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Unified Front Takes Shape

May 11, 2003

Los Angeles has been home to street gangs of one sort or another since at least the 1930s, and efforts to stop the shootings and mayhem they so often spawn go back that far as well. Those efforts haven't worked. Today's gangs were behind a rise in homicides that in 2002 made Los Angeles the murder capital of the country. Dead are grandmothers and toddlers and so many mothers' sons that no statistic can adequately convey the hearts broken. After 80 years, it's time to change tactics.

That is what Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca pledges to do with the newly formed County/Cities Gang Planning Authority. Its first meeting, co-hosted Monday by Baca and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, brought together top cops, prosecutors, probation officers and social workers from all corners of the county. Notably absent were egos and turf claims. Officers from smaller cities such as Burbank and Hawthorne offered tips on ways to pool manpower and other scarce resources and share information on gangs by piggybacking on databases already set up for tracing narcotics.

"They live in my town, commit crimes in another, go hide in a third," said Lt. Bob Rifkin of the Sheriff's Department. "It's like we hit a brick wall trying to follow them. We need to act like one big police department fighting a common enemy."

By calling for a clear and careful definition of just who the "enemy" is, the participants at the meeting reflected a pronounced shift in attitudes. It is not every kid in baggy clothing or, for that matter, every gang member or every gang. The new group plans to target the top hierarchy of the most hard-core gangs, the ones involved in drug dealing and violent crimes. Much as Bratton has promised to cut homicides by 25% this year within Los Angeles, the new authority aims to dismantle three of the county's hard-core gangs within a year.

It takes guts to set goals because failure to meet them invites criticism. Failing to set them, however, amounts to not even trying.

Baca's new approach, however, is not just about finding a better way to arrest the bad guys, as key as that is to neighborhoods held hostage by their violent acts. Baca is a big believer in stopping wannabes from joining gangs and finding ways to extricate those who are in. As he put it, "We can't arrest ourselves out of this problem."

The social-work world has long embraced a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and the suppression that has long been considered cops' sole concern. Now, because of new leadership, a new generation of cops or the lessons from past failures, police officers are becoming believers too.

The trouble is, the nonprofit and community groups that do the preventing and intervening aren't any better at setting aside egos and turf battles than cops are. Coordinating a social-service summit will be Baca's next challenge.

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