Despite a decade of intensive law-enforcement efforts to rein them in, youth gangs are continuing to expand at an explosive pace. As many as 100,000 young men, and a growing number of women, now pledge their allegiance to a gang in Los Angeles. They are much better armed than their predecessors and more deadly. As gang violence statistics swell, law-enforcement experts, led by L. A. County Sheriff Sherman Block, are not just calling for reinforcements to help break the vicious cycle, but for social programs. That's new.
It's also important--and heartening. "The message to be made clear to average citizens is that putting more dollars into law enforcement is not going to enhance their safety," Block told Times reporter Louis Sahagun. "We also need social programs. They are absolutely essential." Block is absolutely correct.
Cops and deputies are simply outmanned and, increasingly, they know it. They need help from all quarters to prevent more youngsters from becoming gang-bangers, and to stop the carnage that is paralyzing too many neighborhoods.
To come up with more answers, the sheriff is calling a conference in January that will include law-enforcement representatives, community leaders, politicians, religious groups, educators, parents and a host of others who refuse to give up in the face of escalating gang violence. That summit, though limited to areas of the county patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, is a strong and welcome step. It can reduce bureaucratic competition and increase cooperation and coordination.
It should be duplicated. There should be a similar summit-type conference for the city of Los Angeles, perhaps under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who says there is little difference between his views on gangs and Block's. If so, both Gates and Block should consider co-chairing a regional conference on gangs, perhaps later in the year, to which community and business as well as law-enforcement leaders could exchange views and map out strategies to share.
Of course, a greater emphasis on social programs will cost money at a time when there are not enough public dollars to finance other critical needs. That suggests the need to reassess funding priorities.
There is also help for the asking, however.
Last year the Community Youth Gang Services, Brotherhood Crusade, Nation of Islam, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others poured staff and volunteers into the L. A. Police Department's South Bureau, once the city's most violent. The committed citizens painted over graffiti, set up job programs and initiated neighborhood street patrols.
That combination of law enforcement and social intervention, nurtured by South Bureau Deputy Chief William Rathburn, paid off. Gang crime dropped by a third. It should be duplicated wherever possible.
By the end of this year, the countywide gang-related death toll is expected to top 600, an all-time high. Thousands more children and other innocent victims will be crippled for life. Stopping the downward spiral won't be easy. But Sheriff Block is right to call for more programs to do what cops and jails can't do alone.