Gang experts told about 400 San Fernando Valley residents that Los Angeles is under siege by gangs--and if you're not careful, that gangbanger could be your own kid.
The experts, speaking at the Northridge United Methodist Church on Monday, said that the battle against gangs starts at home.
"The biggest problem I deal with is parental denial," Los Angeles Police Detective Bill Vaughan said. "People always want to say their kid's problems are some other kid's fault."
In wide-ranging discussion, the experts gave parents and homeowners a quick course on gangs. Besides Vaughan, there was a Granada Hills High School counselor and a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. The audience was also shown a short video on gangs.
The meeting was organized by Mad About Rising Crime, a citizens group active in the northwest Valley. The group was founded by a Chatsworth couple, Lin and Clark Squires, whose 15-year-old son, Marc, was shot to death at a party in 1990 by a gang member who wanted his beeper.
Vaughan pointed out that in 1987, in the area patrolled by the Police Department's Devonshire Division, there was only one gang with about 60 members.
"Now, we have more than 20 gangs, more than 1,000 members, plus 2,000 wanna-bes," Vaughan said. "It's an explosion."
The experts also cautioned that graffiti, which has spread to the Valley's wealthiest areas, is the first sign of gang activity, because nonviolent taggers frequently graduate into violent gang members.
"It starts with graffiti and then spreads to assault and more violent crimes," Vaughan said. "We had one group that formed as a tagging crew and within 18 months they had committed their first murder."
The slaying of a student at Reseda High School last month was believed to have stemmed from a dispute between tagging crews, Vaughan said.
"When you have rival taggers claiming the same walls, each time they spray it's like a challenge to the other group," said Edward Nison, who prosecuted gang crimes for five years in the Valley until he was recently transferred to Santa Monica. "These challenges often lead to violence."
Citizens need to prod property owners and business proprietors to paint over graffiti immediately, Nison said.
Not even private schools are safe from gang activity, Vaughan said. Two of Valley's most notorious gangs, the Asian Bad Boys and the T-Street Boys, originally formed in private schools, he said.
Joan Lewis, an anti-gang counselor at Granada Hills High, works with several campus anti-gang programs, including one in which parolees speak on gang behavior.
"We have groups that meet weekly, including a gang intervention group that works to avoid confrontations before they can escalate into violence," Lewis said. "We're trying to put our fingers in the dam."
Several members of the audience said later that they found the event useful, although the level of gang activity left some people discouraged.
"It's gotten so bad I'm afraid to let my son out alone," said Maria San Miguel, who attended the event with her 10-year-old son, Andres.
Dave Rodriguez, 19, is a former gang member who attended the event.
"I wish we had more programs like this when I was younger," he said. "I had to learn the hard way by watching a guy I know get shot."