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Get Involved: Gang Issue Can Be Solved : Residents must organize to take back their streets and parks.

Despite increasing attention given the gang problem in Orange County, there have been more gang-related deaths so far this year than in all of 1989. Last week, a youth was shot down in Garden Grove as he was talking on a pay phone to his girlfriend. The week before, two Santa Ana teen-agers were killed in drive-by shootings in which two others, including an 8-year-old boy, were wounded. The list seems destined to grow longer as 1990 wears on.

Gang violence tends to go in cycles. But there are indications that gangs are becoming more vicious and more pervasive in Orange County. Some gang experts say that a crackdown on gangs in South Los Angeles has sent criminals running to what they call “the 714,” referring to Orange County’s area code.

Automatic guns, more dangerous because they put ordinary residents at risk, are increasingly the weapons of choice for Latino gangs. Asian gangs are growing larger. There also is a local phenomenon of “hybrid” or “mutant” gangs that cross economic and ethnic barriers.

There’s more discouraging news. Those who work with gangs say that children are being “jumped in,” enlisted, at younger ages. All told, the county’s gang membership now is estimated at 10,000, mostly in minority communities in Santa Ana, Westminster and Garden Grove. But even in other areas, such as South County, rap music and music videos have lent a glamour to gangs that sometimes leads to criminal behavior.

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This grim assessment raises questions: Are current programs working? What more can be done? There are no easy answers. The basic elements of an anti-gang effort are in place: school and neighborhood programs that try to reach young people before they are recruited into gangs or try to rehabilitate members; a probation unit targeting hard-core gang members; and law enforcement agencies, such as the Santa Ana Police Department and the district attorney’s office, that have beefed up their gang details.

Asked if there was anything more to be added to the mix, one gang expert joked, “Send checks.” Money is indeed a problem.

Police departments need a shared database of gang membership, as outlined in legislation now in the Assembly. The Probation Department’s gang suppression unit, which monitors 140 hard-core cases, needs additional officers. Many community agencies are willing to provide more help if given resources. And there should be a comprehensive program of anti-gang education in schools.

But, as one gang expert said, it is not enough to “throw money at the flying bullets.” One of the things sorely needed doesn’t come with any amount of money: community involvement. A Santa Ana elementary school principal was pleased when 200 parents came to a meeting on keeping their children out of gangs.

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Still, law enforcement officers say that often only a handful of parents attend such gatherings. Also, in the communities most affected, angry residents need to organize to take back their streets and parks. This has worked in recent months in South Los Angeles, and earlier in East Los Angeles, where community groups and intervention agencies, backed by a police crackdown, put the pressure on gangs and brought crime down dramatically.

Dealing with gangs after they are fully entrenched is much harder. Unlike Los Angeles, Orange County still has a chance to put the brakes on gang organizing. The recent spate of violence should be a wake-up call to face the problems of gangs immediately and squarely.


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