A successful five-year effort to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles is winning community and official support. The unique program could become a model for California and big cities.
The program, which funds 100 trained street workers with gang backgrounds, is so successful that candidates in a recent citywide mayoral campaign forum fell over each other in their unanimous support of the “gang prevention and intervention” strategy. City Controller Wendy Greuel promised to maintain existing funding and retain Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes in his current role as “czar” of the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD). So did competing Councilwoman Jan Perry and Republican talk show host Kevin James. City Council president Eric Garcetti was absent for scheduling reasons. An audience of 150 people, mostly from inner city Los Angeles, eagerly listened at the forum organized by the Advancement Project under the leadership of civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
The Los Angeles Police Department has approximately 10,000 personnel, noted moderator Frank Stoltze, in comparison to only 100 intervention workers. When Stoltze asked the candidates if they would raise the number above 100 in a time of budget cutbacks, each candidate answered in the affirmative, only stopping at 150 when Cespedes said that was the maximum number who could be professionally trained in one budget cycle. The candidates agreed to maintain funding at the present level of $25 million or even higher.
Data shows that despite unrelenting recession, poverty and unemployment, gang-related crimes have fallen between fifteen and 35 percent in targeted inner city neighborhoods known as “hot-zones” because of high levels of historic violence. Overall in 2006, there were 7,436 gang-related crime incidents reported by LA police and sheriffs; by 2011, there was a 32.4% drop to 5,026 incidents. Over the same five-year span, zip codes with the most incidents saw a reduction in the range of 100 from levels in the high 300s. Incidents where shots were fired dropped from 3,288 in 2006 to 1,565, a 50.2 percent decrease.
Since 2006, the Urban Peace Academy has trained over 1,200 intervention workers and over 400 police officers. Problems do, however, remain. A Call to Action: Los Angeles’ Quest to Achieve Community Safety, by the Advancement Project, notes, “residents in gang-entrenched communities continue to raise alarms about over-broad suppression practices such as gang injunctions, and their tendency to funnel too many youth into the criminal justice system.”
The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), a grassroots group fighting the gang database, a secret police identification system of alleged gang members and “associates,” received positive responses from the mayoral candidates as well. Perry said it was “time to look at the methodology of the listings,” while Greuel said she would work with YJC to prevent “futures being ruined” by names filed in the data base; James gave a “shout out” to YJC and opposed the list as “too subject to abuse.” Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to question the police database, something akin to questioning McCarthyism in 1953.
Whether police reform will deepen and be sustained remains uncertain in a city with a long history of violent misconduct and scandal. But at the outset of the forum, LAPD chief Charlie Beck strongly endorsed the intervention program and pledged support for its funding. One issue subject to broadening public review, and possible litigation, is the LAPD’s stop-and-frisk policy in which hundreds of thousands of young people are questioned yearly by officers seeking intelligence.
With Democrats in charge of the California statehouse, Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley has indicted interest in adopting the LA model to the state as a whole.
For more information, please see the Advancement Project.