As Los Angeles County battles the worst epidemic of gang violence in its history, an unprecedented report says that Latino gang activity is up, black gang activity is down and--in what may be the most staggering and explosive finding of all--nearly half of all young black men in the county have been identified as gang members by police.
The wide-ranging study, made public Thursday by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and billed as the most thorough examination ever of the county's gang problem, paints a troubling sociological portrait of a region it says has an estimated 1,000 gangs and 150,000 gang members.
But as news of the report filtered into the community, gang workers, civil liberties advocates and inner-city residents lashed out at the numbers, saying they confirm what police critics already know: That authorities stereotype--and single out for arrest--young black men simply by the clothing they wear and the neighborhoods they live in.
The report, prepared by the district attorney's staff, was peppered with surprising conclusions: Gang members are almost entirely responsible for the dramatic upswing in the county's murder rate since 1984; innocent bystanders may account for as few as 10% of the victims of gang crimes; and although drugs and gangs are intertwined, "most gang members are not drug dealers in any meaningful sense of the word."
By far the most disturbing and controversial revelation comes in the report's examination of gangs in the black community. It found that 47% of black men between 21 and 24 show up in police gang databases. Yet only 8.5% of all Latinos in that age group show up in the databases. Among young Anglo men, the figure is less than one-half of one percent.
Even Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates acknowledged that the numbers may inadvertently include some non-gang members. And Reiner himself said the figures are so disturbing that they cannot be accepted at face value.
"That number may be artificially high," the district attorney said. "But on the other hand it may not be. . . . It may mean just what it says, that about one out of every two young black males are involved in gangs."
Others were far more pointed in the comments. "We deeply deplore and stand against the characterizations that have been made against black men," said an angry Rev. Edgar E. Boyd, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles. "I stand very much outraged."
Entitled "Gangs, Crime and Violence in Los Angeles," the 235-page document is in many ways a wake-up call for reform. Through recommendations for improved education, job training and gang prevention programs, it attempts to chart a course for turning the gang tide--a task that Reiner said will take "at least a generation."
The efforts, the study says, must begin immediately: "With gang homicides already approaching 800 a year, the cost of delay must be calculated in blood."
Some of the study's findings contradict widely held beliefs about gangs:
* While the Los Angeles County murder rate is on the upswing, it is not because society as a whole is more violent. Rather, gangs are responsible for the increase. Since 1984, annual gang-related homicides more than tripled, from 212 to 771 last year. But non-gang-related murders remained nearly the same, rising from 1,230 in 1984 to 1,276 in 1990.
* Gang youths are four times as likely to sell drugs as those not involved in gangs, and when gang members are asked whether they have sold drugs in the last year, roughly half say yes. Nonetheless, the report says, "There is little evidence that the traditional turf gangs in Los Angeles have begun to change their focus and operate primarily as drug distribution networks."
* Despite the media attention given to innocent bystanders gunned down by gang members, law-abiding citizens may account for as few as 10% of all victims of gang crimes. "Even though gang marksmanship is notoriously bad, and increasingly indiscriminate," the study says, "gang shooters still hit their targets more often than they hit bystanders."
* Some gang researchers believe that crackdowns such as the LAPD's Operation Hammer may have the unintended effect of strengthening gangs by unifying them in opposition to police.
* Latino gang violence is reported to be up dramatically--the Sheriff's Department logged a 96% increase in Latino gang murders in 1990 from the previous year. The report attributed this to an influx of Central American immigrants, whose new gangs are renewing turf fights already settled by older Mexican-American gangs.
* While law enforcement authorities generally believe that Asian gang violence is on the rise, there is no statistical evidence to support that contention.