A decade of law enforcement crackdowns and get-tough judicial policies have failed to curb the growth of gangs and their violence in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California, and defeated engineers of these efforts are now looking for more sweeping and fundamental social solutions.
The number of identified gangs and gang members has doubled in the last five years and account for 35% of homicides countywide, compared with about 10% a decade ago, law enforcement authorities said. Tellingly, at the county's largest medical rehabilitation center, the number of people crippled by knife and gunshot wounds--many of them gang-inflicted--now exceeds those injured in automobile accidents.
Gangs are changing as their ranks swell. Better armed and more violent, traditional gangs are expanding their territory as newer gangs mushroom in their midst. The well-established ethnic lines of gangs are becoming blurred, reflecting demographic changes brought by immigration.
Exploring new strategies, law enforcement officials have begun reconsidering the value of social programs--many of which died for lack of funding over the last decade--to combat a crime problem they concede is rooted in societal problems beyond their power to control.
"The message to be made clear to average citizens is that putting more dollars into law enforcement is not going to enhance their safety," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block. "We need social programs. They are absolutely essential.
"As long as gang cultures exist, we are chasing our tails," Block said. "Law enforcement cannot break the cycle, only social improvements can break it."
Interviews with police, prosecutors, social workers and gang members yielded a near-unanimous assessment that law enforcement gang-crackdowns have not worked.
"We started a little bit late and our battle plan to get rid of the gangs isn't working," said Los Angeles Police Detective Robert Contreras, who has worked in the department's gang detail for 20 years.
Jim Gallipeau, a specialized gang supervision officer with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, predicted that "young professionals in the next 5 to 10 years will have to make room in their budgets for armed security and bodyguards."
Such comments contrast sharply with that of assistant Los Angeles Police Chief Robert Vernon three years ago, who promised at the time that the Police Department was "prepared to do anything" to "eradicate the effectiveness" of the city's street gangs by 1991.
Vernon was speaking amid a get-tough era of gang policing. In the late 1980s, the Police Department and other law enforcement agencies countywide initiated ever-changing combinations of gang tactics. They tried foot and bicycle patrols, neighborhood watch programs, anti-graffiti units, predawn raids and street sweeps. Most prominent was the Police Department's "Operation Hammer": massive deployments of officers, dressed in riot gear and armed with search warrants and battering rams, to smash cocaine "rock houses" and make mass arrests.
"We're still working on those things Chief Vernon was talking about," said police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth. "We haven't eradicated violence yet, but the city is safer than it would have been had those efforts not been made."
According to Diego Vigil, a professor of anthropology at USC who has studied the gang problem, the crackdowns put thousands of people away for mostly brief jail terms only to have them come out tougher and smarter about how to rob businesses and homes, but with few other skills because rehabilitation in prison is all but non-existent.
"These guys get prestige by going to prison," Vigil said. "They brag about surviving it."
While the crackdowns have brought temporary relief to gang-plagued neighborhoods--and have been applauded by many residents--they also are resented by other community members. Critics, said Leon Watkins, director of Family Help Line in South-Central Los Angeles, complain of living under "police state conditions."
"The people who live here need to feel they are part of the solution," said Watkins. "Just locking kids up will never work."
Deputy Police Chief William Rathburn, in charge of the Police Department's South Bureau, agrees. He pointed to a yearlong experimental effort to combine community-based programs with meat-hook law enforcement in his region that has reduced gang homicides by 23% this year.
"I'm convinced the solution to the gang problem is prevention--not just enforcement, incarceration or more police," said Rathburn, who credited groups such as Community Youth Gang Services, Nation of Islam, Brotherhood Crusade and others for helping reduce gang murders in the region.
Certainly, no one in law enforcement is talking about surrendering the fight to identify gang members and arrest wrongdoers.