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An educated weapon will combat gangs

City-sanctioned intervention workers are studying for a unique assignment: preventing the next crime.

May 23, 2010|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

Class was in session the other day in a squat building overlooking MacArthur Park. The assignment: "Baby Mama Drama."

Scenario: A man is pinned down inside a house because he's in the "wrong" neighborhood — outside his territory. He's just visiting the mother of his child, who lives in your neighborhood, but the woman's new boyfriend is out front and not happy. The situation is tense and deteriorating quickly. What to do?

Los Angeles officials are preparing to graduate their first class of city-sanctioned gang intervention workers, a significant step in the city's groundbreaking adoption of street outreach efforts designed to augment traditional policing.

This spring, the 34 students of the city's training academy have been gathering twice a week, pondering scenarios like that one, which might sound innocuous to outsiders but can have serious consequences on the streets.

City Hall pledged to offer a program unlike anything that has been seen in crime prevention — and so far, that much is certainly true, though only time will tell the consequences for the city. Officials say gang outreach workers will work behind the scenes, in the most distressed corners of the city, to do what law enforcement cannot: prevent the next crime, as Police Chief Charlie Beck put it, while the cops are working to solve the last one.

The first 15-week academy is scheduled to end next month; it is being run by the Advancement Project, the legal advocacy, civil rights and public policy group that was awarded a $200,000 city contract last fall.

The program is no mere academic exercise: Law enforcement authorities from across the nation are closely monitoring the program to see whether it will succeed. City Hall spends more than $20 million each year on gang intervention and prevention contracts, and soon, a diploma from the academy will be required of anyone working under those contracts.

Advanced classes will also be required soon. One, for instance, will focus on nonprofit administration: obtaining insurance; forming a board of directors; running a proper payroll.

In the Los Angeles area, gang intervention has been around for decades in various forms, including mentors, missionaries and civil rights advocates. But the field has never had a formal structure, and people who call themselves interventionists have varied wildly in credibility and efficacy.

In recent years, law enforcement officials have come to view gang intervention as a vital tool in controlling street gossip, preventing retaliation crimes and tamping down tension between rival neighborhoods. So the city is working to professionalize the ranks of interventionists, providing guidance, training, rules and oversight. The creation of the city academy is a critical part of that effort.

Most of the current students were once ranking members of a street gang and are, predictably, a tough-looking crowd; their tattoos include smoking pistols, naked women and spider webs creeping into their hairlines.

Many have served time for serious offenses: drug trafficking, assault, robbery. Many have lived brutal lives; during a break, one group sat in folding chairs and chatted, comparing the feeling of being shot to the feeling of being stabbed. One student said casually that he'd once driven himself to a hospital after being shot through the throat.

Access to the academy is tightly controlled; committees of gang interventionists who have been working the streets for years, sometimes decades, screen instructors and students. Some of the key organizers are legends on the streets of Los Angeles; instructor Jerald Cavitt, for example, was instrumental in ending a war between the Swans and the East Coast Crips that left two dozen people shot in 2004.

The classes, most held at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, are raucous and raw. They can also be highly secretive. Several students said they were incensed that an outsider had been allowed in, even if the public is footing the bill.

The academy's ethics guidelines and curriculum were crafted over the last two years by some of the city's most prominent gang experts, sociologists and intervention workers; they met, all told, for 500 hours. Among the ethics standards they developed: Don't do drugs; be humble and respectful; do not bully or use your hands to "throw" gang signs. And, said Melvyn Hayward Jr., a veteran gang outreach worker and an architect of the standards: "A real gang interventionist should never carry a weapon."

"You are a diplomat," said Ron Noblet, one of the city's leading gang experts and an early proponent of using intervention to augment traditional policing. "Your job is to de-escalate violence."

That can require a deft touch. When debating the "Baby Mama Drama" scenario, for instance, students said they would use their off-the-books "license to operate" — approval to work inside a gang's territory — to negotiate the trapped man's safe and quiet exit from the house.

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