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Alarm on gangs sounded

An L.A. study calls for a Marshall Plan-style effort to give young people alternatives and stop the spread of crime into safe communities.

January 13, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles faces a crisis of gang violence that will continue to spread into previously safe neighborhoods unless the city adopts a Marshall Plan-like initiative to provide young people with jobs and other alternatives in gang-plagued communities, a city-financed study warned Friday.

The report by the Advancement Project called for a significantly greater investment -- up to $1 billion during the first 18 months, according to project director Connie Rice -- in a comprehensive mix of programs that include gang intervention and prevention and economic development.

Much of that money already may be in the city budget for such programs but not as part of a focused, comprehensive strategy, said Rice, a civil rights attorney.

The report also called for creation of a department of neighborhood safety to be headed by a "high-powered, politically skilled" gang czar to recast and run the city's scattered 23 anti-gang programs that cost $82 million annually.

"After a quarter century of a multibillion-dollar war on gangs, there are six times as many gangs and at least double the number of gang members in the region," the report states.

The $593,000 study was commissioned by the City Council a year ago and contains more than 100 recommendations.

The report calls for the Los Angeles Police Department to get smarter at gang enforcement by focusing more on the most violent of the city's more than 720 gangs, which have more than 39,000 members.

Last week, city officials said that gang crimes, including assaults and robberies, rose 14% last year. Fifty-six percent of the 478 homicides last year were gang-related.

Noting that nearly 75% of youth gang homicides in California occurred in Los Angeles County, the report said the violence would continue to spread without effective countermeasures.

"This epidemic is largely immune to general declines in crime," the report found. "And it is spreading to formerly safe middle class neighborhoods. Law enforcement officials now warn that they are arriving at the end of their ability to contain it to poor minority and immigrant hot zones."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa embraced the report's findings in general but did not commit Friday to any specific recommendations.

"Gangs are public enemy No. 1 one in Los Angeles. Gang crime will not be tolerated," the mayor said. "We agree with Connie Rice. We need to develop a comprehensive strategy -- one that takes into account prevention, intervention and suppression."

Anticipating the report's findings, the mayor and Police Chief William J. Bratton have said in recent days that they were developing a new strategy for battling gang violence, including a focus on the city's 10 most dangerous gangs.

But Rice's report said the city cannot arrest its way out of the current crisis.

It needs to develop new strategies that go to the root of gang problems, the report said.

"In short, Los Angeles needs a Marshall Plan to end gang violence," the report concludes. "City approaches must address the conditions in neighborhoods and the unmet needs of children that allow gangs to take root, flourish and expand."

In particular, the city needs to provide more child development, job creation, education and public health programs in neighborhoods dominated by gangs, according to the report.

The $1-billion potential cost would include all programs in a comprehensive strategy, including job creation, economic development and after-school intervention programs for at-risk youths, Rice said.

The study identified 12 hot zones of poverty and gang crime. About 300,000 at-risk young people live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and/or gang activity, the study found.

The study estimated that a three-year program to get control of the area around Manual Arts High School, for example, would cost about $50 million.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, chairman of the council committee overseeing gang issues, said he supports putting one person in charge of all gang programs, but is not sure what form the office would take.

To pay for the new plan, the study recommends that the city cut back on subsidizing cars for hundreds of employees, unnecessary around-the-clock-staffing of city offices and wasteful overtime.

The study says the city's gang crime costs victims and taxpayers $2 billion a year. It suggests that a research and policy institute be formed to determine whether gang programs are working.

Rice said hers was the third city-commissioned report in two decades to determine why Los Angeles is failing to reduce gang violence.

"And it is the third time that experts have recommended that smarter suppression be linked to comprehensive prevention and intervention and that above all, the city end the conditions that spawn and sustain gangs and neighborhood violence," the report concluded.

The challenge for the city is for its leaders to have the political will to tackle what has become an entrenched problem, the report said.

"In the meantime," the report concluded, "residents of Los Angeles' most dangerous neighborhoods continue losing children to senseless violence, and residents of safe areas are beginning to see that the threat could spread to them."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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