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Youth Project Takes Aim at Gang Graffiti With Broad Strokes : Vandalism: Police-sponsored plan to paint over scrawls gives taggers who have been arrested a chance to clean the slate.

January 06, 1994|MARY HELEN BERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTHEAST AREA — The seven youths gathered near the wall fit the stereotype of neighborhood gang members. Sporting close-cropped hair and baggy pants, they were armed with paint and poised to use it on the inviting expanse of bricks.

But these gang members are removing graffiti, covering it with careful strokes in a hue that matches the wall.

The young men, participants in the Southeast Area Gang Project to redirect gang members, were referred to the program after being arrested for crimes such as vandalism, spraying graffiti, shoplifting or breaking and entering. Rather than convict juveniles of such crimes and establish a criminal record, courts often refer youths to community service programs such as the police-sponsored graffiti cleanup project.

Each youth will spend from eight to more than 100 hours removing graffiti and collecting trash. In addition, they will undergo group and individual counseling, and their parents will be referred to adult classes for parents of problem youths.

The Southeast area has about 10,000 gang members and 50 gangs, said South Gate Police Department Capt. Brad Hooper, program manager for the gang project.

The project was formed in 1992 with a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Office of Criminal Justice Planning. The project tries to tackle the gang problem through law enforcement, prosecution, probation, education and community service programs, Hooper said.

The cleanup program was added in March and is run through Project JADE (Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort), a nonprofit agency that provides anti-gang education programs and counseling to 7,000 students throughout the Southeast area.

"The first year we tried to refer these kids to other graffiti cleanup programs, no one wanted them because they didn't look right or whatever reason," said JADE director Marcos Vega. "So we said if no one will do it, we will."

The group borrows a truck and paint supplies from the city Public Works Department and heads out at 8:30 a.m. each Saturday for a four-hour shift. If no painting equipment is available, they pick up trash instead. Part of the reason for the early hour is "to protect the kids" from rival gang members, Vega said.

The cleanup and removal program provides both a community service and a humbling lesson, Vega said. "They see how difficult it is to clean up," he said.

Rick Alvarez, a gang member who at 17 has spent four years in and out of youth camps, was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and sounded cynical about the purpose of the cleanup.

"It's to teach a kind of lesson, to think twice before you write on a wall," he said. "I get a kick out of it but it don't do nothing for me. I get all dirty, that's all . . . It's fun. You're talking and laughing and painting over (the tags of) people you don't like."

But Alvarez's actions belied his tough talk. He was the first to leap off the truck to paint out a wall, and says he is less active in his gang now.

About 85% of the youths complete the program and there is a 10% recidivism rate, Vega said.

The program is perhaps most effective when a youth is forced to wipe out tags written by his own gang or crew.

First-time offender Chris Portillo, 14, who was arrested for tagging, admits he has learned a lesson from the paint-out program. Portillo had to confront the markings of his own tagging crew on one of his first cleanup outings.

Portillo, who has been kicked out of two local junior highs, has been sentenced to 40 hours of cleanup for tagging.

"It's teaching me," he said. "I'm paying for what I did. I stopped tagging so far. I'm still in (the crew) but no writing. I don't wanna get caught no more."

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