PARAMOUNT — During the last decade, city leaders here estimate that they have spent at least $1 million on family counseling, law enforcement and just about any recreation program they could think of that might keep children from joining gangs.
Although Paramount was one of the first southeast Los Angeles County cities to start anti-gang programs, and has some of the strongest such programs around, sheriff's officials said it also has one of the worst gang problems in the area.
City leaders received a frustrating and tragic reminder Sept. 9 that when it comes to ridding the streets of gangs, one city can do only so much.
Early that Sunday morning, a truce between a Lynwood gang and Paramount gang came to a violent end when the Lynwood gang crashed a birthday party at the home of a Paramount gang member, police and city officials said.
By evening's end, two teen-agers and a 24-year-old man were shot to death, four others were wounded and a 23-year-old man was in critical condition after his head had been beaten with a beer keg.
"We have a lot of faith in the policies and programs we have," Deputy City Manager Patrick West said. "They are working. But there is not much we can do when something like this happens.
"When gang members come from another city, there is no one who can predict what will happen or prevent it. The only thing we can do is hope everyone recognizes this is a regional problem and treats it as such."
City Councilman Allen Parker said: "We have worked so hard to curb the gang problem in Paramount, starting off with the young kids, teaching them right from wrong. But when something like this happens, the only thing we can do is worry about our city and try to make it rough on gangs, so that they know we are not going to let them take over our streets."
Although specific figures for Paramount are unavailable, Sgt. Jim Whitten of the Lakewood sheriff's station that from January to July of this year, gang crimes involving force or the threat of force were up by 40% in Bellflower, Cerritos, Lakewood, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and Paramount, compared with the same period of last year. Whitten said that he believes most of the increase stems from gang problems in Paramount.
Whitten attributed Paramount's problems in part to the number of people moving there because of low-cost housing. According to the recently released census figures, Paramount's population increased by 30% in the last decade, a higher rate of growth than any of the other cities served by the Lakewood station.
Tony Ostos, the city's counseling manager for families with members involved in gangs, also attributes Paramount's problem to its growth.
"I think you will find in most cities that have residents of the same economic level as ours, there has been an increasing number of gangs," he said. "Further problems are created because we have remnants of established gangs here, and when new gang members come in, it creates problems."
But Ostos said the city has reduced the number of gangs in the city, from six active gangs when he was hired about eight years ago to three today.
With such success, Ostos said, the city is not about to give up just because gang members may come from other cities.
"It's frustrating, but it doesn't discourage us," he said. "It is something we are taking steps to address."
Among the measures the city has taken in the last decade is the city-funded "Alternatives to Gang Membership" program, which teaches students the negative aspects of gangs. West said the program has become a nationwide model for gang programs.
This spring, after two teen-age boys were shot to death by drive-by assailants, the City Council voted to add two sheriff's deputies to a two-member detail specializing in gangs and to expand the "Alternatives" program so it covers kindergarten through 12th grade. The program had been limited to the fifth, sixth and seventh grades of the Paramount Unified School District.
West said the council also voted to hire family counselors to talk with parents whose children are involved in gangs or are at risk of becoming involved.
West and Ostos said that the counselors and the deputies have been hired and that the district is working on curricula for the "Alternatives" program for younger students.
Meanwhile, city leaders and residents will meet with sheriff's deputies to find out whether anything could have been done to prevent the Sept. 9 shooting.
City Council members have raised concerns that the Sheriff's Department could have shut the party down early in the evening under city ordinances that prevent noisy parties and public drinking.
Mayor Manuel Guillen said he was at the scene about 5 a.m. the morning of the slaying and found hundreds of beer cans littering the street. He said several neighbors told him they believe that the shooting could have been prevented had deputies who responded to calls of a noisy party early in the evening simply ordered party-goers to disperse.