Philosophies clash in plans for gang intervention academy

Two students embrace as they prepare to take a final exam after weeks of training. The main goals of the gang intervention units are to prevent violence and also control rumors, which spread like wildfire after shootings and fights. More photos >>>
Two students embrace as they prepare to take a final exam after weeks of training. The main goals of the gang intervention units are to prevent violence and also control rumors, which spread like wildfire after shootings and fights.
More photos >>>
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

A city-sponsored training academy for gang intervention workers will open at least a year later than Los Angeles officials had hoped after a collision of philosophies and egos -- a hitch in the city’s effort to modernize its campaign against street violence.

Officials said this week that an independent panel has selected the Advancement Project, the legal advocacy, civil rights and public policy group, as the winner of a bidding process to run the academy.

But that bid was never supposed to occur. The city’s original plan -- to meld the best practices of two gang intervention programs into an “official” curriculum -- collapsed, according to interviews with city officials and City Hall advisors.

Now, the academy isn’t expected to open until at least the spring of 2010 -- a year later than originally envisioned. And it’s not over yet: The head of a group that lost the bid called the selection process flawed and pledged to appeal the decision into next year, when the City Council will be asked to sign off on the contract.

The dispute might seem like insider politics, considering that the contract is worth just $200,000 the first year, with a possibility of $800,000 over four years. But it means the continuation of the status quo: scores of interventionists fanned out across the city, some skilled and relied upon by law enforcement, but many unregulated, untrained and operating off the books amid dangerous crosscurrents of street politics.

The delay is seen as a particularly acute problem in South L.A., where marked declines in violence have created a rare window of possibility -- one that could close if fragile understandings between rival neighborhoods begin to fray, officials said.

“South Los Angeles is in purgatory,” said Jorja Leap, a UCLA Department of Social Welfare adjunct professor, a gang specialist for 30 years and a key City Hall advisor. “There could be life-threatening consequences down the line.”

Gang interventionists act as liaisons between law enforcement and their communities and between rival gangs. They have existed for decades in various forms including missionaries and civil rights advocates.

Among rank-and-file officers, collaboration with interventionists remains controversial; most intervention workers were once gang members. However, senior LAPD officers, particularly in South L.A. -- including Charlie Beck, appointed police chief Tuesday by the City Council -- have come to view intervention as a messy but vital tool. Many police officials rely on interventionists to do what they cannot: control street gossip, prevent retaliation shootings or contain gang skirmishes before they become full-fledged wars.

Last year, then-City Controller Laura Chick delivered an indictment of the city’s scattershot gang outreach programs. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa consolidated the programs; his Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development now oversees $20 million in annual intervention and prevention contracts.

The city also launched an effort to transform intervention into a professional field. Many interventionists are now subjected to financial audits and drug testing. The opening of the academy, where gang intervention workers would be trained and licensed, is seen as a critical step.

The city’s efforts are being watched closely; federal law enforcement and military officials -- the latter wondering if similar tactics might be used in Iraq and Afghanistan -- have visited. “There is national interest in this,” said Connie Rice, the prominent civil rights attorney and a leader of the Advancement Project.

The city’s original plan was to combine the best practices of two intervention “schools,” one run by the Advancement Project, the other, the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, run by Aquil Basheer, a fixture in gang intervention for more than 30 years in South L.A.

From the start of discussions, it was evident there was a philosophical divide.

Rice’s school focused largely on a theoretical and historical understanding of gangs. It was tied closely to the establishment; City Hall had paid the group to deliver a critique of the city’s anti-gang efforts. Students were instructed to make a quiet impact by developing relationships in the community -- and not to defuse or even be near violent situations.

Basheer’s school focused on hard-core, practical drills. Operating out of an old fire station, Basheer taught his students how to stage a candlelight vigil without exposing people to gunfire, how to extricate someone from an angry crowd. He demanded that his students devise on-the-spot strategies -- what to do, for instance, if a gunman is on the loose in a school cafeteria.

Neither side could agree on how to proceed -- or on what portions of the curriculum each group might oversee. Rice declined to comment about the dispute.

“It became extremely clear that there were dramatic differences,” Basheer said. “We all needed to stay in our own lanes. . . . I got tired of talking. I got tired of explaining.” Asked how much of the process was derailed not just by competing visions but by strong egos, Basheer chuckled and said: “Eighty or 85%.”

The city retreated, opening the project up to bidding -- “the fairest, most above-board way,” said Guillermo Cespedes, the mayor’s new gang czar.

An advisory panel was assembled, including gang outreach workers from Chicago and the Bay Area. On Friday, the panel delivered its verdict, ranking the Advancement Project’s bid in first place, ahead of Basheer’s organization and a third bidder.

Susan K. Lee, the Advancement Project’s director of urban peace, said the group’s program would begin with a “Basic 101" course for entry-level interventionists. That would be followed with a series of advanced, 20-hour courses; one, for instance, would teach them how to proceed in a hospital after a shooting, a notoriously tricky environment.

“It’s a high-risk enterprise,” Rice said. “You’re working with people whose backgrounds create a lot of problems -- but that’s why you are working with them.”

Basheer said he would appeal to the City Council. He will argue, he said, that the selection process was incomplete because panelists never visited his program -- and, he said, he’ll argue that the political aplomb of the Advancement Project can never match his organization’s street smarts.

“We have tested strategies, tools and tactics. We can show you an end-line product,” he said. “If you’re going to put together something this critical, you’d better have a thorough understanding of the culture. . . . We’re taking it all the way.”