In the war against gang violence in the harbor area, police are losing.
During the first eight months of this year, 349 violent gang-related crimes were reported in the Harbor Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, a 29% increase over the same period last year;
Five gang-related murders occurred in the division--which includes San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and southern Harbor Gateway--during the same period, and a fatal shooting at the Normont Terrace housing project in Harbor City last weekend may have been the sixth, police said. There were six for all of last year, according to police statistics.
Eleven times this year, gang members have riddled homes with bullets in drive-by shootings, compared to four times in the same period last year. So far this year, gang members have been involved in 15 rapes, compared to five last year, and eight attempted murders, compared to three.
For the second year in a row, the harbor area ranks fourth in gang violence among 18 police divisions in the city, climbing past the Hollenbeck Division in East Los Angeles and surpassed only by three traditionally high-crime divisions in Watts and South-Central Los Angeles.
Gang membership has been exploding as fast, if not faster, than gang-related crimes. Police know of 1,800 gang members in the harbor area, up 156% from three years ago. They expect the growth to continue.
Frustrated by a seemingly insurmountable enforcement task, police and others who deal with gangs are beginning to look for new ways to combat gang crime--particularly in places away from the streets where the violence reigns. Following the example of drug prevention programs, authorities, social workers and educators now agree that the key to stemming gang violence is to get to potential members--and their families--before the gangs do.
"We have tried the enforcement aspect of this for years, and so far we don't seem to have made any great headway," said Police Lt. Mike Markulis of the Harbor Division. "Harbor is not a Sleepy Hollow when it relates to gang activity. We have a serious problem."
In a move that reflects the philosophical shift from enforcement to prevention, two instructors this week will begin meeting with hundreds of fifth-graders at eight harbor-area elementary schools to persuade them not to join gangs. And at night, the same counselors will target the youths' parents, encouraging them to find ways to keep their children off the streets.
The 15-week program begins Monday morning at Wilmington Park Elementary School, an overcrowded school in an impoverished, predominantly Latino neighborhood on the edge of Wilmington's industrial core. It continues Tuesday night in the school's auditorium when counselors will lay out the fundamentals of the program for parents.
'Facts About Harsh Life'
"It is important that the children know the facts about the harsh life of gang violence," said Maria Figueroa, one of two instructors who will lead the program. "A gang is not a social club, like some people pretend it to be. It is really a violent group, and once they join the gang, they will end up in prison--or dead in the cemetery."
The program, the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is modeled after a heralded gang-prevention program introduced three years ago in elementary schools in the Paramount Unified School District. Officials there say that interviews with students who participated showed that none had joined gangs after leaving the fifth grade.
The harbor effort, called the Gang Alternatives Program, has been financed for one year with a $98,000 grant from the United Way and has been set up with the cooperation of the police and school, city and county officials. Figueroa and Hector Galindo, the two instructors, were hired by United Way.
The program was conceived by the San Pedro/Harbor Round Table, a 25-member advisory board of community leaders set up by United Way to find ways to combat youth violence. Similar boards were established in South-Central Los Angeles, where a gang-prevention program is expected to begin in schools next month, and in the Pasadena-Altadena area, where a similar program has begun.
In announcing the harbor program last week, Angie Papadakis, who chaired the local round table, likened the effort to building barriers on freeways:
"What we are doing . . . is launching a program that will put cement dividers between children and violence. We want to keep them from collisions with gangs and drugs and guns."
John Greenwood, the Los Angeles Unifed School District trustee who represents the harbor area, said the long-term goal of the program is to eliminate gangs, a sentiment echoed by other educators and police.
"We are looking at this as a kind of pilot program, and I would hope that we would be able to extend it throughout the district," Greenwood said. "Our goal is to eliminate gangs through education."