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Q & A : More Carrot, Less Stick With Gangs

March 01, 1992|SHAWN DOHERTY

Jesse Colon, 30, case manager, Project Heavy West, a youth counseling and advocacy service.

Claim to fame: Counsels at-risk teen-agers and their families. Project Heavy West is supported by funds from the city and county of Los Angeles and by private donors.

Background: A former gang member from Aurora, Ill., and a recovering addict and alcoholic. Worked as a counselor at a halfway house for Cuban refugees in Chino before joining Project Heavy West.

Interviewer: Free-lance writer Shawn Doherty.

Q: Trust must be extremely important in your efforts to reach the kids you work with. If I were one of your new clients, what would you say to me to introduce yourself and win my confidence?

A: Let me tell you about myself. I fought my way back from being a cocaine addict and an alcoholic. I dropped out of high school. I used to be in a gang. So I understand where you're coming from. And I want you to be honest with me in talking to me, 'cause none of this is going to the police or to your parents. This is highly confidential. I've put my reputation on the line, OK? So you have to be honest with me.

I need to know if you've been smoking, if you're doing any drugs, if you're in a gang. I need to know what's happening with you so we can talk about it. If we don't cooperate, it's your ass on the line, because I have to do my job. OK?

Q: Some of these kids are pretty cynical. Do they buy that pitch?

A: It works--because it's genuine. I keep going to their homes; they know me, they understand what I do. And a lot of these kids on my caseload have heard of me (before I even meet them.) They're talking to each other, and they're saying, Jesse's OK.

Q: Traditional approaches to dealing with gangs have been a lot more punitive. In the past, efforts have focused on keeping children and teen-agers out of gangs. You don't feel that's realistic. In fact, you don't even ask the kids you work with to leave gangs. Why not?

A: Because there's nothing wrong with being in a gang. What's wrong is what they're doing-- the crime, the violence, the selling of drugs. But being in a gang is not wrong. If you're 55, you belong to a bridge club. That's a gang. Nobody's asking those people to leave their gangs.

These kids are young and they hang around their neighborhoods, and they get together as a society club, but it's named a gang. And so (society) automatically thinks of violence, drive-by shootings, drugs and everything else. You can't think of a gang these days and not think negatively about it. And that negative is channeled through the media, through movies, through television, and eventually through (teen-agers themselves). And they start to think, well, if they think I'm bad I may as well be bad.

I'm not saying that's what happens to all of them. I'm just saying that part of the problem is that society has named these kids bad just because they're in a gang.

Q: But the truth is, some of these kids are bad--or at least, they do bad things. They commit crimes. They deal drugs. They shoot people.

A: There's only a few that do drive-by shootings. On the Westside, there are only a few criminal gangs that are into drugs, car-stealing and burglaries. But there's also a lot of gangs that just stick together and are a group of kids. With every gang, there are littler cliques. And maybe just one of those cliques will be violent, but because they all have the same gang name, everybody things they're all violent. The attitude of society is, if you've seen one gang member, you've seen them all.

Q: How would you characterize the attitude of the Los Angeles Police Department toward gangs? Law enforcement efforts here have focused on obliterating gangs with special task forces like CRASH and Operation Hammer. Are they working?

A: Just the name Operation Hammer tells you that the police approach has been punitive. I know a lot of officers who are really trying to get into community policing. But there are still those who have the old way of policing.

The CRASH unit does not have a good rapport with gang members. If you look like a gang member, they'll stereotype you even if you are not involved in violence. Say I'm walking down the street--I like to dress down, I live in an area known to have gang activity. CRASH pulls me over, and I didn't do nothing, but they are going to put my name down into a file saying I'm a possible gang member. It comes down to harassment.

The other day, I saw a unit having a couple of guys kneel on the bench while they were getting information. Kneeling hurts. To inflict pain on somebody is (unnecessary). That's how they do their job. They create more hostility--stopping everybody they see, especially in a hot neighborhood--which defeats our purpose. It will just heighten the (gang) activity and stress.

Q: But can you blame police officers for feeling they need to protect themselves?

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