PERSPECTIVE ON GANGS : Getting Tough Got Us Nowhere : So many died while we unleashed cops, jails and harsh laws on the gangs. Root social causes were not addressed.


In my short 4 1/2 years as pastor of the tiny parish of Dolores Mission on the Eastside of Los Angeles, I have buried or participated in the burial of 14 young men and women slain in this madness called “gang banging.” Ten of these victims were laid to rest last year alone. This loss is staggering and senseless and has rendered us a little numb.

The numbers scream at us: One in three homicides in Los Angeles County last year were gang-related (compared to 1 in 10 in 1980); the Northeast Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, alone, has seen a 150% increase in gang murders; gang membership has doubled in the last five years, and the horrifying numbers of 1989 were surpassed by the grim statistics of 1990 well before the year had reached its end.

The forecast remains bleak, and our communal hope for the demise of this murderous trend is but a light flickering out. Nothing has worked to turn the tide. Get-tough efforts by police have been without effect. Gang crime has not been deterred by Operation Hammer or by any of the millions of dollars spent by law enforcement to achieve this end. Even Sheriff Sherman Block and Police Chief Daryl Gates have, of late, admitted--albeit grudgingly--that law enforcement is not the ultimate answer to this persistent and complex problem.

Now it has become de rigueur for law-enforcement officials to acknowledge the need for social programs as a step toward addressing the root causes of gang activity. Both Block and Gates now glibly propose better schools, recreational opportunities, counseling programs, Head Start and jobs as essential elements in reversing this trend. They make these recommendations as if they had been making them all along without being heard.


The great tragedy of 1990 underscores the sad and bankrupt analysis of the gang problem over these past 10 years. Law-enforcement officials were not lamenting the cutbacks in government-funded social programs in the late 1970s. Rather, they saw their golden opportunity to get a larger piece of the funding pie. So they bellied-up to the politicians and pleaded for a blank check to rid our community of the blight of gangs. If only we had more jails, they would beg. What we couldn’t do with more police or more gang sweeps or with tougher laws, they reasoned. And because we residents of Los Angeles wanted to show our resolve to fight gang crime, we signed the blank check. Tragically, long ago we designated the police as the “experts” in unraveling the complexities of this gang mess and have let them do as they will.

Here we are, 10 years and many thousands of deaths later, with the admission of law-enforcement officials that they were never the experts. In fact, we come to the sobering discovery that the solution is not even within their domain or reach. At best, law enforcement can respond to the symptoms of the gang disease, much as a pharmacist doles out medicine to the cancer patient. But the pharmacist would never claim to be an oncologist, able to detect the root site of the disease and propose a long-term plan of treatment.

And herein lies the tragic dimension of our situation. Just as we come to the insight that we have placed all of our eggs in the wrong basket, there is no money to rectify our bad judgment. We greet this new decade with a seemingly new revelation that unemployment, the failure of the schools, dysfunctional families, poverty, boredom and despair might be causing the increase in gang manifestations, and we are economically caught short to do anything about it. I fear that, by coming too late to this discovery, we may have lost one generation of young people because of our shallow analysis and our colossal miscalculation.

I don’t blame the police for their failures. I believe that they genuinely saw themselves as the experts, as the “oncologists,” as the “last word” on the gang problem. We all must assume responsibility for assigning to law enforcement a task it was wholly unsuited to complete. We will begin to effectively address the increase in gang violence and death if we first share the blame for having relied on the erroneous belief that more cops, more jails and tougher laws would do the trick. If we humbly admit this, we can put to rest the lazy analysis that has, to date, undergirded Los Angeles’ gang strategy. Then, and only then, can we hope to reallocate funds and resources from law enforcement and apply them where they have always been needed. My prayer is that the numbers of 1991 will reflect that we have changed our thinking and sought complex solutions to a complex problem.