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The Nation

Tracking of Gang-Related Crime Falls Short

Without accurate data, experts say, Los Angeles and other cities can't effectively stem the violence.

January 24, 2003|Megan Garvey and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Decades after authorities identified gangs as a growing and deadly menace in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, the tracking of gang-related crime remains sporadic and incomplete, with no statistics at all kept in many jurisdictions.

National gang experts say the result has been a generation's worth of policy decisions, anti-gang programs and law enforcement initiatives based on social theories and public fear instead of verifiable trends.

With no means to track gang-related crime accurately, experts say, it is impossible for cities to know how to reduce gang violence. Authorities even disagree on what a gang crime is.

"What are the dimensions of the problem? Are they smaller or greater than people think?" asked John Moore, director of the Florida-based National Youth Gang Center. "I get calls all the time asking me for comparative information, and we have no way of doing that because we have no standardized system, and police departments aren't required to keep track of it."

Even without such statistics, California has spent more than $57 million on gang violence suppression since 1991. But the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, which oversees the spending, doesn't collect the data needed to verify whether any of the programs work, according to a report last year by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton were in Washington, D.C., this week to lobby for more federal assistance to fight gangs after the city finished 2002 with the most homicides in the nation. Although the number of killings in L.A. went up 10% over 2001, what little data police have show virtually no increase in violent gang crime.

Gang killings, the only widely tracked gang crime, have fallen nationwide since their peak in the mid-1990s. But the quality of those numbers is inconsistent, gang experts say, and, alone, they fail to draw a broad picture of gang crime.

Even as they unveil the latest anti-gang initiatives, top Los Angeles police officials acknowledge that they do not know enough about the extent of the city's gang crime.

The Los Angeles Police Department relies largely on "guesstimates," Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said. Though the LAPD, since the 1970s, has kept an informal tally of gang-related homicides, assaults and a handful of other serious crimes, the department has never, for instance, tracked the relationship between gangs and narcotics.

"It seems obvious that this is something we would be doing," said LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who heads the South Bureau, which includes many of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. "Where are those numbers kept officially? The answer is they are not. I think we are just now realizing how important it is to have that information."

Paysinger said the LAPD could get a better picture of the ties between gangs and crime "by something as simple as checking a box" on police reports. It's information that could be collected electronically. Such a system, he said, could be created using such evidence as the flashing of gang signs or the wearing of gang colors, indicating that the victim or perpetrator was in a gang.

Bratton, when asked about the LAPD's paucity of gang crime data, said gathering the information is "absolutely critical." The goal, he said, should be a department-wide reporting system that "gives you the totality of the influence and impact of gangs." LAPD officials now are talking about adding gang-related crime to the department's new reporting system.

One obstacle to accurate crime reporting is defining what is gang-related.

"There is such a disagreement nationwide about exactly what a gang crime is that it has never been counted," said Wes McBride, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who is president of the California Gang Investigators Assn.

"It's never been done nationally, and the state here doesn't do it," he added. "If you really wanted to do something about gangs, you would want to know what the real problem is. Sometimes I wonder if police really want to know."

Even in Southern California, where national experts say more effort to track gang-related crime has been made than elsewhere in the country, there is confusion about which jurisdictions keep off-the-book statistics, and how accurate they are.

The definition itself is controversial.

The LAPD and law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California say any crime committed by a gang member is a gang-related crime.

Criminal courts -- which allow significant sentence enhancements for gang crimes -- define a crime as gang-related only if it was committed to further the interests of a gang, or if the perpetrator used the resources of a gang to intimidate victims or witnesses. The Chicago Police Department, which also is battling a gang problem, uses this definition.

Critics say the LAPD's definition of a gang-related crime is too broad to be useful. To start with, they ask: Who is a gang member?

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