L.A.’s lethal turf wars


Let’s talk about the surge -- not the one in Baghdad but the one on the streets of Los Angeles, where a recent spate of particularly horrific gang shootings has killed and wounded more than a dozen people.

So what’s City Hall doing as the body count grows?

Well, as Times staff writer Duke Helfand reported Monday, “city leaders are locked in a turf battle of their own over who should control gang-prevention programs and the millions of dollars to pay for them.”

City Controller Laura Chick recently completed an audit of the programs and recommended consolidating all anti-gang initiatives and their funding under a single official in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. The programs currently are overseen by the City Council. Though he didn’t seek the assignment, the mayor has endorsed the proposal, as have Police Chief William Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca. A massive study of the gang problem commissioned by the City Council and conducted by civil rights attorney Connie Rice included a similar recommendation.


So what’s the problem?

City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development, doesn’t like the idea. He thinks the council should retain control of the programs -- and their funding. Friday, his committee will hold a hearing on the controller’s proposal, and the odds are that nothing will happen.

Cardenas isn’t entirely alone here. Even the council members who claim to be sympathetic to giving the mayor’s office responsibility have consigned the proposal to parliamentary limbo by referring it to no less than 15 different committee hearings. How long do we suppose that will take?

This is more than dithering as usual. This is the council standing in the way of desperately needed civic change purely out of institutional self-interest.

To understand why, it’s useful to ask a seemingly unrelated question: Why, after all these years, and in defiance of repeated attempts at reform, does the council insist on maintaining its power to act as the court of final appeal for every zoning decision in the city of Los Angeles? Why, moreover, does the council almost always defer to the wishes of the member in whose district the project at issue sits when it exercises that appellate power?

It’s all about money. As long as individual council members maintain the ultimate power to approve or veto construction of everything from a new fence to a new hotel in their district, every developer, contractor and lobbyist with an active neuron knows that they’d better ante up with the requisite campaign contributions -- or move to a game at another table.

Apologists for this system like to pretend that it’s an important legislative check on the city bureaucracy and the appointed board of zoning appeals. Actually, it’s a genteel shakedown operation.


The city’s ramshackle network of gang prevention and intervention programs operates in the same general way, although the sums involved are smaller. Right now, millions of dollars every year are spent on the so-called LA Bridges initiative, which operates under council oversight and doles out money to programs and projects on a district-by-district basis. It’s a safe bet that each council member signs off on the expenditures in their district. The council also supervises the millions of dollars in individual contracts currently let for various gang-prevention and intervention efforts.

You can be hard-nosed and call it patronage, or you can be charitable and call it “constituent service” (though the fact is that the ineffective LA Bridges program reaches less than 1% of the 300,000 Los Angeles children who live in gang-infested neighborhoods, according to the Rice report). You can be realistic and acknowledge that it’s a little of both, but the fact of the matter is that it isn’t working, and because it isn’t, the body count is growing. Moreover, it’s being allowed to grow for reasons that ought to shame everyone in City Hall.

Unless the victims of gang violence happen to be small children or a promising student athlete, as they have been recently, the killings and day-to-day terror pass unnoticed because they occur in neighborhoods where few people vote or contribute to campaigns. Often, both assailant and victim are gang members.

As Rice pointed out Monday on National Public Radio, “Three weekends ago, we had 27 separate shootings in a spark of Grape Street Crip mayhem, and it barely made the paper. If you had a 27-shooting shootout in any other American city, it probably would have made ’60 Minutes.’ ”

Shame on us, and shame on the council if it continues to delay consolidating the city’s anti-gang efforts under a single official who can be obliged to conduct business transparently and who can be held accountable for results. Obstruction as usual is intolerable when its cost has to be calculated in murdered children.