Guillermo Cespedes speaks to the media after his appointment. (Los Angeles Times )
In a large conference room at City Hall East, more than 100 gang-intervention workers gathered last week to hear about a new approach to heading off gang violence and the destruction it causes. They had come to hear a family tell its story.
The mother did most of the talking, guided by a counselor. She was there with two of her children, a son and a daughter, and they'd been through the wringer. An older daughter had gotten in trouble, deeper and deeper. She'd neglected her schoolwork and fought back when her parents tried to discipline her. She ran away from home, got pregnant. "The road she was on," the mother said, "was not good."
As the mother and father became increasingly preoccupied with trying to set their older daughter straight, they had less time to spend with their younger children, and soon those two began to show signs of trouble as well. Their grades dropped; the boy's interest in sports flagged.
Gripped by the sense that they were losing control, the parents called for help. It came in the form of a local organization, whose counselor dove into the life of this young family, escorting the kids to school, arranging for tutors, counseling the parents. Slowly, life settled down. The son got glasses, started doing his homework and brought up his grades; the younger daughter joined a program for future executives and thrived.
Asked to explain what got his attention and turned him around, the boy responded, "Jesus," then quickly added, "and the ladies."
The counselor for this session was Harry Aponte, a nationally recognized gang-intervention expert from Philadelphia, and he patiently waded through the family history as the audience of intervention workers listened, many taking notes.
This family-centered approach represents a new tack in Los Angeles' long quest to divert young people from gangs. The philosophy behind it is that focusing on a single troubled child isn't enough. Schools and neighborhoods surround children, but their families are their core of support and thus the most natural people to help them.
"We're shifting the focus from the individual to the family," Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes explained. "Every family has a problem-solving mechanism that gets jammed. We're trying to address that."
Police and others credit Cespedes' efforts, known as the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, with making steady progress against gang violence in Los Angeles. Last year, crime overall in the city continued its long decline (though homicides ticked back up by a single killing, from 297 to 298), and the drop in gang crime continued to outpace that for crime generally. Fewer gang members fired shots or were themselves shot, and gang crimes overall fell by more than 15%, from 5,537 to 4,694. (Again, homicides were an exception, though a relatively small one: 170 killings in 2011 were attributed to gang violence, up from 161 the year before.)
So impressed is Police Chief Charlie Beck with the program's contribution to reducing gang crime in Los Angeles that, in an interview with Times reporters and editors last week, he said he's judging the field of mayoral candidates in part by which ones would keep the office structured as part of the mayor's staff. That configuration is useful, Beck explained, because gang crime is not spread evenly throughout the city, and giving the council oversight of the efforts means that there are pressures to spread its resources across 15 districts, rather than concentrate them where they are needed. "If [the program] becomes a council department again," he said, "it's not going to have the focus it has now."
Meanwhile, the approach is continuing to evolve. Driven by the program's determination to fuse research and real-world experience, Cespedes says he and others have concluded that families need to be at the center of the program's efforts. Hence the training last week at City Hall.
During his 90 minutes with the family, Aponte listened carefully as the mother and her children spelled out the elements of their success as well as the challenges that lie ahead. The older daughter has just had her baby and is living in a group home. The younger children still have a long way to go in school, and the temptation of gangs will not recede with just one strong report card.
But Aponte also recognized the family's progress, its emergence from a long stretch of tough work. "You're celebrating life," he observed. "You've gone through a dark alley, and now you're celebrating."
The mother nodded, as did her children. Aponte turned to his audience to emphasize the point: "They will not lose this.... This is their trophy to take home."
Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.