Delays plague L.A. County’s anti-gang program

The county’s chief executive is expected to announce two pilot programs next month, more than a year after deadline.
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
November 30, 2008

Los Angeles County leaders, who more than a year and a half ago promised to revamp their $105-million-a-year gang intervention effort, are still months away from a new strategy, hobbled by repeated delays and haggling over details.

William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, is scheduled to unveil his plan for county supervisors Dec. 16, more than a year after the deadline first set by the supervisors. In contrast, Los Angeles city leaders moved forward months ago and have a dozen programs in place.

After much infighting, the county plan includes pilot sites in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood north of Watts and in the Pacoima area, where Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials are working with Los Angeles and San Fernando police to combat gangs.

It remains unclear, however, how they will be structured, funded or monitored. Critics fault Fujioka and his staff for dragging their feet and downsizing the so-called Gangs and Violence Reduction Strategy while residents of unincorporated areas of the county targeted by gangs repeatedly asked for more help.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” said civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, whose public policy group, the Advancement Project, issued a report in January 2007 that called for a mblankive, coordinated regional effort to fight gangs and spurred a rethinking of both city and county efforts. The $593,000 report was commissioned and paid for by the city of Los Angeles.

Fujioka and his staff have been tight-lipped about details. The presentation has been pushed back twice this month as they met with Sheriff Lee Baca and his staff and supervisors’ staffers to hash out details.

At next month’s meeting, Fujioka plans to ask for four more months to develop the strategy and cost estimates, according to copies of his proposal released this month to supervisors’ staffers.

Central to that draft is a controversial gang emergency operations center proposed by Baca that would allow county staff to waive confidentiality laws and share information about individuals involved with or at risk of becoming involved with gangs.

Late last month, Baca made a rare appearance at a supervisors’ staff briefing and spent two hours pushing the center, which he proposed a year ago. He has asked for $3 million in his proposed budget for technology and staff to run the program.

“For every week or two that goes by, we don’t know if we could have prevented a gang murder or a crime with the absence of this program,” he said.

Supervisors’ staffers have been insisting for months that the sheriff cannot waive confidentiality to fight crime. Earlier this month, a shouting match broke out between supervisors’ and sheriff’s staffers at a meeting to consider the latest draft of the strategy.

Fujioka said last week that the sheriff’s proposed center no longer is part of his gang proposal, calling it too costly and unnecessary to the pilot programs. He declined to release a copy of his amended proposal until he presents it to the board.

“I’m not going to support” an emergency operations center, Fujioka said. “I don’t see success as contingent on having a center.”

Rice said the county’s anti-gang strategy is being whittled down.

“Every letter I see, the program gets smaller and smaller,” Rice said. The city of Los Angeles, she noted, “is already off to the races.”

Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke first called for a reevaluation of the county’s anti-gang strategy in May 2007, a month after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the city’s new gang reduction plan based on the Advancement Project’s report. The day after Burke’s call for action, supervisors voted to have county staff review the report, as well as the city plans, and report back in four months with a new county strategy.

The review was hobbled by numerous stops and starts.

Fujioka took over the project after he became county chief executive in July 2007. Two months later, he appointed a committee of city, county and community officials, including Rice. Committee members gave him their recommendations in February, then stopped meeting.

Meanwhile, Gary Hearnsberger, head deputy district attorney, stepped down as the chairman of the county’s Interagency Gang Task Force, a committee that is supposed to monitor anti-gang programs. The task force also stopped meeting in February and reconvened briefly earlier this month only to be briefed by Fujioka’s staff on the new strategy and select a new chairman, Peter Shutan, deputy city attorney. It plans to meet monthly.

The last countywide spending report on anti-gang programs was released in July 2007. Supervisors requested an update in June but Fujioka postponed it, even after he received supervisors’ approval to hire a county analyst to work on the strategy; the analyst is to be paid between $97,000 and $127,000.

Fujioka also postponed a cost analysis of the new strategy, due in June, until later this month.

His staff said they have not started it.

Asked about the delays, Fujioka said that perfecting a new strategy — one he hopes to expand to other areas of the county at some point — was not a short-term effort.

“This is not a six-month, two-year program. This is a paradigm shift, changing the culture in the county,” Fujioka said.

Most recently, Fujioka said, he postponed unveiling the gang proposal from this month until December “out of courtesy” to new Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who takes office Monday.

He noted that the county continued to develop and fund anti-gang programs while the new proposal was being developed.

“It’s not as if the county is completely frozen,” Fujioka said.

“It’s important that what we roll out works and that we get buy-in from all the different departments,” he added.

He said that to blame his office alone for delaying the proposal would be “unfair” and “inaccurate.”

Supervisors have been hesitant to criticize Fujioka’s effort.

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina said her boss likes what she has heard about the strategy but has questions about how the county plans to hold anti-gang programs accountable for spending.

So far this much is clear: The county’s initial plan will be much smaller in scope than what Los Angeles has in place.

Under the city’s plan, proposed seven months ago, gang prevention programs are centralized in the neediest 12 gang-reduction zones, neighborhoods where gang violence is four times the citywide average.

Program managers in each zone, the last of whom started work last month, will receive $1 million a year in prevention funds, enough for each to target at least 200 children.

The county efforts are slated to start in Florence-Firestone, base of operations for the rival Florencia 13 and East Coast Crips gangs, and Pacoima, where an injunction is in place against the Pacoima Project Boys.

Fujioka said he chose the two neighborhoods because they are next to city gang reduction zones and will allow for city-county partnerships, and because they will show the new strategy can work in gang-dominated areas and those where gangs are at a tipping point.

“One could always say we’ll do it in five areas, the five supervisory areas, but then you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin,” Fujioka said. “We want the first effort to be successful.”

Supervisors’ staff said they “haggled” over which neighborhoods to target first.

Last year, Supervisor Don Knabe asked that the pilots include the Harbor Gateway area of his district, where some high-profile racially motivated crimes have occurred in recent years.

Knabe’s staff argued that the area was as much of a “tipping point” community as Pacoima.

Fujioka said he ultimately decided against including Harbor Gateway because the area had not seen as much violent, gang-related crime as Pacoima, based on statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Department. Harbor Gateway was also not adjacent to a city gang reduction zone.

The city’s newly appointed “gang czar,” the Rev. Jim Carr, served on the committee that developed the county strategy and said it would not move forward unless supervisors accepted a formula for placing anti-gang programs in neighborhoods where they are most needed, across district lines. He noted that City Council members compromised and placed gang reduction programs in eight of 15 council districts.

“We’ll see if the county is able to also make that jump,” Carr said. “I think it’s the only way. It needs to be done based on need, not politics.”

In Florence-Firestone, Maria Ortiz, a mother and elementary school aide, said she and her neighbors need help now.

“They’re scared,” she said. “They don’t want their kids to join” gangs.

Ortiz began asking the county to intervene a few years ago after her family was intimidated by Florencia 13 gang members living on their block. Now, she said, other parents regularly ask her what steps they should take to keep their children out of gangs.

She directs them to the sheriff’s substation. Deputies there coordinate after-school programs and have donated movies for children to watch during summer vacations. They count on discretionary money from the supervisors to run athletic programs.

Capt. James Hellmold, the substation commander, said deputies want to help at-risk youth but are short-staffed. He said they are looking forward to more resources and a plan from the county.

“We’re sort of piecemealing these concepts,” he said. “It’s hard to engage in mentoring a kid in soccer games when you have somebody getting mugged on a street corner.”

stef Posted by on Nov 30 2008. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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