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Going After Gangs: What's Working

Steve Hofbauer is a council member for the City of Palmdale and chair of the League’s Gang and Graffiti Subcommittee. He can be reached at shofbauer@cityofpalmdale.org.

Gang activity is on the rise throughout California and the nation. In Los Angeles alone, gang membership is estimated at 40,000. FBI and California Department of Justice statistics show that violent crime rose 3.7 percent nationally and 4.1 percent in California in the first six months of 2006 compared with the same time period in 2005. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Youth Gang Survey, in 2004, approximately one-fourth of all homicides in 171 cities with populations of more than 100,000 were considered gang related. These numbers exclude Los Angeles and Chicago, where more than half of homicides involved gangs.

In response, the League’s Public Safety Policy Committee formed a Gang and Graffiti Subcommittee in early spring 2007 to collectively address the problems associated with gangs. The subcommittee supports efforts to curtail gang and graffiti activity, intervene with vulnerable youth and families, and control hard-core gang members. It is also charged with developing dialogue among member cities, and working to promote and support legislative measures to empower communities in addressing this issue.

The Suburban Twist

The ensuing discussion revealed a common thread. While many suburban and bedroom communities may have an influx of gangsters and related crime, the stereotypical drug turf wars of highly territorial inner city gangs are not clearly established in the growing suburban areas. Instead, many gangsters that would be mortal enemies in their former urban clearly established are collaborating in criminal endeavors in the suburbs.

This presents a challenge for city manag ers, public safety staff and law enforcement, because many of the traditional strategies and tactics that are effective against typical urban street gangs don’t fit the suburban paradigm.

Community Involvement Is Key

While some residents may want city officials and police to "knock heads and lock ’em up," other effective methods to proactively divert youth from criminal activity are being brought to the table. Communities that wait for criminal gang activity to manifest before taking action are finding themselves caught in an endlessly reactive mode of playing catch up.

A variety of strategies are being used to keep kids out of gangs. Parenting pro grams are proving highly effective in help ing families deal with problem minors. The League is supporting California legislation that would give judges the option to mandate parenting classes.

Youth job training programs are a vital tool in the anti-gang effort, but to succeed they must have a strong follow-through component to ensure that the participants are connected with the business com munity. Identifying and working with the informal community leaders whom your local youth identify with and respect, such as coaches, neighbors and clergy, is another strategy; such individuals can be an invaluable asset if they are provided with logistical and practical support to empower their efforts. And neighborhood empowerment can overcome numerous issues. Many cities throughout the nation with significant racial divides and gang violence have brought specialists into their schools and communities to help identify and support neighborhood leaders who can help change the lives of young people at risk.

Communities are actively sharing enforcement and intervention strategies. What works in Ceres or Modesto may not work in Palmdale and vice versa. But regional approaches to law enforcement are becoming more common and effective. Databases are being created to share gang and graffiti intelligence across jurisdictional boundaries. Tagging crews and criminal gang members, who previously shifted activities across geographic boundaries as the heat was turned up in one community, are finding neighboring communities equally engaged and cooperating in enforcement and abatement.

Addressing Legal Issues

District attorneys are finding the injunctions commonly used in metropolitan areas against territorial gangs are not as effective in loosely defined suburban areas. Cities are learning that they must become more creative in establishing local administrative fines and ordinances specific to problem activity or locations. In Palmdale, for example, the city’s new landmark transportation center was being overrun by hoodlums from a nearby continuation high school until the city enacted a trespass ordinance specific to transit facilities.

Legislation Adds Teeth to Enforcement Efforts

In addition to increasing the dialogue among its members and League cities, the Gang and Graffiti Subcommittee is responsible for legislative analysis, tracking and support, and found more than three dozen bills introduced in the Legislature during its most recent session that had "gang" or "graffiti" in their language. These measures included criminalizing the recruitment of minors into street gangs by predatory adult gang members, registration and GPS tracking of convicted violent gangsters, and increasing forfei ture options for property gained through or used for criminal gang activities.

Several bills survived the legislative and committee review process and were recently signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger, including:

AB 104 (Solorio), Chapter 104, Stat utes of 2007, gives local governments and district attorneys access to state and local criminal history information to support their petitions in pursuing civil gang injunctions or drug-abatement actions.

SB 706 (Runner), Chapter 95, Statutes of 2007, expands an existing pilot program to give city attorneys eviction powers against repeat drug offenders at the request of local law enforcement.

AB 924 (Emmerson), Chapter 111, Statutes of 2007, allows the state to seek criminal asset forfeiture from a defen dant convicted of motor vehicle theft by adding that offense to the definition of "criminal profiteering activity."

SB 271 (Cedillo), Chapter 34, Statutes of 200 7, enables prosecutors and city attorneys to bring damage suits against gang members who have violated civil injunc tions, go after their assets to satisfy the judgment and return any recovered funds to the community they have terrorized.

Fiscal Resources

In addition, the state’s FY 2007-08 budget contains funding for various anti-gang and criminal activity, including:

  • $446,000 to create a statewide anti-gang coordinator position;
  • $9.5 million in local assistance grants to cities and community organizations for programs that provide alternatives to gang participation;
  • $4.8 million for local assistance grants to supplement efforts to suppress gang-related violence; and
  • $1 million to support five Crimes Against Children task forces (in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego).

Finding Better Ways

Continued public pressure may result in a gang initiative being introduced at the state level that would bring before the voters a comprehensive set of measures, reforms and programs to address gang issues in much the same way that Jessica’s Law dealt with sexual predators. In the meantime, however, the new legislation described here has given communities more leverage on the law enforcement side.

A community-based effort that focuses on giving kids positive alternatives to gangs is the other essential component in dealing with the problem. The League’s Gangs and Graffiti Subcommittee is working with the National League of Cities’ California Cities Gang Prevention Network, which was created earlier this year to identify and share strategies for reducing gang violence and victimization. The network is combining prevention, intervention, enforcement and a strong community voice to create more comprehensive and effective strategies. The subcommittee and the network are exploring ways to complement each other’s efforts and work together toward common goals.

By sharing information, pooling resources and advocating for change, cities can empower communities and provide them with the tools to better tackle gangs, youth violence and graffiti.

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