A years-long decline in gang-related homicides following 1993, when gang-related violence left 74 people dead, caused Orange County to become complacent. But word that gang-related homicides nearly doubled during 2002 means that county residents must wake up to a troubling reality.
The senseless loss of 35 human lives to gang-related violence is troubling enough on its own. Making matters worse is that, even as the violence escalates, cash-strapped cities are cutting funding for gang-related policing and prevention programs.
That's a dangerous development in a state where Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has cited gang violence as a chief factor in the state's overall rise in homicides and newly named Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has equated that city's criminal gangs with "homeland terrorism."
Orange County has more to worry about than home-grown violence. The county learned during the early 1990s that when gang-related violence in Los Angeles boils over, it doesn't take long for the tragic results to spill into this county. Local law enforcement officials say troubling parallels to that era are starting to surface.
The stalled economy plays a role in rising gang violence, as does the flow of gang leaders back into the community after serving prison terms for previous crimes. But the funding shortfall clearly will hinder society's ability to keep gangs from terrorizing people.
Cities must provide funding to police departments that form the first line of defense. Santa Ana, which saw gang-related killings jump to 15 from 10 in 2001, still maintains an anti-gang unit that is larger than those in most nearby cities. But the unit is smaller than it was in the mid-1990s.
Gangs don't respect city limit signs, so the county's anti-gang battle must cross jurisdictions. But tight budgets are forcing those broad-based programs to be pared back. A countywide anti-gang task force known as Target has seen its ranks depleted, with at least three departments pulling task force members to fill openings elsewhere in their agencies. The district attorney's award-winning Regional Gang Enforcement Team lost its federal grant money and was shut down.
Gang-related killings too often are seen as a problem for certain cities. But the ability of gangs to terrorize innocent families and wreak mayhem on their foes is a societal issue that demands a united front. Properly funded anti-gang units must be part of that response.