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We Can Make a Modest Start on Gangs

<i> Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre represents the Eastside's 14th district</i>

Los Angeles has for many years had a very serious problem with gangs, one that many segments of the community have been slow to recognize. We have seen, through their gang affiliation, the waste of young people’s lives to drugs, prison and untimely death. And we have seen the killing of innocent bystanders, the destruction of property and the disintegration of whole neighborhoods and families.

The city has made an effort to respond to this mayhem. But it seems to be the nature of government that we demand, and our constituents demand, a quick response. As such, we have shown little patience for the long-term process called prevention.

The City Council recently allocated $2.1 million in prevention money to develop “a comprehensive citywide program to deter gang membership.”

Admittedly, $2.1 million is not much, nor will it go very far when you realize that we have about 834,000 children in Los Angeles. Of those, 50,000 to 100,000 have some gang affiliation and surely all cannot be written off as bad kids. Moreover, we already have lost generations of our children to neglect, abuse and indifference.

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Large scale, big-ticket social programs often are not politically viable; even when they are viable, there needs to be recognition that sometimes very large problems are solved only incrementally. The coordinated step-by-step approach, while not satisfying to those seeking instant answers, is one realistic way to actually get results.

Money alone, whether it is $2.1 million or $100 million, will not solve the problem. What we need is a major community and family effort to provide all young people with a sense of self-esteem and choice. To accomplish this, we need to maximize anti-gang and anti-drug education programs while providing recreation, job skills and the attention that will give young people the courage to do more than “just say no"--to “say yes” to a different kind of life than the one offered by gangs and drugs. The effort must be sustained and coordinated.

Our region’s multilevel bureaucracy does not serve us well. It encourages each agency to avoid the tough problems of planning and of dealing with the most ungovernable kids and finding innovative ways of working with other agencies. It is like trying to grow a beautiful, well-manicured garden with five different gardeners planting the seeds without consulting one another. Someone has to be in charge. Someone must provide direction.

This week I will recommend to a joint council committee that the city fund a coordination unit as a 3-year pilot program to develop a youth policy and a citywide action plan to govern the kind of programs we fund. Lest my recommendation be dismissed as just another bureaucratic shuffle, let me reiterate that there is no substantial, on-going coordination of programs for youth in the city or the county.

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In the few cases where there has been coordination, however, the results have been dramatic. For example, the Interagency Task Force on Gangs, a county-city committee of government agencies organized to share information on the gang problem, recently decided to embrace action rather than talk. The members are all full-time employees of the Los Angeles Police Department; the county sheriff’s, probation and parole departments; the California Youth Authority, Community Youth Gang Services and others. They use their spare work and personal time to assist law enforcement in sharing information about gang members. The task force also produced the first-ever resource guide to make more effective use of existing gang diversion programs and established a city attorney-district attorney-linked prosecution system for faster apprehension and prosecution of gang members.

Most important, the task force developed the Reduction of Street Violence Project in LAPD’s South-Central Newton Division and the county Sheriff’s Florence/Firestone area. The project is designed to coordinate gang prevention and enforcement services in those communities. To date, this ad hoc project has produced a stable “Operation Stay in School” program that has picked up, counseled, returned to school and involved the parents of more than 1,000 truant youths last year.

It is impossible to coordinate such an effort on a volunteer basis. Even if the volunteers are willing to work very hard, they need direction if they are to be successful. It must come from someone who is compensated and accountable for the day-to-day operation and who has a commitment to solving the problem.

We can begin to provide a solid foundation for our children’s future. If we do not begin to approach this problem logically and make a commitment for the long haul, we will each continue to work--very diligently and aggressively--but in isolation. And we will fail.


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