Police Try Tough Talk to Steer Youths Away From Crime

Everyone's looking for the ultimate cure for violent crime--gun control, the Clinton crime bill, "three strikes and you're out."

But sometimes you can find a smaller remedy right in your own back yard. Or at least ours, the streets behind The Times that blend into a vast stretch of misery just east of us known as Skid Row.

On a recent Wednesday night, I left The Times parking structure and drove through Skid Row, pulling in at an ugly brown fortress at 6th and Maple streets, the Central Area police station. There, in one of the most depressed and dangerous parts of Los Angeles, a small group of police officers is engaged in an unusual battle against violent crime.

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About a dozen young men--actual and potential gang members--and their parents sat around a large U-shaped arrangement of tables in a conference room, taking part in a confrontational session with the police. The young men had been caught screwing up and the goal was to get them to admit it.

Officer Frank DiPaola, wearing jeans, a sport shirt, a gun and badge, approached a Latino seated at the table. In a loud, hostile voice, he told him to take off his boots. Warily, the boy did as he was told.

DiPaola picked up one of the boots and walked a few steps away. "How does that make you feel?" he said to the kid. "I just took your boot."

"You took something that was mine," the kid said.

"How did the man you robbed feel?" DiPaola asked. "I got the gun. I'm going to take your other boot before you go."

Two or three more cops took their turns giving others in the group the same sort of treatment, as did a psychologist. Parents, some of them unaware of the extent of their sons' activities, were confronted with what their boys had been up to. "Tell your father why you joined a gang," DiPaola said to a member of the Asian Boys, a Chinatown gang. This seemed to be big news to the father.

Generally, these young men had come to the table by one of two routes.

DiPaola had plucked some out of jail after Juvenile Court agreed to turn them over to his program.

Other boys had their names taken down by police on field reporting cards during sweeps through gang hangouts, such as the Downtown video game arcades around 8th Street and Broadway. DiPaola visited the parents and offered to help. He persuaded them that their children were heading straight for trouble. He asked them to bring their sons down to the police station for the program, and invited them to participate in parenting classes themselves.

I asked one of the boys why he agreed to come down to the police station. "My mom was crying too many times," ex-18th Street gang member Abel Silva said.

The police station meetings are just part of the program. It also includes something called "Scared Straight," where the young men are brought to the abandoned Lincoln Heights jail and put in cells. Ex-cons walk along the rows of cells, screaming and using threats of beatings and homosexual rape to give the boys an idea of life on the inside.

The third phase is community service, 100 or 200 hours of graffiti cleanup. None of this is pleasant. At each phase, the cops keep up the confrontation.

On a Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I went to Central station to watch a graffiti cleanup crew at work. One kid was defiant, bragging about his skill on the streets. He was confronted by Rolling '30s gang alumnus Troy Garner, a program volunteer who sneered: "If you was as good at hustling as you say you are, you wouldn't be here. You'd be out hustling."

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The program's real significance is that it suggests better ways of dealing with a problem that has stubbornly resisted solutions.

It recognizes that the LAPD officers can no longer limit themselves to their traditional role. Even if Mayor Richard Riordan builds the department up to 10,000, we still won't have enough cops to put down all the city's violent criminals.

The Central station program is a small, low-ticket item that reaches only a few. It's not going to stop the worst, most intractable thugs. But it offers an alternative to the road to jail.

As Central Area Capt. Dick Bonneau conceded: "It doesn't deal with a lot of people, and not everyone who goes in the program is a success." But he also said: "The fact is, it will change some of them, so it's worth it."

It also recognizes that gang membership, or hanging out with gang members, isn't always a certain ticket to prison or death on the streets. Everyone's different. People can change.

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