Monday, February 05, 2007

Complex Problem, Simplistic Solution


IN a society where it has become fashionable to dress like a prison inmate, glorify violence in song and lyric and converse like a street thug, it should come as no surprise that gang membership has soared and the body count along with it.

Just for the record, law enforcement officials are aware of more than 1,300 street gangs with over 150,000 members in Los Angeles County. Gangs account for approximately 51 percent of all homicides in Los Angeles County. Of the 1,156 homicides in 2001, 587 were gang-related. The majority of gang homicides are committed with handguns.

What to do is a complex problem. What not to do is what the Los Angeles City Council did.
That council this past week voted unanimously to ask voters to cough up $50 million through a new property tax to fight gang violence. The money, collected through a $72-per-parcel levy, would be spent to expand anti-gang and prevention efforts.

If one was cynical enough, one might consider this civic extortion. Pay protection money or get run over by murderous thugs.

But more likely it was a typical politician's solution: appear to be solving a problem by throwing money at it.

Whatever else it was, it was a lesson in tortured governance for us all.

"We have 40,000 gang members in this city and only 61 gang workers," complained L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn."

Not to split hairs, Janice, but aren't all law enforcement personnel - from cops to parole officers to prosecutors - "gang workers" if that's what the moment demands? And don't we already pay their salaries?

There are 23 anti-gang programs currently in operation in the city of Los Angeles, with an annual budget of $86 million. That suggests there are plenty of dedicated people and money, but what is missing is a single, comprehensive strategy.

In the meantime, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, pumping the feds for millions to aid in the fight against gangs.

Against that backdrop, do city officials really expect property owners in Los Angeles to believe that taxation trumps better government as the answer to the gang crisis?

Next, they'll be telling them that when the problem is past, the tax will be rescinded. Yeah, right.

I couldn't help but notice a story in the Los Angeles Times the other day that a police crackdown in Skid Row has dramatically lowered the crime rate. Last year, an aggressive Sheriff's Department crackdown led to a dramatic drop in killings in Compton.

"I think the more gang members realize that that level of field force is present, it's going to cause them to back off," Capt. Ray Peavy, who heads the sheriff's Homicide Bureau, told the Times.
"Everyone says: `What are we going to do about the gang problem?' It's the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures."

That strategy is at least a start. More jobs and better education are the long-term solution.
Said Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor and gang expert at UCLA, "Until we get those gangsters into real jobs, we are going to have a lethal ongoing problem, pure and simple."

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