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Will the strategy to battle gangs work?

Experts suggest police crackdowns do only half the job. One plan calls for a mix of programs designed to 'hold and build' neighborhoods.

February 11, 2007|Richard Winton and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

Every few years, an act of gang violence rises above the rest, sparking outrage across Los Angeles and vows to finally conquer the gang problem.

When Karen Toshima was killed by gang crossfire in Westwood Village in 1988, then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates intensified Operation Hammer. The gang sweeps yielded thousands of arrests but also generated much criticism about mistreatment by officers.

The 1995 killing of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen when her family drove onto a dead-end street in Cypress Park resulted in another gang crackdown.

When William J. Bratton became chief in 2002, he was faced with a string of 20 gang shootings -- including the death of 14-year-old Clive Jackson. He declared war on gangs, referring to them as domestic terrorists.

Last week, he and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared war again -- the inspiration this time the racially motivated killing of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old African American, by members of a Latino gang in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

The new crackdown -- targeting 11 gangs -- might suggest that the Los Angeles Police Department is trying again where it has failed before.

But it's more complex than that. Though gang crimes jumped 14% in 2006, they are down significantly from the early 1990s and even more compared with the mid-1980s. According to LAPD statistics, there were 7,714 gang crimes last year, compared with 10,945 in 1995.

"What we are doing is no different than what we have been doing. As a Police Department we have always been assertive, very aggressive in going at gangs," Bratton said. "What we are doing with this effort -- it's more comprehensive."

But what some critics of the crackdown find familiar is the race to respond to a killing that garners news media attention and public outrage -- an approach they say is not always comprehensive or effective.

"It is the same prescription every time they have a major event," said Malcolm Klein, a veteran gang sociologist and USC professor emeritus. "Gangs are defined as a crime problem and not a community problem. This is old fashioned suppression in a new guise, and where is the proof that has worked?"

He noted that since 1980, when gang slayings topped 200 in Los Angeles, the city has focused most of its gang response on policing.

A month ago, Connie Rice, director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, produced a comprehensive plan for the city to overhaul gang intervention programs and try to use means other than law enforcement to address its 39,000 gang members.

Rice proposes what she calls a Marshall Plan of sorts that would mix law enforcement with gang intervention and job programs, community outreach and newly created community oversight groups.

It would focus initially on 12 so-called hot zones around the city. Gang prevention efforts now cost the city $82 million a year, but the report called for as much as $1 billion to be spent over the first 18 months.

Rice said past LAPD gang suppression efforts have worked in some neighborhoods, but only for a short time. The city, she said, has always failed to follow up with programs to keep the gangs out.

"The surges of police activity work, and they may even work for months or years," Rice said. "But eventually, three years later, another [gang] set comes in."

She likened the situation to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where troops quickly routed the enemy, only to see a lack of proper planning lead to chaos.

"The LAPD knows how to surge and purge," Rice said. But "after the LAPD clears out a neighborhood, we don't know how to hold and build."

Rice and Klein said the city's response to the Stephanie Kuhen shooting in Cypress Park by the Avenues gang highlights the problem.

In the wake of the killing, the city created the L.A. Bridges after-school program, but it has not done what was required, Rice said. The program budgeted for $26 million last year reaches only 5% of gang members and 2% of children in neighborhoods with high gang activity, and is not keeping enough young people out of gangs, she said.

Cheryl Maxson, a UC Irvine criminologist and gang expert, said the problem is that the LAPD can move much faster than gang intervention groups.

"The program community, the interventionists, are not able to mobilize as quickly as LAPD, so law enforcement has taken the lead on gangs for decades," she said. "So the city goes with strategic suppression."

Bratton, however, is quick to point out that LAPD efforts over the last four years have yielded results.

"In 2002, 2003 we had a similar initiative. [Before then] we had had three straight years of growing crime in the city. Gang violence in particular," he said. "We put in new resources. That year, we had a 23% decline in homicides throughout the city. About 20% of that decline, over 100 fewer murders, were in the South Bureau."

The latest plan calls for 200 extra officers to target the 11 gangs, a new South L.A. gang homicide bureau and an LAPD gang coordinator.

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