advocate for greater coordination among police jurisdictions and the FBI.

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Local and statewide databanks are already operating across several jurisdictions, and police departments are working together to coordinate stings and drug busts, as well as share patrol cars, personnel, and even jail space. But L.A. police chief William Bratton says this must be viewed only as a start.

"No municipality in the country can solve this without help at the federal level," Mr. Bratton says in an interview here.

Not everyone agrees with Bratton that the FBI's focus should be as much on gangs as on the terrorist threat. But the problem is clearly on the rise. Across the country, youth-gang homicides spiked from 692 in 1999 to 1,100 in 2002.

Experts expect partnerships between l.a.w enforcement agencies to grow. "It's clearly time to develop a national strategy," says Matthew McLaughlin of the FBI in Los Angeles.

The FBI recently joined with Bratton and other national law enforcement officials to hold a conference on the challenge. Two more are to be held this year, to examine both the nature of the problem and how to create a larger, less permeable dragnet coast to coast.

Some analysts say such plans may be misdirected, arguing that Bratton overstates the extent of gang migration from such cities as Chicago and Los Angeles to rural and urban areas. "Bratton compares these gangs with the mafia, but they are no such thing. They are indigenous, local entities," says Malcolm Klein, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California who has studied gangs for 40 years.

But Bratton and others say the problem isn't getting enough attention.

"There is a giant need for Congress and [the] president to recognize that gangs are the emerging monster of crime in America," Bratton says. "The war on terrorism now needs to focus on domestic terrorism. People in America's biggest cities aren't concerned about a hijacked plane hitting their neighborhood as much as they are on edge about drive-by shootings and stabbings on their front lawns." And, he says, no city can face the challenge alone.

A case in point: Although L.A. recently made headlines by cutting its murder rate by 22 percent from the previous year, nearby jurisdictions are seeing a spike.

"Bratton has done a great job cracking down in Los Angeles," says David Berger, an assistant district attorney for the city of Lancaster, 90 minutes north of L.A. "Over the same exact period, our gang problem has shot sky high; His criminals are leaving there and coming here."

The Los Angeles Regional Gang Information Network was launched here last month by five regional districts. Used with the statewide intelligence database CalGang, the system is expected to multiply the coordination of antigang strategies. It can eliminate conflicts between two jurisdictions tracking the same criminals - and in some cases ensure greater safety by warning federal and local officers of drug busts planned for the same night.

"Until now, you had all these various law enforcement agencies more or less working alone," says Sgt. Frank Carey of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. "This is really a quantum leap in tracking crime and getting convictions."

Shared data collection - often put together after years of detective work on the street - has led to organized sting operations and has helped put 2,300 of L.A.'s most violent gang members in jail over the past decade.

"There are patterns to the way gangs move into an area; what businesses they infiltrate; how they affect education, health care, neighborhood employment," says L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca. "The point is we don't have a national strategy to deal with this and we need one."

Meanwhile, many police departments, faced with budget cuts, say they have had to commit resources to international antiterror operations. "[Congress] took the money from existing [domestic] programs, often those devoted to gangs," says Jonathan Miller, homeland security chief for the Los Angeles Police Department. "So now that all these same entities are looking for money to fight gangs, they are finding that it is all gone."

Now law enforcement departments are watching a bill by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Dianne Feinstein (D) of Calif. that would pump $700 million into antigang efforts across the country, and make street-gang recruitment a federal crime.

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