An overall decline in crime has hidden an alarming increase of 50% and more in gang killings nationwide since 1999, a trend that officials said Tuesday might get worse if juvenile anti-crime programs were cut further.
"The increase in gang violence has been consistent and steady, not something that can be passed off as a one-year blip or aberration," said James Alan Fox, Lipman family professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
"We have learned painfully that gang violence in big cities can quickly sweep across the nation," Fox said of a new study, speaking by telephone at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Fox is an expert on homicide.
In Los Angeles last year, 350 gang-related homicides accounted for 68% of the city's killings, according to police. That was about 19% more than the total of gang-related homicides for 1999.
Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton joined Fox in releasing the gang violence study.
Bratton said the number of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles rose in the last two years even as killings overall dropped 23%.
The tracking of gang-related crime remains sporadic and incomplete. Part of the problem is the lack of a national standard for what constitutes such an offense. The LAPD considers any crime committed by a gang member to be gang-related. Other jurisdictions consider that definition too broad and say it might not accurately reflect the true motivation behind many crimes.
The study identified a surge in gang crime nationwide from 1999 to 2002, the last year for which complete figures are available. In 2002, there were more than 1,100 gang-related homicides, compared with 692 in 1999, according to Fox.
He said Congress was considering cuts in federal anti-crime funding that could slice anti-gang aid 40%.
"Serious violent criminals need to be locked up, but to curb gang violence we must intervene to keep these kids from becoming criminals in the first place," Bratton said.
The report, called "Caught in the Crossfire: Arresting Gang Violence by Investing in Kids," was prepared by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime organization that claims a membership of 2,000 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors.
Citing the latest federal National Youth Gang Survey, the report said 38% of suburban counties and 12% of rural counties reported gang activity.
Susan Devlin, acting chief of police in Fairfax County, Va., said that affluent Washington suburban area confronts gang activity daily, with 3,000 suspected gang members and about 82 gangs. She cited the May 10 case of a man who hacked off a teenager's hand with a machete, then wrote graffiti reading "MS-13," which stands for the Mara Salvatrucha gang, with its U.S. roots in Los Angeles.
Identifying, tracking and supervising potential gang members and providing swift sanctions are the keys to success, the report said.
The law enforcement leaders also advocated intensive family therapy to catch chronic juvenile offenders early, citing a reduction of recidivism rates by as much as 70% through such programs.
Fight Crime President Sanford Newman said early intervention with children likely to become gang members could lead to dramatic results.
He cited a study concluding that children in one preschool program were five times less likely to become chronic lawbreakers than those in the area left out of the program.