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To deter crime, Los Angeles leaves the lights on

The Summer Night Lights program, started in July, combats gang and gun violence during the summer months by keeping parks and recreation centers in Los Angeles's highest-crime districts open until midnight.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2008

Hip-Hop Class: Brizanery Gomez (r). works on audio recordings with Jay Smooth during a Summer Night Lights class at a park recreation center in Los Angeles.

Mary Knox Merrill – staff

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Los Angeles

The lights burned late on a recent Saturday, casting an inviting glow over Ross Snyder Park in a notoriously rough South Los Angeles neighborhood. The park pulsated with the sound of children as the community staked its claim – at least for a few hours – to the fields and benches that typically turn into the province of gang members when night falls.

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Throughout the summer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is keeping eight city parks and adjoining recreation centers open until midnight four nights a week in some of the city's highest-crime districts. There's basketball and soccer, hip-hop and free food. He hopes it's enough to draw some of the city's most at-risk young people away from the sway of the 720 gangs active in the city.

It is too soon to judge the impact of the program dubbed "Summer Night Lights" that began July 4, but early indicators suggest it's having an effect. As of Aug. 2, homicides dropped 5.2 percent citywide compared with the same period last year and Los Angeles recorded 19 homicides last month, compared with 42 in July 2007. That's the lowest monthly total since March 1970.

The city did not provide statistics for the areas around the eight parks it's targeting over the summer, but the mayor's office said "overall crime, gang-related violence, and homicides are down" in those parts of Los Angeles.

Anticrime initiatives such as these are certainly not new. But with a broad approach that involves both intervention and outreach, Summer Night Lights could prove to be a model for battling gang violence. It's forging cease-fires between rival groups to ensure that turf battles don't punctuate the late-night affairs, and it's employing corps of young people in groups called Youth Squads to promote and staff the programs.

"I hope that it becomes a template for what we need to do across the nation to address the scourge of gun and gang violence," says Mr. Villaraigosa. "The fact of the matter is that you have to do it all. You have to have suppression. You have to do prevention and intervention, and you have to make a serious investment in both."

The mayor's office raised nearly $1 million from donors to fund the program that will run through Labor Day in its Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) zones.

"When we started conceptualizing Summer Night Lights, we wanted to create a space that would be a safe neutral zone for young people," says Tony Zepeda, GRYD program manager for the Newton district, which includes Ross Snyder Park. "If there's a gang member who wants to play basketball, soccer, or box, they are not going to be harassed."

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers were nowhere to be seen that night. But Mr. Zepeda says they were indeed there and ready to respond if needed. Officers keep a low profile, he says, so they don't frighten off gang members who may want to come out and join in, which is an important component of the initiative. While the program aims to steer potential members away from gangs, organizers also want to show those already initiated a way out.