Spike in gang murders prods L.A. toward action

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At Lucy Florence Coffeehouse in the city's South Central district, neighborhood residents gather for a grief-and-anger ritual that has become as common as the growing wave of gang violence that spawned it. In a small gallery space, parents of gang-related murder victims step to the microphones to express outrage, sorrow and calls-to-action to assembled civic leaders and reporters.

"This wicked evil has to stop," says Charlene Lovett, mother of 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Green, killed in December. Cheryl, a black girl, was playing with friends on the wrong side of town when she was shot by a Latino gang member, according to police. It was one of 269 gang-related murders citywide in 2006. Overall, crime is down but black leaders say a new level of Hispanic versus black hate crimes has erupted – a claim that police say is not showing up in statistics.

Neither side disputes that violent gang battles have spiraled out of control in recent months – from prisons to schools to the streets – producing a "climate of fear higher than any time in the history of this world capital of gangs," in the words of Najee Ali, a local black activist. That happened as Hispanics numbers have grown, pushing into neighborhoods that were predominately black.

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If any city in the US has the know-how to attack the plague of gang violence, it would be L.A., which tried many approaches during the urban warfare that rocked this city in the 1980s. There is hope that it will not have to reinvent the wheel, but rather that key players – city leaders, the schools, the police, the courts, churches, and community activists – are poised to spring into collective action to try to defuse the tensions underlying the violence.

Some call it an antigang "Marshall Plan," a reference to the US tactic after World War II of a massive investment in what was formerly enemy terrain. A shocking 14 percent jump of violent gang crime in 2006 – even as the city as a whole has seen overall crime drop for five straight years – is what is spurring all to act now.

New category of hate crime

Recent killings of blacks by Hispanics is a new category of hate crime, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author of several books on the black image in America. Riots fanned by tensions between blacks and Hispanics in L.A. jails last year and in inner city high schools reflect a new competitiveness for jobs, services, parks, and other public spaces, he says.

"There is a spiral of violence over turf, drugs, guns, crime," Mr. Hutchinson says. "Now there is another element of fear for lives and safety that multiplies the tension and the resentment."

Gang violence is contained in pockets of the city, and has been somewhat hidden by the fact that violent-crime rates citywide have, in general, been dropping.

"I never knew [the gang violence] was as strong as it is until this happened," said Ms. Lovett, speaking of her daughter's murder.

Los Angeles police are ratcheting up enforcement with tactics such as "Top Ten" lists – one of "worst gangs" and one of "worst leaders" – to target the most egregious suspected offenders of the city's 720 street gangs and their 40,000 members. They are increasing the use of injunctions to prevent public gathering of gangs and nuisance-abatement lawsuits that target their permanent hangouts.

New collaborations with federal, state, and local agencies will pool money and resources. Among new ideas: better tracking of gang members who reenter neighborhoods after release from prison.

But officials say they have come to realize that the gang epidemic here is largely immune to increased crime crackdowns.

"We have been stuck on 'stupid' in fighting gangs," says Constance Rice, author of a new study and 100 recommendations presented to the L.A. City Council Wednesday.

Police see they "cannot arrest their way out of the gang violence crisis," and are moving to a "comprehensive, neighborhood-based, schools-centered" approach, in the words of the study.

The City Council in 2005 ordered the multiyear study by the Advancement Project – a national group that seeks to build multiracial democracy – with the intent of implementing it in phases after researching and testing new ideas.

"Over the past three decades the city has spent $50 billion on the problem and now has six times as many gangs and twice the number of gang members," says Rice. The study concludes: "The city needs nothing less than a Marshall Plan to end gang violence."

This means new ideas for job and community development, child development, and education and public health initiatives.

Officials say the broader view is needed to keep the metropolis from reaching a point in which violence spills into affluent and safer communities.

"The proliferation of gangs and their increased violence threatens to undo all that we have achieved in crime reduction all over the city," says Anthony Pacheco, one of a five-member Board of Police Commissioners.

Community leaders working together

Through the years, studies have attempted to fix L.A.'s image as the "capital of gangs," but no approach has been as comprehensive, according to the lead gang-liaison for the mayor's office.

"What is different now is that everyone realizes for the first time that enforcement is only a short-term fix," says Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied L.A. gangs for 20 years. She says some recommendations from prior offensives were not implemented due to lack of political will and public attention. That seems to have changed.

"The stars are aligned with everyone on the same page ... a committed police chief, a new mayor, a city council that is truly interested and a community that has had enough," she says. So far, $22 million annually is spread mainly between two programs, one for school-based prevention and the other for community development.

Lack of coordination made the 23 separate antigang programs ineffective even though L.A. was spending $82 million per year on them. The report suggests a single "gang czar" who can "transcend the drag of torpid bureaucracies."

Researchers looked at what has worked in other gang capitals – Chicago, New York, and Alameda County, Calif. – but concluded that Los Angeles is unique in its geography, structure, history, and culture of gangs.

Instead, researchers point out a community model that had been tried in L.A., which they want to emulate. For nine weeks during the summer of 2003, local basketball courts stayed open past midnight for games. Community groups offered computer games and tutoring from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. – the hours when most violence occurs. Gang intervention workers negotiated with local gangs for no-violence agreements, while a local radio station provided coverage of progress.

"At the end of 14 weeks there was a clear record ... not one shooting or killing or battery or assault," recalls Rice.

New county-city initiative

Just this week, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and City Councilman Tony Cardenas announced a county-city initiative for five new parole officers to deal with gang problems in the San Fernando Valley, home to about 1.2 million. The region saw a 42 percent rise in gang violence in 2006. The city council has already committed to 1,000 more police officers over the next five years, increasing the ratio of 1 officer for every 445 residents, less than half the rate in New York.

Some observers worry that momentum for change could stall. The mayor and police chief "will pay lip service to Rice's recommendations, but you won't see a concerted effort ...to seek out the massive resources needed to implement the social service, jobs, and education approach to curbing gang violence," predicts Hutchinson.

For Lovett, the added force is welcome, but only part of the picture. "We need to come together as a community to get to the root of the problem between races here. This has been going on for years, and I've never faced it until it happened to me."

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