A $3-million federal grant that will finance a law enforcement crackdown on Los Angeles gangs was announced Friday by U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, and it immediately came under fire from some community leaders as a wrongheaded solution to the problem of street crime.
Barr said that $2 million of the grant will be directed to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Violent Crimes, a 5-month-old, multi-agency law enforcement unit whose initial purpose was to concentrate on riot-related crimes and gang involvement in the Los Angeles riots. The remaining $1 million will go to the Los Angeles Police Department to pay officers' overtime, LAPD Cmdr. Robert Gil said.
"This is a coordinated, comprehensive effort to look at overall violent crimes being perpetuated by hard-core gang members," U.S. Atty. Terree Bowers said. "We hope to develop a much more surgical approach to these types of prosecutions so law enforcement officials are focusing on the violent offenders responsible for the killings and muggings."
The 100-member task force includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the state attorney general's office, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and Compton and Long Beach police.
Charlie Parsons, special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles regional office, said the task force has refocused its efforts on gangs.
"Although gangs are primarily a local problem, I feel like the FBI and the federal government can't sit on the sidelines and watch," he said.
"We are looking at determining the leadership of the gangs. We will try to apply federal (anti-racketeering) statutes, take them on as an enterprise, rather than just as individuals."
Under those federal statutes, Parsons said, "there is no parole, no probation. There are some very strong federal laws that can be used."
But some community leaders warned that too heavy an emphasis on law enforcement, without adequate funding for programs that prevent youths from joining gangs, will backfire.
"You don't fight fire with fire," said Chilton Alphonse, executive director of the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation, a gang prevention agency. "You fight fire with water.
"You can't just suppress the gangs," he said. "You have to change the conditions that cause the problem." He said the government should emphasize education and job programs instead.
Federal officials said the task force will be funded through assets seized from criminals.
Bowers noted that the grant announced Friday is independent of the Bush Administration's Weed and Seed program, which is expected to allocate $1 million to Los Angeles law enforcement and $18 million to social services in riot-affected areas.
Community activists last month criticized Weed and Seed, saying that it would lead to more police brutality and civil rights violations, and undermine efforts to improve police-community relations. Concerned members of the Los Angeles City Council have called for public hearings before the program is implemented.
Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and co-author of a critical report on Weed and Seed, called the new $3-million grant "an effort to circumvent open public discussion established around Weed and Seed."
"This is just an effort to bolster the repressive nature of Weed and Seed (and) take it out of public scrutiny on a technicality by saying that it is not part of Weed and Seed."