At an age when most boys are playing Little League baseball, Alex Medina boasts of committing burglaries. Alex, 9, is a member of a street gang. Police say he has been arrested six times in cases ranging from curfew violations to burglary, but he was later released or the charges were dropped.
The boy's mother, Maria, says she has tried nearly everything to keep Alex off the checkerboard of streets surrounding the family's central Long Beach home. She has coaxed, pleaded. She has locked Alex in his room. On occasion, she has even tried chaining him to his bed with a makeshift leg-iron.
Disappears From Home
Nothing has worked. Alex disappears for days at a time, skipping school and living with the older gang members he calls friends.
"I fear that one of these days the police are going to come to our door and tell me he's been killed," the boy's mother said. "I dread that day."
But Maria Medina has not given up hope.
She is among 60 parents, clergymen, merchants and residents who in recent weeks have formed a loose-knit coalition to fight what they see as a growing problem with gangs in Long Beach.
The group, organized by the Rev. Leo Nieto of the Atlantic United Methodist Church, convened its first meeting earlier this month and planned to meet again this week. Although the organization as yet has no name, all its members share something in common--frustration over the effect street gangs are having on their lives.
"The city has got a cancer growing right now," said Bruce Palmer, a merchant whose cash register store on East Anaheim Street has been plagued by spray-painted gang graffiti. "Personally, I don't think the ivory tower politicians around here really know there's a gang problem in Long Beach."
In recent months, the situation has grown worse. So far this year, there have been 10 gang-related homicides in Long Beach, more than double the four recorded for all of last year. The worst previous year was 1983, when nine gang-related homicides occurred.
Police attribute the dramatic rise in homicides to so-called "payback" killings where gang members seek revenge for previous slayings.
"We are in an emergency situation at this moment," said Bernie Sanchez, an upholstery shop owner who works to reform many of the gang members living around his 10th Avenue shop. "If we don't try to stop these problems, it's going to be a war."
As many in the group see it, city officials and Long Beach Unified School District leaders need to begin more directly addressing the gang problem.
In particular, they maintain that the police department has not allocated enough men to its anti-gang efforts.
Currently, the department's gang detail has two full-time detectives who work directly with the estimated 5,000 gang members and 22 gangs in Long Beach. In comparison, the city of Los Angeles has more than 170 officers working in two different gang divisions. After the Santa Monica City Council learned last year that nine gangs were operating there, the police department expanded its gang detail from one officer to four.
"I'd hate to be in the Long Beach gang detail and have the problem of all those gang members hanging over my head," Palmer said. "Those are pretty bad odds."
Cmdr. David Dusenbury defended the department's approach, insisting that uniformed officers and detectives from other details such as homicide and narcotics help to control problems with gangs.
"The entire department has a responsibility to work any crime," Dusenbury said. "If that crime involves a gang, members of other sections will generally seek out information from the gang detail."
Parents like Medina, however, contend that the gang problem needs more focused attention, something that could be provided by members of a large detail working strictly with gangs.
"The police are the ones who can make the changes, but they choose not to," Medina said. "Who listens to the poor people? It seems we have no voice."
Members of the group would also like to see the city offer more recreational opportunities for gang members to channel their energy and aggressions away from violence.
"We don't need police to go out and kill these kids because they're bad," Palmer said. "We should be providing activities for them so that they'll become better citizens."
Detective Norm Sorenson of the police gang detail agrees that recreational programs might prove effective. But he said that facilities would have to be peppered throughout the community to reduce the potential for confrontations between rival gangs.
"There's no law against being a gang member," Sorenson said. "It's only when they commit criminal acts that they become a problem, from spray painting walls all the way up to murder."
City officials insist they are concerned about the gang problem and are working to stop it.
Discussions between school district and city officials have begun in an effort to formulate plans to keep youngsters from ever becoming gang members.
Program for Fifth Graders
Such a program has been in operation in Paramount for two years and has proven remarkably successful. More than 1,000 fifth-grade students have attended the course, called Alternatives to Gang Membership, and program directors say they do not know of a single one who has become a gang member. Formal studies show that 90% of the students who have completed the 15-week program say they would never join a gang. The instructors for the school course are counselors employed by the city.
"I think such a course could be effective in Long Beach," said Tony Ostos, a counselor who heads the Paramount program. "The more delay there is, the more youngsters there will be who get involved with gangs."
Nancy Johnson, community services superintendent for the Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department, said city and school officials are studying the possibility of incorporating an anti-gang education course with a drug prevention program that will be offered in city schools during the coming year.
"By the fall, when school starts, we'd like to have something developed if we get funding for it," she said.
Although the program would likely be similar to the Paramount course, it might use police officers instead of counselors as instructors, Johnson said.
Councilwoman Eunice Sato said she supports the program, but wishes it had been established long ago. In 1983, several community leaders asked the school board to adopt an anti-gang course, but trustees "wouldn't buy it," Sato said.
"The district was very cool to it then, if not cold," Sato said. "They said it was new and wanted to wait to see if it worked or not."
Sato said an increase in manpower for the police gang detail is not the answer to the troubles.
"You're just attacking the symptoms instead of the cause," she said. "You have to have prevention, and that's why I'm for the Paramount program. It's prevention. That's the only way to get ahead. Otherwise, you're just plugging all the holes, and they just keep appearing faster than you can plug them."
But many residents point out that such programs would not have an effect for several years. They are concerned about the current problems.
Pauline Bloomquist, 40, a coalition member, said she fears venturing outside her white clapboard house at night because of the gang problems. Gangs have spray-painted graffiti on a fence behind Bloomquist's house and often knock on the woman's door at night to harass her.
Bloomquist hopes the recently formed coalition will get the attention of city officials. "It's a start. It's something," she said. "Maybe it will wind down to nothing, but it could lead to something wonderful."