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Ganging up on gangs

The Bratton-Villaraigosa plan is the most tangible of the recent anti-gang proposals. Much more is needed.

February 13, 2007

PLANS TO COMBAT Southern California's infamous gang culture and violence have been popping up lately faster than snails after a rain.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice and the Advancement Project produced a tome last month calling for greater coordination of the city's efforts and for the creation of a gang czar. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo followed with proposals to help at-risk youth and toughen sentences for gang members who violate injunctions.

Then, last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton unveiled their strategy for targeting the city's most dangerous gangs. The Bratton-Villaraigosa plan specifies a new gang homicide unit for the LAPD's South Bureau, a gang coordinator for the entire Los Angeles Police Department and the deployment of 50 officers to hard-hit areas of the San Fernando Valley. It also involves increased coordination among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. And, changing previous policy, it would identify the "most wanted" criminal gangs by name.

These are good first steps, and even the obvious media stunt of placing a gang member on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list can't hurt. The crucial thing is what comes next. With thousands of children enlisted in gangs, the city's failure at prevention and intervention are self-evident.

Rice's report was right about one thing: It's almost impossible to make sense of the city's scattershot approach to the gang problem. The city disburses $82 million to 23 agencies, according to the report, but their work is disjointed, with little communication among them and almost no way to measure their success.

Villaraigosa has made a good start on the enforcement end. And he has long spoken out on ancillary issues that feed into gang culture, such as truancy and the school district's dropout rate. He also has done a better job of dealing with underlying racial tensions than his predecessors, but much more is needed, given the racial dimensions of the recent violence.

We look to the mayor to accomplish something that has not been done in all the previous crackdowns on gangs -- use his authority to reorganize city departments and make their gang response more effective. Previous mayors lacked either the authority or the political charisma to get the job done. But Villaraigosa has both. We don't need a gang czar, as Rice suggests, because if the mayor decides to make this issue as important as reforming the school district or fixing transportation, then we'll already have one.

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