Villaraigosa asks for federal aid to help fight gangs
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Wednesday appealed to U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales for additional funding and prosecutorial help to combat rising gang-related crime, kicking off what officials say will be a yearlong push to tackle one of the region’s most intractable problems.
Citywide, gang crime increased 14% in 2006 -- the first rise in four years and an uptick that Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton say threatens to overshadow last year’s overall 8% drop in serious and violent crime.
“We agreed that Los Angeles is the epicenter of the nation’s gang crisis and an effective assault on gang crime will require increased suppression, intervention and prevention measures,” Villaraigosa said after his 40-minute meeting with Gonzales in Washington, D.C.
The mayor sought millions of dollars in federal grants to target gangs in trouble spots such as South L.A., parts of the San Fernando Valley and Boyle Heights. He also asked Gonzales for continuing help from the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles in prosecuting gang members for federal crimes and focusing attention on foreign-born gangs such as Mara Salva Trucha, a gang from El Salvador.
In addition, the mayor said he would like the attorney general to provide help in prosecuting gang-related racial crimes.
Bratton met with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca earlier this week to discuss the rise in racially motivated gang violence and map out ways to better coordinate their gang units, particularly where gangs have shown a pattern of targeting victims because of race.
“It’s getting to where those rivalries are ... racially motivated and innocent people are getting shot,” Baca said Wednesday.
There have been numerous anti-gang initiatives over the decades -- none doing much to diminish the influence of and damage done by the region’s scores of active street gangs.
A recent report by prominent civil rights attorney Connie Rice concluded that Los Angeles’ gang efforts, costing $82 million annually, have floundered because of a lack of coordination among the 23 anti-gang programs spread throughout city departments.
“What the city is doing is designed to fail,” Rice said Wednesday, again calling for a dramatic change in anti-gang efforts. “It’s not about altering a program. It’s about a paradigm shift.... We need smart suppression, not blanket suppression.”
Support has grown for creating a “gang czar” to coordinate efforts, something sources say Rice is expected to recommend in a follow-up report due out this month. Bratton and others have said they would back such a move.
“It’s more than just raiding gangs and gang injunctions,” Councilman Herb Wesson said. “Its about stopping kids before they join gangs.”
Los Angeles Police Department officials blamed the jump in gang crime in part on racial tensions in the L.A. County jails, which led to riots last year. They said some of those disputes between Latino and black gangs spilled into neighborhoods.
At the same time, efforts to get gang members off the streets for minor crimes have been hampered by conditions in the county’s jail system, the largest in the nation.
While gang injunctions and computer modeling have helped reduce gang activity in some areas, the early release of inmates from Los Angeles County jails -- where officials say the vast majority of those booked admit a gang affiliation -- has put many charged with lower level offenses, such as weapons violations or simple assaults, quickly back on the street.
More than 150,000 inmates sentenced to County Jail have been released since mid-2002 after serving small fractions of their sentences due to budget cutbacks and federal orders against overcrowding.
Baca acknowledged that early release probably plays a role in street crime, but called it one of many factors.
The specter of gang violence has shadowed Bratton since his first days as L.A. police chief in fall 2002, when he made a dramatic appeal for the public’s help in stemming the bloodshed and crime.
“Get angry,” he demanded of city residents after 16 homicides in six days.
For the next three years, gang crime in the city fell -- a point of pride for the department. But last year, gang crimes rose 42% in the San Fernando Valley, 24% in South L.A. and 3% in Central L.A. The only decline in 2006 was in the police division covering Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire and the Westside.
As the city embarks on another gang crackdown, Malcolm Klein, a retired USC professor of sociology, remains skeptical.
“We’ve had this gang problem for multiple decades and there is no reason to think it’s going to go away,” said Klein, who has studied gang issues for 40 years. “The chief has been here four years, and he’s shown very little understanding of gangs.”
Street gangs come out of local communities that must change and be organized to reduce gang crime, the criminologist said.
Klein was asked to advise the city on gangs after the 1995 gang killing of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, who was shot in her family car after the driver took a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley. The killing spurred talk at the time about the creation of the type of gang czar being discussed again now.
Instead, Klein said the city put millions into the L.A. Bridges after-school program to work with young people.
“As a youth services program, it’s great,” he said. “It’s not a gang program.”
Law enforcement officials say police presence remains key to improving dangerous communities. They point to Compton, where an aggressive Sheriff’s Department crackdown last year led to a dramatic drop in killings.
In 2006, there were 45 homicides in areas patrolled by the Compton sheriff’s station, which includes the city of Compton and nearby unincorporated areas. The year before there were 75. Within the city of Compton itself, last year there were 39 homicides, equaling a 20-year low in 2004.
“I think the more gang members realize that that level of field force is present, it’s going to cause them to back off,” said Capt. Ray Peavy, who heads the sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. “Everyone says: ‘What are we going to do about the gang problem?’ It’s the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures.”
Despite successes in Compton, Baca acknowledged that underlying problems there and throughout the region persist. He said a substantial turnaround in local gang activity would “take some significant transformation within the policing community itself.”
“Bratton and I have both said you can’t arrest your way out of a gang problem,” Baca said. “The real problem is these young people don’t have an alternative for gangs.”
Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Assn., agreed that suppression can only do so much.
“When the cop goes down the street in his car, he may own that street for that moment,” McBride said, “but once he’s off the street, the gangs fill in behind them unless there’s another cop car right around the corner.”
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LAPD crime tally
Here’s a look at how many serious gang-related crimes occurred last year in each LAPD area, along with comparisons of such incidents in 2001, 2005 and 2006. *
Number of gang-related crimes in the city of Los Angeles
L.A.'s gang-related crime has dipped 11.7% since 2001.
*--* Bureau Percent change Central -5.4% South -16.1% West -40.7% San Fernando Valley 10.8%
*--* Central Bureau ’01 ’05 ’06 Central 67 148 136 Hollenbeck 450 565 731 Newton 807 667 691 Northeast 895 635 553 Rampart 615 596 569 South Bureau 77th Street 865 531 702 Harbor 530 267 299 Southeast 947 500 617 Southwest 496 619 764 San Fernando Valley Bureau Devonshire 242 136 121 Foothill 372 269 304 N. Hollywood 193 159 217 Van Nuys 203 133 185 West Valley 202 121 190 Mission** N/A 125 326 West Bureau Hollywood 348 146 215 Pacific 208 117 91 West L.A. 95 67 93 Wilshire 473 396 267
*Year-to-date figures through each November.
Source: LAPD. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago