L.A.’s first gang intervention workers graduate

Joel Rubin (Los Angeles Times)

June 12, 2010

Los Angeles’ innovative, high-stakes experiment combating gangs reached a milestone Friday, when the first group of gang intervention workers graduated from a city-sanctioned training program.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa congratulated and presented certificates to the 25 men and two women who completed the 14-week class. Mostly former gang members themselves, the graduates will wade into the city housing projects and neighborhoods where gangs are rooted and will intervene in the wake of shootings and other violence to stop the cycles of retaliation and rivalry.

The program is thought to be the first of its kind in the country and is being watched closely by city officials across the country for signs that it might be effective in lowering levels of bloodshed.

“We needed a place to really professionalize the work of intervention workers,” the mayor said in an address to the group. “I don’t have to tell you that a lot of you have seen things and done things in your life. But there was a part of you that said, ‘Do I really want to live in a culture of violence?’ ”

The graduation ceremony, held before dozens of family and friends at a community center in West Adams, culminated what has been a rocky, delayed and sometimes contentious effort to bring intervention programs into the fold and add them to the city’s multitude of anti-gang endeavors.

In 2008, Villaraigosa consolidated a disorganized array of gang outreach programs under his Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, which now oversees $20 million in annual intervention and prevention programs. For years, intervention programs had operated independently, without training and with uneven results, in the city’s volatile gang territories. The effort to get a training academy off the ground proved difficult. A plan to merge the divergent teaching philosophies of two groups into a single program collapsed amid intense disagreement, delaying the launch of classes for a year.

The Advancement Project, a legal advocacy, civil rights and public policy group, was eventually awarded a $200,000 city contract last fall to run the classes. Admission for instructors and students was tightly controlled, as applicants were put through a rigorous screening process.

Classes were held twice weekly and covered a range of issues, from negotiating a “sit down” between rival gangs to navigating the tense racial divides between Latino and black gangs.

“I’m feeling good,” said 43-year-old Sixto Hernandez, one of the program’s graduates. “I’m doing this for my kids. I don’t want them to live through all the killings and pain that I lived through.” Hernandez said he used to belong to the infamous Florencia 13 gang and served about 15 years in prison for crimes he declined to discuss.

Once considered nuisances or worse in the eyes of police, intervention workers have increasingly gained credence for their intimate understanding of gangs and ability to dampen the rumors and escalating emotions that often feed retaliatory violence after a gang shooting.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca have both endorsed the use of intervention workers and spoke at Friday’s ceremony.

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