Sheriff's officials met with leaders from 35 communities Tuesday to forge an alliance that would emphasize social programs as an alternative to gang violence that has claimed more than 3,500 lives in Los Angeles County over the last decade.
"Our expertise is ill-suited to preventing the emergence of new gangs or the increased membership of existing gangs," Los Angeles County Undersheriff Robert Edmonds told more than 200 civic leaders, educators, clergy and community activists at the start of a two-day Community Gang Conference in Carson.
The workshop signaled a significant departure from the Sheriff Department's strategies over the last decade that, like methods used by the Los Angeles Police Department, have relied heavily on street sweeps and crackdowns to arrest thousands of suspected gang members.
"Obviously, we miscalculated the solution," said Edmonds, whose department allocates $10 million a year to the gang problem.
The Sheriff's Department believes that community-based social programs should work hand-in-glove with law enforcement to discourage young people from joining gangs.
"What is needed are partnerships involving all segments of our society," Edmonds said.
On the first day of the workshop, sheriff's officials helped civic leaders from Palmdale to Long Beach assess the level of gang activity in their communities.
Today, they are expected to develop "action plans" to remove graffiti, counsel troubled families, test preschool children for learning deficiencies and rid parks and schools of gang members.
The community leaders plan to reconvene in July to judge whether the plans they are putting in motion have had an effect.
From one end of the county to the other, those attending the workshop expressed alarm at the rapid growth of gang-related crime in their communities.
In 1985, there were an estimated 400 gangs and 45,000 gang members countywide. Today, there are about 800 gangs with 90,000 members.
Countywide, there were 650 gang-related homicides in 1990, compared with 554 the year before.
"These statistics don't even begin to address the number of felonious assaults leaving victims permanently disabled, both physically and psychologically," Edmonds said. "Nor do they adequately describe the pain and suffering of the victims' family and loved ones."
Without a uniform strategy, community leaders have been "like unorganized posses who have never met, all chasing after the same outlaw," said Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services.
"This workshop is a first step in getting every community in the county to work together with law enforcement and on the same wavelength," Valdivia said. "We're all going in 10 different directions right now," agreed Lynwood City Councilman Louis Heine. "What we learn here will help us pull our people and resources together to something meaningful about this problem."