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This time, get it right on gangs

Business as usual only means wasting millions of dollars on unfocused programs.

February 08, 2007|Constance L. Rice | CONSTANCE L. RICE is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles.

CHERYL GREEN died Dec. 15 because she was black in the wrong gang-dominated neighborhood. Like innocent Latino children who are terrorized by black gangs in Watts, the 14-year-old was allegedly gunned down by members of the Latino 204th Street gang because she rode her scooter too close to the no-blacks Mason-Dixon line that gang members had drawn in her Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

L.A. politicians and law enforcement leaders have reacted forcefully to her death. Amid enough satellite dishes to remind one LAPD officer of the O.J. Simpson trial, officials at a January news conference declared war on 204th Street.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proclaimed that no one should fear losing his or her life for being the wrong color. He vowed to put the gang out of business. Police Chief William Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced weapons of mass crackdown: combined LAPD-Sheriff's Department patrols; cooperation with neighboring Torrance police; targeting of the gang's guns and drugs by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; dragnet operations; electronic surveillance; observation posts; intelligence sharing; early-release exclusions and a "most-wanted list" of the 10 worst gangs.

The U.S. attorney brandished stepped-up use of federal hate crime laws, death penalty enhancements, civil rights laws and RICO prosecutions. The city attorney added the use of "stay-away orders," which ban gangs from the neighborhood, on top of existing injunctions that forbid gang members from congregating.

Two days after this display, 204th Street shot another innocent black resident waiting in his car for his daughters.

"We've done this before," the LAPD officer at the news conference recalled. He was referring to a similar crackdown on the 204th Street gang in 1997, when members killed another African American youth. Then, as now, politicians threatened zero-tolerance, the LAPD increased patrols and arrested everyone in the gang they could. Officers galvanized the community against the gang. Politicians held community planning meetings. "And then, the focus shifted," the officer said, "we went back to normal deployment levels, and while we probably abated it for a while, new gang members refilled the ranks. Nothing on the ground changed. All of the conditions in that neighborhood continued."

Bingo. The "surge" in 1997 was temporary and, more important, the city never reversed the neighborhood conditions that fuel 204th Street. For the last nine years, the gang has continued its ethnic terrorism, with the murder of Cheryl Green as one of its latest acts of violence.

Let's be clear here: Strategic suppression is essential, a strong response to violent gangs such as 204th Street is necessary, and the effort will need more resources. But it is unclear whether the city has learned that suppression must be coordinated with comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies. And, right now, the prevention and intervention side of the equation is mostly missing. Law enforcement is doing its part; it's the rest of us who are AWOL.

What needs to happen in Harbor Gateway? Concerned politicians must connect with the right experts, who can diagnose the unique neighborhood factors that fuel the gang's dominance. They must authorize county, state and school district staff to jointly close the entrance ramps into the gang and open the exit ramps out of it. Effective violence reduction requires a sustained community organization that forms a 24/7 shield against gang violence.

In Harbor Gateway, that planning has to begin with the area's isolated, "Galapagos Island" configuration, the diaspora of gang members who return on weekends to enforce 204th Street's sovereignty, and Harbor Gateway's unconnected and intimidated residents.

In addition to tough-on-crime tactics, the region's leaders will have to use political capital to reset priorities and redeploy the millions in tax dollars spent every year on anti-gang programs but with no sustained violence reduction to show for it.

And after determining that gangs do not get to take our children, Angelenos must launch a "cultures and values" campaign to end the violence and killing of la vida loca.

Without the political will to change business as usual, politicians will be back again before the cameras, declaring yet another suppression surge with no long-term effect. In the meantime, Cheryl Green's mother, Charlene Lovett, and her black neighbors say they have been told by police that the only way to be safe is to stay inside their homes -- or move.

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