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L.A. anti-gang project lacks proof of progress

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles has spent $100 million over the last decade on a gang-prevention program, even though it doesn’t track how many youths it keeps out of gangs and has been repeatedly criticized for not adequately coordinating with schools and police.

Unlike anti-gang efforts in other cities that have been held up as models by the federal government, L.A. Bridges lacks a system for determining whether its clients are involved in gangs, so there is no way of knowing whether the program actually works.

The program has come under growing scrutiny at City Hall as Los Angeles and U.S. authorities have launched a new gang crackdown. Critics point out that in 2006, gang crime increased 15.7% over the year before, according to LAPD statistics.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to increase funding for intervention programs, saying the gang crackdown can’t focus solely on law enforcement. But he is limiting funding of L.A. Bridges through September while officials try to assess its effectiveness.

Supporters acknowledge that L.A. Bridges needs to do a better job of working with other agencies, but they maintain it provides a valuable community service and would be more effective if the city expanded it.

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The city spends $14 million annually on Bridges, which essentially screens and gives money to community organizations that do the actual intervention. Bridges I is a gang prevention program that provides after-school tutoring, counseling and other services to students from 27 middle schools. Bridges II offers job training to gang members in the hope that employment will get them out of gang life. The contracts range from $227,000 to $1.7 million.

The city funds are provided to the contract agencies by the Community Development Department. John Chavez, the longtime head of L.A. Bridges, was pushed out recently by CDD management.

L.A. Bridges was launched during a crackdown on gang violence in 1997, largely in response to public outrage over the fatal gang shooting of a 3-year-old girl whose family car was ambushed on a street in Cypress Park.

But almost from the beginning, critics have said the program is ineffective. In 2000, the city controller recommended that L.A. Bridges be shut down and redesigned, saying that the contractors lacked the required coordination with other gang programs, the police, schools and community groups.

Then-Controller Rick Tuttle also concluded that Bridges agencies were not required to show what effect the program might be having on gang violence and membership.

The mayor at the time, Richard Riordan, agreed with the findings and announced he was cutting off funding to L.A. Bridges. The City Council unanimously voted to overturn his decision.

“They had money coming into their districts,” said Malcolm Klein, a USC scholar on gang programs, regarding the council vote.

The vote occurred after more than 300 backers of L.A. Bridges, including employees of contractors who were receiving millions of dollars from the program, packed City Hall.

It also helped that many of the contractors themselves were influential in city politics, which led to criticism that the program involved political patronage. Six of the contracts are held by current or former appointees to city commissions.

In addition, 172 political contributions were made to city politicians by executives and employees of 20 of the 26 contractors for L.A. Bridges I and II. The contributions totaled $48,500, including $7,200 to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and smaller amounts to council members Wendy Greuel, Janice Hahn, Bill Rosendahl, Jose Huizar, Jan Perry, Ed Reyes and Bernard Parks.

Those who commented about the contributions said they support the program because it helps young people, not because it provides campaign checks. “I think it has done some good,” Perry said.

Seven years after Tuttle’s scathing audit, a new city report produced by attorney Connie Rice made the same criticisms of L.A. Bridges and other city gang programs.

Both studies urged L.A. Bridges to shift to the type of model used by Chicago, Riverside, Mesa, Ariz., and other cities, which emphasizes close coordination between multiple agencies and measurable results.

Those programs were designed under the stewardship of Irving A. Spergel, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

“The secret of success,” Spergel said, is to have probation officers, community organizations, the police and ex-gang members serving as intervention workers collaborating as teams in gang neighborhoods.

The programs also have to evaluate how many gang members or wannabes are helped out of the gang life. Spergel said that is done by using police records and conducting annual interviews with youths to determine which ones are no longer involved in gang crime.

In his book, “Reducing Youth Gang Crime,” Spergel looked at one anti-gang effort in Chicago during a five-year period and found a 60% reduction in serious violence for 200 young people as well as a 25% drop in gang membership.

Bridges officials said they are trying to work more with police.

Still, some contractors are interacting more than others. The head of one group said his intervention workers just started working with police this year and are in touch with them only once a month. The workers go out on their own instead of teaming with police officers.

“We let them do their work, and we do our work,” said Mustafa Fletcher, executive director of Unity Two Inc.

Police Chief William J. Bratton said there is inadequate coordination between intervention agencies and the police.

“The gang interventionists will tell you they don’t want to be seen as working too closely, being too closely aligned with the police, because they are fearful that gang members won’t work with them then,” Bratton said. “But I think there can be better working relationships than we have.”

State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who as a city councilman helped launch L.A. Bridges, said the city’s gang intervention and prevention programs need to be more comprehensive and better-coordinated.

“I think it makes sense to incorporate it in a more comprehensive system,” Ridley-Thomas said. “But the question people should be asking, given what L.A. Bridges has accomplished, is what would the lives of young people who were part of it be like had it not been implemented when it was?”

He said the problem is Bridges’ scope, adding that it should be expanded to every middle school in the city.

Supporters note that while L.A. Bridges doesn’t track whether its clients join gangs, it does keep other statistics. Bridges I, for example, reports on the number of youths who improve their grades and attendance.

But some of the numbers presented by L.A. Bridges have given City Hall pause. It found that the majority of middle-schoolers in the program failed to boost either their attendance or their grades.

Another issue has been how well contractors screen employees to determine whether they are still in gangs. At least three employees of Bridges contractors have been arrested in the last two years. The latest was Mario Corona, jobs coordinator for Communities In Schools in Pacoima, who was arrested last week by the LAPD on suspicion of possessing a pound of methamphetamine.

In looking at alternatives to Bridges, Villaraigosa said he is especially impressed with Homeboy Industries Inc., which takes a more comprehensive approach to gang members, providing counseling, tattoo removal and real jobs -- not just referrals to training programs.

By providing actual jobs, Homeboy is able to track the progress of participants and lay down strict rules about their connections to gangs.

The nonprofit agency, run by Father Gregory Boyle, has accepted only $15,000 out of the $14 million distributed annually by L.A. Bridges.

“We balk at taking part in all that public entity stuff,” Boyle said. “They don’t know what they are doing.”

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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