An educated weapon will combat gangs
Class was in session the other day in a squat building overlooking MacArthur Park. The assignment: “Baby Mama Drama.”
Scenario: A man is pinned down inside a house because he’s in the “wrong” neighborhood — outside his territory. He’s just visiting the mother of his child, who lives in your neighborhood, but the woman’s new boyfriend is out front and not happy. The situation is tense and deteriorating quickly. What to do?
Los Angeles officials are preparing to graduate their first class of city-sanctioned gang intervention workers, a significant step in the city’s groundbreaking adoption of street outreach efforts designed to augment traditional policing.
This spring, the 34 students of the city’s training academy have been gathering twice a week, pondering scenarios like that one, which might sound innocuous to outsiders but can have serious consequences on the streets.
City Hall pledged to offer a program unlike anything that has been seen in crime prevention — and so far, that much is certainly true, though only time will tell the consequences for the city. Officials say gang outreach workers will work behind the scenes, in the most distressed corners of the city, to do what law enforcement cannot: prevent the next crime, as Police Chief Charlie Beck put it, while the cops are working to solve the last one.
The first 15-week academy is scheduled to end next month; it is being run by the Advancement Project, the legal advocacy, civil rights and public policy group that was awarded a $200,000 city contract last fall.
The program is no mere academic exercise: Law enforcement authorities from across the nation are closely monitoring the program to see whether it will succeed. City Hall spends more than $20 million each year on gang intervention and prevention contracts, and soon, a diploma from the academy will be required of anyone working under those contracts.
Advanced classes will also be required soon. One, for instance, will focus on nonprofit administration: obtaining insurance; forming a board of directors; running a proper payroll.
In the Los Angeles area, gang intervention has been around for decades in various forms, including mentors, missionaries and civil rights advocates. But the field has never had a formal structure, and people who call themselves interventionists have varied wildly in credibility and efficacy.
In recent years, law enforcement officials have come to view gang intervention as a vital tool in controlling street gossip, preventing retaliation crimes and tamping down tension between rival neighborhoods. So the city is working to professionalize the ranks of interventionists, providing guidance, training, rules and oversight. The creation of the city academy is a critical part of that effort.
Most of the current students were once ranking members of a street gang and are, predictably, a tough-looking crowd; their tattoos include smoking pistols, naked women and spider webs creeping into their hairlines.
Many have served time for serious offenses: drug trafficking, assault, robbery. Many have lived brutal lives; during a break, one group sat in folding chairs and chatted, comparing the feeling of being shot to the feeling of being stabbed. One student said casually that he’d once driven himself to a hospital after being shot through the throat.
Access to the academy is tightly controlled; committees of gang interventionists who have been working the streets for years, sometimes decades, screen instructors and students. Some of the key organizers are legends on the streets of Los Angeles; instructor Jerald Cavitt, for example, was instrumental in ending a war between the Swans and the East Coast Crips that left two dozen people shot in 2004.
The classes, most held at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, are raucous and raw. They can also be highly secretive. Several students said they were incensed that an outsider had been allowed in, even if the public is footing the bill.
The academy’s ethics guidelines and curriculum were crafted over the last two years by some of the city’s most prominent gang experts, sociologists and intervention workers; they met, all told, for 500 hours. Among the ethics standards they developed: Don’t do drugs; be humble and respectful; do not bully or use your hands to “throw” gang signs. And, said Melvyn Hayward Jr., a veteran gang outreach worker and an architect of the standards: “A real gang interventionist should never carry a weapon.”
“You are a diplomat,” said Ron Noblet, one of the city’s leading gang experts and an early proponent of using intervention to augment traditional policing. “Your job is to de-escalate violence.”
That can require a deft touch. When debating the “Baby Mama Drama” scenario, for instance, students said they would use their off-the-books “license to operate” — approval to work inside a gang’s territory — to negotiate the trapped man’s safe and quiet exit from the house.
It can also require expertise in a dizzying array of issues, as evidenced by the academy’s curriculum.
By the end of the course, students will have learned about the history of gangs and about how to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which experts have determined is rampant among young people raised in the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the city.
Students learn about immigration law, public health issues, how to stage a “sit-down” between rivals. They will be kept abreast of cutting-edge issues — the emergence of girl gangs, new types of gangbanging conducted on the Internet.
They learn about legal liability; expert gang interventionists must have their thumbs on the pulse of their neighborhood but must also know “at what point you disengage yourself from a conversation,” said Susan K. Lee, the Advancement Project’s director of urban peace in California.
They will also be schooled in some of the more delicate issues on the streets. The differences between African American and Latino gang cultures, for instance, are subtle but critical, organizers said.
The academy tries to have sessions taught by two instructors, one African American and one Latino, so that students can hear both perspectives. Already, important differences have been discovered: In Latino neighborhoods, the street term “cosign” means someone who can help grant a license to operate; in African American neighborhoods, the same term carries a more derogatory connotation, similar to “yes man,” instructors discovered during one conversation with the class.
A considerable amount of class time is spent delving into the intervention community’s ever-evolving relationship with wary law enforcement officials. Students learn the difficult lesson that intervention workers must not act like police officers but must instead concentrate on monitoring street gossip, preventing retaliation shootings and interrupting cycles of violence.
An interventionist, they learn, must not be seen as a proxy for the police.
“There is a line. You can’t cross that line,” Cavitt told the students. “You got no reason to wind up on the [witness] stand. That terminates your involvement. It ain’t no ‘Maybe’ or ‘Can I appeal?’ You’re through. You’re done.”
That can mean declining, politely, an invitation from police to duck under crime tape to get a closer look at a shooting scene or an insider’s perspective on an investigation. It can also mean more difficult decisions, such as walking away from a conversation in which someone is trying to identify a shooter.
“It’s like being a firefighter,” said Ben “Taco” Owens, a leading intervention worker and another architect of the academy’s curriculum. “Put the fire out. But come home without getting burned — or even smelling like smoke.…We don’t solve crimes. We don’t create them. We make our communities safer.”
Organizers, however, readily acknowledge that the academy faces a tough task, ascribing protocols and standards to a line of work that is, by definition, messy and improvisational and conducted largely in the shadows.
“You cross certain lines, your license to operate is gone. Period,” said student Fred “Scorpio” Smith, a former Grape Street gang member who now runs a charitable organization in Watts.
It is a world with few absolute rules. But, Cavitt and Owens reminded the students again and again, there is one: They must never again dabble in their old lives.
“You don’t straddle the fence,” Cavitt told them. “If I ain’t correct” — law-abiding, he meant — “I’m going to hurt everyone here.…We’ve got some people who have said ‘I believe in you guys.’ That’s a commitment we’ve never had before. This is a new day.”