‘Where are you from?’
‘Where are you from?” is the last question many young men in Los Angeles hear. It’s not a question about geography but about gang affiliation, and it is asked in the moment before a shooting. I’ve been around after an awful lot of these shootings, and I must’ve heard the phrase at least a thousand times, reported by those who have been lucky enough to escape death. Thousands more have not escaped.
It’s very hard to understand what motivates street-level gang violence. I’ve been dealing with gangs for three decades, and I still have plenty of questions. But I think those all-too-frequently-used words -- “Where are you from?” -- go a long way toward explaining the vast majority of the cases we deal with. And here’s what’s most important about them at the moment: They’re about gang status, not about race.
Two weeks ago, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca wrote an Op-Ed article in this paper in which he argued that there was a serious interracial violence problem between blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles. He went even further, saying that in many cases gang members were killing people purely because of their race. In the Los Angeles Police Department, where I serve as chief of detectives, we strongly disagree.
The LAPD handles more street gang crime than any law enforcement agency in the United States -- more than 3,000 cases this year to date. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department operates the largest county jail in the country. These two facts affect the way both organizations perceive the problem of gang violence. Baca was right in his Op-Ed article to say that racial tensions create violence in the closed confines of his jails and in some of our schools. He was also right when he wrote about demographic shifts causing racial tension in our neighborhoods.
But I was taken aback when he wrote that in many cases black and Latino gangs target people for street-level violence based only on race. Each year, there are a small number of racially motivated attacks by gang members in the city of Los Angeles, but our experience shows, and data support, that these are rare circumstances.
Homicides are exhaustively investigated and therefore are the best source of reliable, detailed information on gang violence. Of the city’s 92 gang-related homicides this year -- killings, that is, in which known gang members are either the suspect or the victim, or killings in which there is a probable nexus to gangs based on the location or circumstance of the crime -- 10, or 10.8%, have been cross-racial. Not one of those 10 involved victims randomly targeted by race; nor, in any of those cases, are there indications that the motive was substantially race-based. I guess it’s possible that areas patrolled by the county sheriff have a different experience, but we have not seen widespread or common attacks based on race in the city.
To move this discussion forward, we need some definition. What exactly is a race-based crime involving gang members? The sheriff’s spokesperson suggested in Thursday’s Times that any homicide in which the suspect and the victim are of different races should be considered a race-based crime. I do not agree. To meet the definition required for prosecuting hate-crime cases, racial animosity must be a substantial motive in the crime. There must be some reasonable articulation that connects the act to a racial motive, and when there are significant indicators that there is another motive present, that also must be taken into consideration.
The fact is, a rise in cross-racial incidents may not reflect increasing racial antagonism so much as, say, the increased diversity of a neighborhood, an upsurge of traditional tensions between gangs or a number of other factors.
It is true, of course, that many of L.A.'s gangs are organized along racial lines. Gangs almost always have been. You name the race or ethnic group and, during some time in history, some of their number have resorted to forming gangs to leverage their power in society. The Italians and the Irish come to mind in the 20th century. But being made up along racial lines doesn’t mean that every crime is racially motivated. Mostly, the gang violence we see on the streets of Los Angeles is committed for other reasons -- over turf control, over traditional gang rivalries, over drug deals, over who disrespected whom, and over women. These are not racially motivated killings.
The danger of overstating racial conflict, thereby turning a discussion into a self-fulfilling prophesy, is very real. As our city grows and as demographics shift, cross-racial contacts increase, along with opportunities for conflict.
The statements of the sheriff and his department do a disservice to the community by fueling belief in an epidemic of cross-racial violence. Separation of races may be a viable strategy in the jails, but it is certainly not an option on our streets or in our schools. We need leadership that is responsible while being empathetic to the stresses in our community. We need to recognize and appropriately address the fears of the people we serve.
Most important, we need to move this discussion forward. Los Angeles is famous worldwide for creating and exporting the gang problem. Shouldn’t we strive to be the ones responsible for developing the solution? We have an incredible opportunity before us. We have law enforcement leadership united around the importance of the issue. We have political will in the form of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, further bolstered by supportive civil rights leaders such as Connie Rice, head of the Advancement Project.
We have a plan of action before us, developed by Rice, that has all the right stuff. It includes prevention to keep children out of gangs, intervention to stop the violence and provide alternatives for existing gang members, suppression provided by experienced and coordinated law enforcement agencies and a reentry program to stop the recycling of gang members between our streets and the jails. In my experience, we’re unlikely to see this opportunity again for a long time.