Villaraigosa defends L.A. gang effort

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took issue Monday with a study that said there was no evidence a multimillion-dollar anti-gang program had reduced crime, telling a youth violence summit in Washington that Los Angeles is safer than any time since the 1950s.

“Not since I was born has L.A. been this safe,” Villaraigosa said.

Representatives of six cities -- Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, San Jose and Salinas -- that form the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention are meeting in Washington this week to share their experiences. Villaraigosa said he wanted his program in Los Angeles to be a model for other cities.

In response to rising rates of gang crime, the mayor created the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, or GRYD, in August 2007. The office, which started its public programs in 2009, was given the task of stopping young people from joining gangs and finding alternatives for those who already had.


Gang-related crime in Los Angeles peaked in May 2007, and has been in steady decline since. Whether the mayor, who was first elected in 2005, can take credit for the drop is less clear.

The Urban Institute, which was hired by the city to assess the program’s progress, reported last year that there was no evidence that the gang reduction office was responsible for the decline in violent crime, and it said that people enrolled in gang prevention activities were no less likely to engage in “delinquent” or “gang-related” behavior.

Despite the declines in crime and in the number of people deemed to be at risk of joining gangs, the study’s authors cautioned that “unequivocal attribution of these findings to the GRYD program is currently unwarranted.”

Villaraigosa rejected that analysis, calling the crime data “incontrovertible.”

“The idea that our initiatives, which are being replicated around the country and are recognized around the country, are not effective just doesn’t measure up to the facts,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. “Our anti-gang efforts are broadly supported and generally praised as being among the best of their kind anywhere in the country.

“Since we started this program we’ve seen a 17% drop in overall gang crime.”

The Urban Institute study noted that gang-related crimes were declining before the mayor’s programs started.

Last year, the program had a budget of $26 million funded by the city and state and federal grants. The mayor’s initiative includes the Summer Night Lights activities in city parks and a force of intervention officers -- many of them former gang members -- who respond to every gang shooting in the city and try to tamp down retaliatory attacks.

Other cities have begun taking a similar approach to violence, treating it as a social issue with long-term effects, rather than just a criminal issue.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. praised the work of the city leaders, adding that the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin last month highlighted the need to protect young people from violence.