California's Orange County Looks For Answers to Youth Gangs, Crime


IN the national psyche, Orange County still summons images of citrus groves and Disneyland, planned communities and John Birchism. It flutters as the premier symbol of conservatism and theme park of the American dream.

But today this sun-spanked wedge of coastline south of Los Angeles is far from being monolithically conservative or socially innocent, if it ever was.

Explosive growth has transformed it into one of the most densely settled and diverse regions of the country - an area running, geographically and otherwise, from the barrios of Santa Ana to the ``Orange Riviera'' communities of Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar.

Along with these changes have come many of the woes that have bedeviled Los Angeles, its often reviled neighbor to the north: traffic, congestion, crime.

Last week, more than 750 parents, politicians, educators, community activists, and others crammed into a hotel ballroom barely a mouse ear away from Disneyland to confront the problem of youth gangs, a reminder that all isn't Oz. New gang strategy

While many communities and agencies in Orange County have been grappling with the problem for years, the county's first comprehensive anti-gang summit has given it broadened visibility - and, organizers hope, will lead to a more coordinated strategy to deal with gangs.

``Everybody is together on this,'' says Harriett Wieder (R), chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and a prime organizer of the event.

In group discussions around small tables, aided by ``facilitators,'' participants gave their perspectives on the roots of the problem - and what should be done.

The solutions ranged from the tough (stiffer sentences, more police, enforced curfews) to the tender (renewal of family values, more jobs and recreational outlets, improved child rearing).

Now all the ideas sit on blue sheets of paper in boxes in the county probation department, where they will be collated over the next few weeks.

Eventually, the lump will be kneaded into an action plan by a special 15-member committee that will likely carry recommendations for the board of supervisors, schools, state lawmakers, and others.

``We have broken the ice. We have all agreed there is a problem,'' says Colleene Hodges, a supervising probation officer with the county. The key now is to recognize that ``we all personally have to make changes. We have to establish kids as a priority.''

The stepped-up assault on gang violence comes at a propitious moment. Like everywhere else, crime is a rising concern in the county.

Even as residents were gang-busting in a ballroom in Anaheim, a new survey was released showing crime as the No. 1 concern in Orange County - ahead of jobs, the economy, and the perennial pet peeve, traffic.

It marked the first time since the annual poll by the University of California at Irvine began in 1982 that the issue topped the list.

While gang violence still represents a relatively small part of overall crime in the county, it is growing rapidly. Police point out that:

r Gang-related killings have jumped 566 percent since 1988, while the county population has increased 13 percent. About 60 slayings have occurred so far this year, a record.

r The number of gangs in the county has increased from 54 in 1985 to 293 this year.

r Gang membership has risen from 7,000 to 17,000 over roughly the same period.

These are not the Jack Webb numbers of Los Angeles County, of course, where 803 gang-related homicides were recorded last year and where there are more than 100,000 gang members - enough to fill a dozen Crystal Cathedrals. But the trends are disturbing, nonetheless.

The gangs in Orange County run the gamut. Latino gangs are the most prevalent, but, authorities say, there are Asian gangs, black gangs, and white skinhead groups. Westminster, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana have the highest concentrations, though violence has also erupted in upscale coastal towns like Newport Beach and San Clemente.

``We don't want to see the county go the way of other urban areas,'' says Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. ``That's why we're trying to get out in front of it.''

Though many see the need for more hardheadedness in dealing with the problem, as befits Orange County's image, there is an equally strong impulse to find ways to buttress the family, improve schools, and provide alternatives for youths. Support, not punishment

``The message is we have to show young people that we want to support them, not punish them,'' Ms. Wieder says.

Gang summits have become popular fixtures across the country - many of them convened by gang members themselves. Often, they produce more grandstanding than groundbreaking ideas.

The test now will be in garnering and sustaining the commitment to deal with the problem - at all levels.

``We did not get into this problem overnight,'' Ms. Hodges says. ``It is not going to go away overnight.''

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