LA targets city’s worst gangs to combat rising violence

Associated Press
February 8, 2007

LOS ANGELES – Responding to a surge in bloodshed by brazen street gangs, the mayor and police have launched an initiative that will break past practice and publicly identify the most violent gangs and promises to confront them with new teams of federal and local police and prosecutors.

Authorities had been reluctant to name the worst gangs for fear of boosting their street image. But a 14 percent spike in violent gang-related crime last year – the first increase in four years – requires new strategies, officials said.

“The new strategy abandons the earlier posture and challenges these menaces by exposing their corrosive behavior to the scrutiny of a more informed confident community,” according to the plan.

Gangs selected for a “FBI’s Most Wanted”-style list have histories of assaulting police officers or target victims based on race, said Lt. Paul Vernon, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman. For example, one of the groups that made the list, a Hispanic gang called 204th Street, was blamed in the racially charged shooting death of a 14-year-old black girl in December.

There were 400 gangs to choose from in Los Angeles with some 39,000 members, police said. Other agencies estimate the number of gangs in the city as higher than 700.

Other parts of the initiative involve seeking gang additional gang injunctions that prohibit members from congregating in certain neighborhoods; proposing new state legislation to facilitate gang injunctions; holding neighborhood seminars designed to train residents on how to recognize gang members; and creating a list of the top 10 most wanted gang members.

Additionally, police plan to bring together more than 120 top homicide and gang detectives in South Los Angeles, one of the most gang-plagued areas. Fifty new officers are to be stationed in the San Fernando Valley, where there was the highest surge in gang activity last year. The FBI, meanwhile, has agreed to reserve a spot on its Ten Most Wanted List for an LA gang member.

“Beside Osama Bin Laden,” police Chief William Bratton said.

Bratton joined Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Thursday to announce the plans at a police station in a valley neighborhood that suffered from a nearly 160 percent rise in gang crimes last year.

Reaction from neighborhood activists and gang interventionists ranged from skeptical to negative.

Skipp Townsend, a former gang member who works in gang intervention, said naming the most dangerous gangs will “add fuel to the fire.”

“What’s actually going to happen is gangs will want to make sure they are part of the list,” he said.

Townsend also is a critic of gang injunctions, which he said inevitably leads to police harassment of innocent young black and Hispanic men wearing hip hop clothing.

A former gang member and pastor of the We Care Ministries in Watts, Elder Mike Cummings worried that heightened gang enforcement would further strain tense police-community relations. He said the city should focus more on programs designed to keep children from joining gangs.

“If you’re going to take away gangbangers, you need to replace them with something,” said Cummings, who helps broker peace accords between rival gangs. “Job training. Recreation. We’re talking about long-term stuff.”

Gang researcher Alex Alonso, host of the Web site, questioned which gangs were chosen for the LAPD’s top 11 gang list. He said it didn’t represent the hardest gangs.

“It seems there’s some political jockeying going on,” he said.

In a city-funded study, civil rights attorney Connie Rice last month said efforts to combat gang crime in the city should include $1 billion in a “Marshall Plan” that would create economic and social opportunities in gang-infested areas. Rice also recommended focusing law enforcement efforts on the most violent gangs.

Villaraigosa said he favors expanding intervention programs, but the gang problem calls for immediate action.

“We can’t wait for prevention and intervention strategies to be developed while gang crime is rising as rapidly,” he said.

Villaraigosa has appealed to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez for millions of dollars in anti-gang funds and for more federal prosecutors to pursue racketeering and other charges mostly used in the past against organized crime. Gonzalez has identified gangs as one of the country’s greatest security threats.

The mayor is also working with FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has assigned agents to an anti-gang task force in the San Fernando Valley to work alongside police officers deputized as federal officers.

Asked how this latest anti-gang initiative differs from a similar push he made in 2002, Bratton said the concentration of anti-gang officers in hot spots is the same, but the resources needed to sustain the effort were taken away, resulting in another spike in gang crime.

“Give me the resources and I’ll knock the hell out of crime in the city,” Bratton said.

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