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L.A. rethinks anti-gang programs

As Villaraigosa plans to drop L.A. Bridges, the usefulness of such efforts is still unknown.

April 21, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a splash when he announced plans last week for ending L.A. Bridges, an anti-gang initiative under fire since the Riordan administration for failing to demonstrate clear results.

But in dropping the L.A. Bridges programs and shifting the money to his appointed "gang czar," Villaraigosa put off yet again answering one key question: Are these programs, which last year received $13.2 million, successful in quelling violence and keeping kids out of gangs?

When Villaraigosa's proposed budget is made public today, it is expected to offer an additional $7.2 million to gang prevention and intervention programs, allowing the same contractors who ran programs under L.A. Bridges the opportunity to apply for even more money.

Because the anti-gang efforts are being redesigned, a full evaluation of those programs won't be practical until at least 2010, said Deputy Mayor Jeff Carr, the city's gang czar.

"It's going to be a couple years" before the results are in, he said. "And really, it will be beyond that. Because we're setting something new in motion."

Politicians have struggled for nearly a decade to assess the city's signature anti-gang initiative, ever since former Mayor Richard Riordan was denounced by City Council members and community leaders for criticizing it. Two recently commissioned reports have sharply critiqued the city's overall anti-gang strategy, yet did not evaluate L.A. Bridges.

Villaraigosa aides say L.A. Bridges has become such a sacred cow that the only way to reform it is to rebuild it from the ground up -- a process that will take two years to complete and review.

"There has been a need to reform the way we provide these services for more than a decade, and up until now that reform has been thwarted by politics," said Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo.

The review of the new programs will come partway into Villaraigosa's second term, if he is reelected. Even City Controller Laura Chick, who pushed for anti-gang initiatives to prove their worth, is leaving the evaluation to her successor.

"There will be no real performance audit, or real audit and evaluation by me," said Chick, who leaves office in June 2009.

Until now, L.A. Bridges has been supervised by the city's Community Development Department, an agency whose top executive reports to Villaraigosa.

Bridges I tries to keep middle school students from joining gangs by providing tutoring and other activities. Bridges II tries to reach older kids already in gangs and sends intervention workers to crime scenes to avert additional violence.

Aides to the mayor insist that his new anti-gang initiative will ultimately be measured for success, using $900,000 already earmarked for an outside evaluation. Academic experts will rely on data to identify the most vulnerable children, then use quantifiable measures to determine whether they are being helped.

Although such a strategy may sound obvious, it is a dramatic departure from the way L.A. Bridges was supervised, said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who helps run the Advancement Project Los Angeles, a public policy nonprofit.

"To you and me, it may seem small because it should have been done years ago," Rice said. "But you can't ignore the fact that it's finally being done."

Under Villaraigosa's proposal, prevention programs once spread across 27 middle schools will now be placed primarily in 12 gang-reduction zones -- neighborhoods where gang violence is four times the citywide average.

Instead of focusing on children who face milder difficulties, the programs will target children who are at the most extreme risk of joining gangs, Carr said. Each of the 12 zones -- neighborhoods such as Panorama City, Cypress Park and Baldwin Village -- will receive $1 million per year in prevention funds, enough to target at least 200 children per zone.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn questioned whether that would be enough for places hard hit by violence, such as Watts. "I mean, all of Markham Middle School" -- which has an enrollment of 1,500 -- "is at risk of joining gangs," she said.

Each zone will also get $500,000 per year for gang intervention.

L.A. Bridges was established by the City Council after the death of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, who was riding with her parents on a Cypress Park street in 1995 when gang members surrounded their car and started shooting at them.

In 2000, the program came under fire from then-City Controller Rick Tuttle, who said it was so poorly run that it should be shut down. The council responded by denouncing Tuttle -- and demanding that L.A. Bridges stay put.

"I knew it was a bad idea 10 years ago, the way Bridges was going," Tuttle said last week, looking back on the fight.

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