Decades after authorities identified gangs as a growing and deadly menace in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, the tracking of gang-related crime remains sporadic and incomplete, with no statistics at all kept in many jurisdictions.
National gang experts say the result has been a generation's worth of policy decisions, anti-gang programs and law enforcement initiatives based on social theories and public fear instead of verifiable trends.
With no means to track gang-related crime accurately, experts say, it is impossible for cities to know how to reduce gang violence. Authorities even disagree on what a gang crime is.
"What are the dimensions of the problem? Are they smaller or greater than people think?" asked John Moore, director of the Florida-based National Youth Gang Center. "I get calls all the time asking me for comparative information, and we have no way of doing that because we have no standardized system, and police departments aren't required to keep track of it."
Even without such statistics, California has spent more than $57 million on gang violence suppression since 1991. But the Office of Criminal Justice Planning, which oversees the spending, doesn't collect the data needed to verify whether any of the programs work, according to a report last year by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.
Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton were in Washington, D.C., this week to lobby for more federal assistance to fight gangs after the city finished 2002 with the most homicides in the nation. Although the number of killings in L.A. went up 10% over 2001, what little data police have show virtually no increase in violent gang crime.
Gang killings, the only widely tracked gang crime, have fallen nationwide since their peak in the mid-1990s. But the quality of those numbers is inconsistent, gang experts say, and, alone, they fail to draw a broad picture of gang crime.
Even as they unveil the latest anti-gang initiatives, top Los Angeles police officials acknowledge that they do not know enough about the extent of the city's gang crime.
The Los Angeles Police Department relies largely on "guesstimates," Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said. Though the LAPD, since the 1970s, has kept an informal tally of gang-related homicides, assaults and a handful of other serious crimes, the department has never, for instance, tracked the relationship between gangs and narcotics.
"It seems obvious that this is something we would be doing," said LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who heads the South Bureau, which includes many of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. "Where are those numbers kept officially? The answer is they are not. I think we are just now realizing how important it is to have that information."
Paysinger said the LAPD could get a better picture of the ties between gangs and crime "by something as simple as checking a box" on police reports. It's information that could be collected electronically. Such a system, he said, could be created using such evidence as the flashing of gang signs or the wearing of gang colors, indicating that the victim or perpetrator was in a gang.
Bratton, when asked about the LAPD's paucity of gang crime data, said gathering the information is "absolutely critical." The goal, he said, should be a department-wide reporting system that "gives you the totality of the influence and impact of gangs." LAPD officials now are talking about adding gang-related crime to the department's new reporting system.
One obstacle to accurate crime reporting is defining what is gang-related.
"There is such a disagreement nationwide about exactly what a gang crime is that it has never been counted," said Wes McBride, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who is president of the California Gang Investigators Assn.
"It's never been done nationally, and the state here doesn't do it," he added. "If you really wanted to do something about gangs, you would want to know what the real problem is. Sometimes I wonder if police really want to know."
Even in Southern California, where national experts say more effort to track gang-related crime has been made than elsewhere in the country, there is confusion about which jurisdictions keep off-the-book statistics, and how accurate they are.
The definition itself is controversial.
The LAPD and law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California say any crime committed by a gang member is a gang-related crime.
Criminal courts -- which allow significant sentence enhancements for gang crimes -- define a crime as gang-related only if it was committed to further the interests of a gang, or if the perpetrator used the resources of a gang to intimidate victims or witnesses. The Chicago Police Department, which also is battling a gang problem, uses this definition.
Critics say the LAPD's definition of a gang-related crime is too broad to be useful. To start with, they ask: Who is a gang member?
Doubts have been raised for years about the accuracy of names on gang member lists compiled by California law enforcement officials. Even supporters of the lists concede problems. Los Angeles County has about 100,000 names on its gang list, including 52,000 in L.A.
Without an accurate starting point, civil libertarians say, attempts to document gang crime will be seriously flawed. They worry that longer prison sentences allowed for gang members under the 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection (STEP) Act can tempt law enforcement officials to label any young man from a tough neighborhood a gang member.
"Who is making those decisions? And how are the criteria determined?" asked Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "It's terribly subjective, and that's the big problem. It matters because of the types of resources you put into the effort based on these numbers and the fear that it conjures up."
Schroeder said "it would be crazy" to suggest that L.A. has no gang problem. But she and others such as Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has worked with gang members on Los Angeles' Eastside for nearly 20 years, say police should differentiate between hard-core members and young men on a gang's periphery.
They also criticize the LAPD for not distinguishing crimes committed by gang members that are motivated by personal reasons, including drug addiction and family arguments.
Gangbanging, Boyle said, falls along a continuum, "from writing on the wall, to shooting people up, to getting in their faces." Simply belonging to a gang, Boyle said, is no crime.
Hahn rejects that argument.
"I have a real hard time with folks who somehow try to say that just because folks are in a gang you shouldn't assume they are involved with crime. Hello? They are in a gang," Hahn said. "They are part of a group dedicated to breaking the law."
Both during his service as Los Angeles city attorney, and now as mayor, Hahn said he has been frustrated by the inability of the Police Department to produce statistics on gang activity.
"They didn't recognize gang-related crime might be worse than they were counting," Hahn said. "It spreads into narcotics. It spreads into domestic violence. I think there was a failure to recognize that gangs were involved in a lot of crimes in the neighborhood beyond drive-by shootings and homicides."
Hahn, who helped draft the STEP Act's language in the 1980s as the L.A. city attorney, said the bill initially required law enforcement agencies to track gang crime, but "there wasn't really a method for making that happen."
In the 15 years since, only gang-related homicides have been tracked statewide. But the figures, buried deep in the statistical crime tables, don't add up.
In 2001, for example, the state counted 647 gang-related homicides out of a total of 2,200 killings in California. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which contacts all law enforcement agencies in the county each year to draw up figures of its own, recorded 587 gang-related homicides in L.A. County alone.
Some effort has been made to require more complete numbers.
Last year, after Gov. Gray Davis spared gang prevention programs from deep budget cuts, the legislative analyst's office examined state spending on such programs over the past decade.
It found no evidence that state spending had contributed to any decline in gang violence, noting, for example, that the state did not tally conviction rates in counties getting the money or track gang crimes at schools that received funds, and it could not prove that the money went to communities with the worst gang problems.
Analyst office officials recommended that legislators require the Governor's Office of Criminal Justice Planning to produce accurate data from grant recipients by this month.
Tim Herrera, a spokesman for the justice planning office, said his office disputes the analysts' report. He said they have been given an extension until March to respond.
Politicians and law enforcement officials rely on anecdotes to characterize the scope of gang violence in their communities, said Moore of the National Youth Gang Center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"You're reduced to the sad story of the 14-year-old kid who was killed because you don't have good solid statistics about what's going on in the community," Moore said.
Some are skeptical about whether politicians and police are truly interested in getting the number right. "The higher the number, the more fear is instilled in the public, the more the police look outnumbered, the more likely the feds will send a posse of FBI agents, the more the budget dollars will flow," said former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who teaches a course on gangs at Occidental College and is writing a book on the subject.
In the meantime, an informal LAPD accounting shows that although gang violence in the city is significant -- representing about 53% of homicides last year -- it remained flat from 2001 to 2002.
The LAPD off-the-books statistics show 347 gang-related homicides in 2002. That was the same number as the year before.
Additionally, Det. Jack Cota, a senior detective in the Career Criminals Division, said the internal numbers, which are compiled by hand from police reports, showed a .04% increase in gang-related crimes in other categories monitored by the department, from aggravated assault to arson.