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‘The explosion in cocaine sales was . . . in no way dominated by gang involvement,’ the study says. : Black Gangs’ Role in Drug Trade Overblown, Study Finds

Times Staff Writer

The perception that black street gang members dominate rock cocaine trafficking in South Los Angeles has been substantially overstated in the past and current claims should be viewed cautiously, according to a study by two USC sociology professors.

A study of 741 cocaine-sale arrests made over a two-year period in five gang-infested sections of Los Angeles County found that in 75% of the cases no gang member was arrested as a suspect.

That indicates that “the world of rock cocaine belongs principally to the normal drug dealers of Los Angeles, not to its street gangs,” said the report, authored by professors Malcolm W. Klein and Cheryl L. Maxson. “There is little reason to be concerned about the special effects of gang involvement.”

The report said there were no significant differences between transactions that involved gang members and those that did not. Gang members selling cocaine were no more likely to carry guns or work out of so-called “rock houses” than non-gang members.

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The report studied the years 1984 and 1985, the first two years in which massive amounts of cocaine in cheap “rock” form began to flood South Los Angeles’ neighborhoods.

Klein, who has studied street gangs since the late 1960s, said he undertook the study to test the validity of claims by law enforcement officials that the sale of rock cocaine was primarily controlled by scores of independent Bloods or Crips street gang “sets.”

During the last year, law enforcement and public officials have routinely blamed street gangs as the major force moving cocaine through black neighborhoods. The flat assumption that the gangs were the controlling force--and the companion belief that drug sales were responsible for the majority of gang-related homicides--was given wide currency early this year when Newsweek magazine published a cover story about Los Angeles titled, “The Drug Gangs.”

In fact, Klein said in an interview Wednesday, his research indicates that it is misleading to lump Los Angeles’ gang crisis and its rock cocaine crisis into the same pot.

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While the total number of cocaine arrests in the two county sheriff’s stations and three Los Angeles Police Department divisions under study increased dramatically between 1983 and 1985, there was no proportionate increase in the role of gang members.

For example, the number of cocaine cases doubled to 1,114 in 1985 from 542 in 1984. But the proportion of cases in which at least one suspect was identified as a gang member barely rose, to 25% in 1985 from 21% in 1984.

“The explosion in cocaine sales was engaging a number of street gang members but was in no way dominated by gang involvement,” the study said. “The drug parameters simply overwhelmed the gang parameters.”

Klein acknowledged that the role of gangs in cocaine dealing may now be substantially larger than it was in 1985, but said the study makes him “automatically suspicious” about recent assertions that street gangs are beginning to resemble organized crime syndicates.

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An example of such rhetoric occured Tuesday when state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said that the single most alarming criminal development in California during the last year was the “transformation of Los Angeles street gangs into full-fledged organized crime networks that deal in violence, death and cocaine.”

“I’m nervous about that kind of thing,” Klein said. While a few individuals within a gang may well organize drug operations or work with drug dealers, “the cohesiveness of the gangs themselves is very low. . . . To expect a group like that to take on Mafia characteristics seems very unlikely.”

While the report is a statistical analysis, its conclusions inadvertently touch a longstanding issue of semantics. According to police, gang members and community workers who deal with them, crack cocaine dealers are often men in their 20s who were active street gang members while in their teens and now employ some gang members. However, Klein said in the interview, it is unrealistic to flatly label such operations as part of a street gang. It implies an inflated amount of organization, he said.

Deputy Los Angeles Police Chief Glenn Levant, the city’s gang-drug “czar,” said in an interview that department officials have “never claimed that gangs dominate drug trafficking.”

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So far this year, Levant said, 36% of the 7,088 people arrested under a new Gang-Related Active Trafficker program that he heads have been gang members. But even if the proportion was as low as the 25% recorded by Klein’s study in 1985, “that is very significant. . . . How can he say we’re overstating the problem?”

Estimates Involvement

Levant estimated that 10,000 of the estimated 70,000 black, Latino and Asian gang members in Los Angeles County are involved in the drug trade “from the street level up.”

Lt. Charles Bramtley of the sheriff’s Operation Safe Streets program said it is impossible to statistically prove the role of gang members in cocaine sales by examining arrest records.

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“For every one out there we arrest there are 10 or 15 we don’t arrest,” he said.

The USC study, developed at the university’s Social Science Research Institute, also noted that:

* The proportion of cocaine-sale cases in which guns were present decreased during the two-year study, to 21% from 34%. The decrease was more pronounced in cases involving gang members. In early 1984, guns were present in 39% of the cases involving gang members. By the end of 1985, they were present in only 17% of the cases.

That was surprising, Klein said, in light of alarmed statements by law enforcement officials warning about the increasing presence of heavily armed drug-dealing gang members.

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* From 1984 to 1985, the proportion of gang-related homicides in which drugs were present remained stable, while the proportion of non-gang homicides in which drugs were present rose sharply.

“The clear suggestion is that the portion of the gang world that gets involved in severe violence was already tinged with drug connections, while non-gang homicide came to be drug-tinged as the cocaine problem exploded,” the study said.


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