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Rethink L.A. Gang Program

January 08, 2003

Six years and $50 million after the Los Angeles City Council created the L.A. Bridges gang prevention program, city officials have fired one of 26 private agencies under contract to run it, put six more on probation, ordered another six to show improvement and cited two for sloppy financial record-keeping. It's a start -- but it shouldn't be the end of a tough reevaluation.

Conceived with good intentions, L.A. Bridges was born into a world of politics. The City Council in 1996 called together gang experts and religious and community leaders to come up with a prevention plan after a wave of gang violence generated headlines nationwide. But rather than concentrate on middle schools in the hardest-hit neighborhoods as the committee recommended, the city -- surprise -- set up services in each council district.

Almost three years ago, then-City Controller Rick Tuttle faulted L.A. Bridges for, among other things, spending a third of its budget on administration. But more important, he questioned whether the diluted program reached kids at risk of joining gangs or merely offered after-school activities, which, although laudable, could be done more cost-effectively otherwise. From the way the City Council responded to his audit -- by attacking the messenger, then voting unanimously to continue the program -- Tuttle might as well have bad-mouthed grandmas.

Anything that provides youngsters in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods with tutoring or even just an extra dose of love from adults is doing some good. The question today remains whether L.A. Bridges goes beyond that to meet its goal of deterring kids from gangs. An even more urgent question is whether L.A. Bridges II, a sister program designed to reach kids already in gangs, is doing actual harm in trying to channel gang rivalry into sports competitions and mediating conflicts between gangs, given that research shows such actions only reinforce gang identification.

Mayor James K. Hahn deserves credit for calling for this latest accounting -- even though as city attorney he sat on the committee that created L.A. Bridges. But he needs to probe deeper, aided by new City Council members who could give a program not of their creation a less defensive look and (is it too much to hope?) think of whole-city needs and not just of individual district wants.

City leaders should call once again on outside advice on how to refocus anti-gang efforts, drawing from Los Angeles' universities and think tanks as well as grass-roots workers and religious leaders -- and its new police chief. And this time the city should listen.

What the former city controller wrote three years ago holds true today: "None of this audit's findings contest the enormity of the need for programs like L.A. Bridges. I found myself growing impatient with those who think we can't do better."

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