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Commentary

Prosecution Alone Is No Answer to Gang Crime

November 29, 2002|Peter W. Greenwood | Peter W. Greenwood is the former director of Rand's criminal justice program and principal investigator for the Hollenbeck Cease-Fire Project. He now is the head of a private consulting firm.

The recent streak of gang-related homicides does not represent a new kind of problem for Angelenos. We have been dealing with this sort of thing for more than 30 years. In fact, we exported it to other parts of the country.

So should we, as Police Chief William J. Bratton says, get mad about it now? Of course. But there are other things that we probably should be even madder about.

Our elected officials and law enforcement agencies have developed a number of programs for dealing with gang violence. They do reasonably well prosecuting gang killers once they are caught.

Indeed, the district attorney's hard-core gang unit, which handles these cases, serves as a model for many jurisdictions in other states. The gang injunction process, developed by the city and district attorneys, appears to have positive effects on crime and citizens' sense of security.

We have done less well, however, at the front end of the problem. Not a single prevention program developed in Los Angeles County has been identified nationally as effective. And while prosecutions of gang members arrested for murders are successful, an unacceptably large number of homicides remain unsolved, and the documented effects of our other costly crime prevention programs are not encouraging.

For example, Project Clear is a series of joint efforts involving all the local law enforcement and corrections agencies in the county. It has received millions of dollars from state and local agencies over the last few years to enhance enforcement efforts in designated gang-affected neighborhoods. But it has never demonstrated consistent results.

Likewise, L.A. Bridges, the Los Angeles City Council's multimillion-dollar prevention program that attempted to link community-based service providers to gang-affected schools, has not succeeded in improving community safety or reducing violent crime.

If we include all of the money that the Los Angeles County Probation Department spends on programs and strategies that have been ineffective elsewhere, it is enough to make taxpayers very mad indeed.

A number of effective programs have been developed across the United States in the areas of prevention and intervention with at-risk youth, yet few of them are used in Los Angeles. Even when we do adopt a proven program, we often mess it up.

To wit: In 1998, the National Institute of Justice provided funding for a team of Rand researchers to help the LAPD replicate and test the Boston Gun Project, a promising gang intervention program, in its Hollenbeck Division. The primary goal of the project was to declare and enforce a cease-fire among gangs.

The first step was to develop an interagency team to analyze recent cases. The analysis found that about 75% of the homicides in Hollenbeck involved gang members, and about half were revenge killings between members of rival gangs.

What did the project do about it? For more than two years, LAPD detectives and county probation officers developed network diagrams and membership lists for all of the active gangs in the southern part of the division. Local prosecutors developed faster procedures to handle cease-fire violations. Detailed criteria were developed for determining when a violation of the cease-fire had occurred. However, after all this planning and preparation, the project was never made operational because of competing priorities for staffing within the LAPD.

In order for Los Angeles to benefit from the millions of dollars now being invested by foundations and federal research agencies in the development and testing of effective crime prevention programs, our local officials need to be more selective about the programs they adopt.

They also need to start holding one another accountable for the effects they achieve.

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