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STANDING UP TO STREET GANGS

Make This One Work

January 16, 2003

Some will react with skepticism. Others with deja vu. Both are natural -- in fact, helpful -- responses to the attempt to rein in gang violence announced Wednesday by Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton. So is hope.

Hahn declared last fall that he wanted Los Angeles to be the safest big city in the nation, an ambitious goal even before the 2002 homicide tally earned it the title "America's murder capital." L.A. had more slayings -- 658 -- than any other city, and police say gangs were behind half of them.

L.A. mayors and police chiefs have declared war on gangs before. The worst efforts battered down doors and trust, leaving some neighborhoods feeling as much under siege by cops as by gangbangers. The best of the efforts tapped advisors from the neighborhood and used brains, not just brawn, to bust up criminal street gangs. But good or bad, none have had a long-standing effect, judging by last year's homicide rate and estimates that as many as 52,000 young men still make as many as 400 street gangs the focus of their lives -- and, in too many cases, the nexus of criminal activity. Los Angeles long ago won the shameful distinction of being America's gang capital.

Hahn and Bratton's approach (they call it the Community Safety Operations Plan) teams cops with county probation officers, state prosecutors and federal firearms and narcotics agents. If this sounds familiar, it is. The plan builds on the success of the Community Law Enforcement and Recovery program, or CLEAR, which a handful of the city's 18 police divisions launched with federal dollars in the 1990s.

Focusing on defined high-crime areas, it housed its multiple agencies in a single office in each neighborhood. Teams worked with residents to identify problems and needs, slammed the hard-core criminals in jail and recruited retired officers and other volunteers to steer gang wannabes toward training and jobs. This kind of overarching strategy works. The approach helped bring down crime ... before civic attention and money waned.

The new effort, which relies even more on people in the community, faces plenty of challenges: how to pressure criminals in one neighborhood without pushing them into another and, most urgently, how to protect folks with the courage to speak up from the very real threat of retaliation.

Strategies, however tested, are only as good as the people behind them. A commitment to the long haul is critical. Skeptics need to keep the mayor and the chief and the community from letting attention stray. And everyone involved needs the sort of stubborn, try-again persistence that only hope can deliver.

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