Faced with escalating gang violence, including murder, the Los Angeles County Probation Department is testing a way to keep gang members off the streets during times of trouble by using a computer.
It works this way:
Gang members who are on probation will be told to stay home during "Red Alerts," declared by the Probation Department--in conjunction with police and sheriff's deputies--when conflict threatens to escalate into open warfare.
To make sure that they do that, a computer will telephone the designated gang members at random during the hours they are restricted. The computer will direct them to state their names and repeat after the computer as it names several states.
The computer will then electronically analyze their responses and compare the findings with voice tapes made earlier. If the computer questions any of its contacts, it will notify monitors, and a probation officer will be sent to check in person.
The six-month pilot program will be tried first at Aliso Village, a city housing project east of downtown near the San Bernardino Freeway. The project is home territory of at least 10 gangs, described by authorities as "very, very reactive and violent."
"There have been some recent shootings there, and . . . we're really worried that all hell could break out," said Probation Department Deputy Director Michael Lindsey.
"We've got to find a way to stop it. . . . We're saying, 'Let's try something unique.' "
Lindsey is optimistic that electronic voice analysis can make a difference in protecting the public and gang members themselves from gang-related violence that has changed drastically in recent years.
The veteran probation official recalls that in the early 1970s feuding gang members intent on retaliation generally played pranks or fought, with a stabbing "once in a while" or a rare shooting.
"These days, when we have retaliation, we really worry about drive-by shootings," Lindsey said. "We worry about innocent victims. . . . We worry about whether it's going to escalate, because there are so many guns out there. So much firepower and the gangs can become very violent."
And the threat is growing, he noted.
Chris Wong, supervising deputy probation officer of the East Los Angeles gang unit, said that so far this year there have been at least 15 gang-related murders in her area, which includes unincorporated regions of East Los Angeles and Eastside neighborhoods within the city of Los Angeles.
At this time last year, 13 people had died in gang-related slayings in her area, Wong said.
She estimated that there are now at least 82 "very big, active gangs" on the Eastside alone. In the last year, she said, "they've become extremely violent."
Lindsey expects the computer-monitor program to be in place sometime this month. . If it is deemed a success, he wants to extend electronic monitoring to the entire county, with upward of 1,000 gang members in the system eventually.
But first, the present program must be perfected, he says.
The $19,000 system employs a computer and voice-analysis software provided free to the Probation Department for six months by BI Inc., a Boulder, Colo., firm.
Currently, four college students are preparing background information for the computer on 100 designated gang members. Next, deputy probation officers will record their charges' voices for comparison by computer.
When gang trouble develops, the police and probation officers will identify the street gangs involved, determine what members are on probation and tell them individually to stay home for periodic checks by the computer.
Lindsey hopes that computer-monitoring will afford soft-core gang members an excuse to stay out of trouble.