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First, a reality check

L.A. has yet another ambitious plan to end gang violence. But it can also take some smaller, easier steps.

January 21, 2007

CALIFORNIA HAS become refreshingly audacious and impertinent of late. There are intractable problems that leaders such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are daring to take on: global warming, education and homelessness, to name a few. Gang violence should be on that list too.

The problem, of course, is that the list has a depressing familiarity. And perhaps no item is as depressing, or as intractable, as gang violence. Just ask the family of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, shot to death by a gang member in 1995 in a highly publicized case that sparked official outcry. Or the family of 14-year-old Cheryl Green, who was killed last month in the Harbor Gateway area.

The public outrage 12 years ago was immediate and intense, as it was last month; and then, as now, elected officials vowed to change forever how Los Angeles deals with its gang problem. In 1995, federal dollars boosted the police presence, and the city created the L.A. Bridges program to help children vulnerable to the pressure and seduction of gang life. Today, Los Angeles has a proposed "Marshall Plan" to remake the lives of thousands of kids harmed or threatened by gangs, courtesy of Connie Rice and the Advancement Project.

It is all too easy to be dismissive, or defeatist, when reading a report like this one. The Marshall Plan was, after all, a comprehensive program to rebuild European nations destroyed by Nazism and World War II, to dull the deceptive attractions of communism and create societies that could sustain themselves peacefully. Rice's $1-billion plan for Los Angeles calls for nothing less than the reinvention of government, even of society, to restore education, career and social supports that have evaporated over the last 30 years.

The ambition of Rice's plan is impressive. And even L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton, who sees a larger force as a key to solving the problem, acknowledges that the city cannot arrest its way out of gang violence. The city and county now have money for more officers but can't find the recruits to hire. And when there are enough cops, there still will not be enough prosecutors, public defenders, jail cells and probation officers.

Suppression is needed, but so are prevention and intervention.

Still, ambition is useless without discipline. So, before the Marshall Plan, a reality check. Before the city signs off on another grand plan to end gang violence -- and even if it doesn't -- it should move forward on the following fronts:

* Evaluation. The city does not have the capacity, or the will, to determine whether a program works. L.A. Bridges went unevaluated for years because a politically connected losing bidder called in his chips and scuttled the contracting process. The City Council couldn't even agree on a firm to evaluate the evaluator. Finally, the job fell to the city controller, who examined Bridges, found it practically useless and recommended scrapping it. But the program was by then entrenched, and the City Council protected it.

The current controller, Laura Chick, has the power and the inclination to evaluate programs and departments, but she needs more money to hire experts with the know-how to assess gang programs. She should get it. There should be no new programs without built-in evaluation and a mechanism to scrap programs that don't work.

* Reorganization. Rice called for a new department, and a "gang czar," to coordinate services. A new bureaucracy is unnecessary. Villaraigosa has all the power he needs to partner with the county or other governments and to restructure ineffective city departments.

* Enforcement. More arrests can't by themselves solve the gang problem, but broader policing is part of the solution. Homeowners' trash fees went up last year to pay for 1,000 new officers, but the city can't yet recruit and train them. The money, in the meantime, should be used to pay for more police overtime.

* Funding. Villaraigosa recently went to Washington to request more money to fight gangs. That's the right move. Several City Council members are pushing for a ballot measure to raise taxes to fund gang services. That's the wrong move. Voters in the past may have been shortsighted in cutting the tax money needed to fully fund city and county operations, but a new tax to be used exclusively for the most recent highprofile need further exacerbates the self-defeating financial knot into which government is tied.

That's the easy part. Now Councilman Tony Cardenas must lead his colleagues through the Rice report, and Villaraigosa -- now finalizing his own study of the issue -- must put stopping gang violence high on the city's agenda.

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