PERSPECTIVE ON L.A. VIOLENCE : Gangs Aren’t the Cause of Crime : Much of what is called “gang violence” is the age-related behavior of wild young males looking for trouble.
The recent report in Los Angeles County by the district attorney’s office on gangs and crime gained high visibility, coming as it did in the shadow of still-smoldering civil unrest and within days of state and local elections. The D.A.'s office, following a line of thinking common to virtually all political and journalistic discussions in this town, unreflectively makes a causal connection between gang symbolism and criminal violence. That’s a relationship in need of scrutiny.
The impossible truth about “gangs” in Los Angeles is that they are fundamentally irrelevant to the level of criminal violence. The reason that sociologists often recite the warning, “correlation is not causation,” is because the spiritual need to ignore the warning is so powerful. We will not get a sensible law-enforcement policy against youth violence until we understand why it is so seductive to believe that gangs are the problem.
Police files make it appear that all of the increase in homicides in recent years is due to gangs. But if we look outside Los Angeles, to jurisdictions without a comparable “gang problem,” we find the same pattern: a significant homicide decline in the early 1980s and a frightening increase in the last several years.
Where gangs exist, it will always seem obvious that they are causally responsible for criminal violence, for three reasons: First, such violence is disproportionately committed by young males. Young males also distinctively prefer to commit criminal violence collectively; older men, and women in general, strike alone, but young men commonly do it together, whether in “gangs” or other cliques. Finally, criminal youth violence is everywhere frequently “senseless,” conducted more in the spirit of thrill-seeking than as a disciplined means of economic gain. What was the point of the “wilding” attack in New York’s Central Park? In Los Angeles, such an event would be instantly misunderstood as a product of gang culture.
But what about homicides that are “pay-backs” for attacks on gang comrades? Without gangs, surely those particular crimes would not occur. Perhaps not, but other attacks would. The district attorney’s report indicates that Crips already may attack Crips more than they attack Bloods. Eliminate gangs and you redirect more violence from inter-group to intra-group and random individual targets.
Anti-"gang” mass arrests needlessly violate the civil rights of young minority men and women and compromise the independent ability of prosecutors and police leaders to punish egregious instances of police brutality. Targeting “gangs” also wastes the increasingly precious resource of criminal punishment.
The district attorney’s report acknowledges that gang involvement is causally independent of drug distribution. It also erroneously labels almost half of all young black men in Los Angeles gang members. Yet it recommends that police labels of “gang membership” be used to trigger confinement for violations of parole and probation conditions. This practice of “violating” offenders, for nonviolent, indeed often non-criminal acts that contradict release conditions, is already largely responsible for the quadrupling, since 1980, of the prison population in California
The alternative to high-profile anti-gang policies is not to send out social workers to give gang members earnest hugs. It is to focus on making traditional cases, for robbery, murder, rape and the like, against violent offenders, whether or not they are in “gangs”; to maximize the use of prison space for violent offenders; and to focus on the politically messy but unavoidable challenge of getting firearms out of the hands of urban young men. Other communities have found it useful to assign police to gang specializations in order to identify the violent few and to work with local residents to discover those responsible for particular shootings and the locations of particular guns. In cities where the police and district attorney do not rush to press conferences to celebrate gang sweeps, gang cops often find gang members to be so thirsty for the attention of serious adults that they will readily cooperate in identifying the most dangerous of their buddies.
To their youthful members, the appeal of gangs is that they promise to make sense of the chaos around them and within them. Violent urban youth gangs are recurrent products of American immigration patterns, both domestic and foreign, that draw ethnic minority populations from agrarian, low-skill economies, humbling and often humiliating the heads of the families. The diffidence, and too often the disappearance, of fathers creates a powerful moral vacuum for sons who sense, in the aching absence, a powerful draw to the puffed-up arrogance of local gangs. By manufacturing inter-group conflicts, gangs weave a spirit of meanness into a fabric of meaning that transcends chaos.
The same holds true for the appeal of the gang focus for our law-enforcement leaders. From Washington to Los Angeles, “gangs” come to symbolize the vicious chaos that democratically threatens the sanity of virtually everyone in urban America. If “gangs” organize criminal violence, then by being meaner than any competitor, law-enforcement leaders can offer a “comprehensive plan” and a stern, inspiring faith to all decent, disheartened residents.
Beware such seductive plans. The only solid solutions to gangs, and to criminal youth violence more generally, depend on long-range changes in immigration patterns and on economic developments that local officials, much less police chiefs and district attorneys, lack the authority to address. In the meantime, police and prosecutors can concentrate on more precise and efficient punishment of genuinely violent youths, marginally reducing the rate of criminal violence by getting the worst offenders off the streets more quickly.