L.A. Takes on Gangs – Again

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A man leaves his neighborhood one day to visit the mother of his child. The woman’s current boyfriend finds out, and recruits several fellow gang members to wait outside the woman’s home to jump the old beau when he leaves. He’s trapped inside.

An ex-gang member-turned-intervention worker gets a call from the trapped man and shows up at the standoff … and does what?

That’s one of the scenarios that students play out during a new system for training gang intervention workers here that just graduated its first class and could become a national model.

While efforts to employ ex-gang members to combat violence often rely on on-the-job training or a modest amount of structured education, the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) initiative puts ex-gang members into classrooms in an attempt to combine street savvy, practical training and academic instruction. The aim is to professionalize the anti-gang work force, providing a credential that intervention workers will need in order to operate under city contracts and that can be pulled if they don’t adhere to protocols.

It’s the latest in a string of gang intervention efforts that has produced mostly disappointing results here in the nation’s gang capital. According to a 2007 report by the Advancement Project, a local civil rights organization, about 40,000 people in Los Angeles belong to 700 gangs.  

The new strategy is by no means a sure thing. Some wonder if the approach is too academic, and the city comptroller recently criticized the effort for not yet producing an evaluation.

 

New Approach Needed

Since the 1980s, Los Angeles has tried combating gangs with police crackdowns, midnight sports, and enrichment programs for middle school students. As with many urban ills, the prescriptions often involved complex collaborations among myriad public and private institutions – the usual teaming of police, schools, nonprofits, churches, et al  – that were difficult to construct and harder to maintain.

The Advancement Project’s 2007 report, conducted under a city contract, noted, “This is the third time that the Los Angeles City Council has officially asked the question, ‘Why are city gang reduction strategies failing?’ ”

 The problem here and in other cities, according to a study (Gang Wars) by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, is that anti-gang efforts typically suffer from too much emphasis on law-enforcement tactics, not enough meaningful partnerships among community groups and poorly designed evaluations.

In 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa created GRYD, which funds and oversees an array of prevention, intervention and prisoner re-entry efforts, including increased recreation and tutoring, parenting classes, counseling and targeting services to youths who are assessed to be at risk of joining gangs. The GRYD initiative operates on a $20 million annual budget, covering everything from its own staff to contracts.

A key GRYD strategy was to designate 12 zones, each about 3.5 square miles, in which rates of gang-related crime are several times higher than the city average. In each zone the city awarded contracts for various services, including $500,000 grants for organizations to run intervention programs, which include the gang intervention teams.

The city gave the Advancement Project a $200,000 one-year contract to coordinate and implement the training of the intervention workers. The new 140-hour program, run through the Advancement Project’s Urban Peace Academy, combines academic instruction – on such topics as post-traumatic stress disorder and immigration law – and practical skills training, such as negotiating truces among gangs and responding to crises-in-progress like the opening scenario.

(In that scene, the intervention worker uses his contacts to reach “an older generation of respected” current or ex-gang members, who help negotiate “safe passage” for the ex-boyfriend, says Peace Academy Manager Fernando Rejón.)

The instructors include leaders of community-based organizations and college teachers. Some intervention workers have questioned the relevance of some of the academic instruction, such as the history of gangs, and have challenged what the academicians know about street life. “Everyone gets tested” by the street-hardened students, Rejón says, “especially if you’re a professor with five degrees.”

 The first class of 27 (out of 33 original students) graduated in June. Each graduate gets a certificate that eventually will be required of intervention workers at agencies operating under GRYD contracts, with the city covering the training cost for workers from those agencies. Because the intervention contracts kicked in before the training began, most of the city’s intervention workers have not yet gone through the Peace Academy.  

Most of the academy’s students have been involved with gangs, Rejón says. Los Angeles knows well the risks of hiring former gang members to work with current ones: In 2008, the director of a local anti-violence group called No Guns was sentenced to eight years in prison on federal charges of selling illegal assault weapons. Alex Sanchez, executive director of the anti-gang group Homies Unidos, is awaiting trial on federal charges, including homicide; prosecutors allege he was a “shot caller” for the MS-13 gang at the same time he was supposed to be working against gangs. Neither organization was a GRYD contractor.

One of the past efforts here, L.A. Bridges, also used ex-gang members. It folded two years ago because of insufficient results. The strategy has also been tried in such places as Denver, through its Comprehensive Gang Model; Raleigh, N.C., in a youth boxing program at Haven House Services; and Dallas, with Vision Regeneration, a youth-serving nonprofit.

 

On the streets

Stan Bosch embodies part of the new approach. The 55-year-old priest oversees the intervention workers for Soledad Enrichment Action, an education-focused nonprofit that won contracts for four of the 12 zones. A psychotherapist, Bosch also conducts group counseling sessions for teens and is often on the streets, using 7-year-old Lady – his Belgian Shepherd/Collie mix – as an entrée to talk with kids after violent and other traumatic incidents.

“We’re not here to get people out of gangs,” he stresses. “We’re here to reduce violence.”

Toward that end, the interventionists work the streets and schools, maintaining relationships to pick up on developing trouble; head off confrontations and de-escalate conflicts as they happen; control the spread of rumors after violent incidents to help quash escalation; are on hand at parks and schools at key times to help keep peace; steer youths toward positive activities; and refer people to social services and potential jobs.

One fundamental and difficult task for those workers is maintaining their ties to the streets without engaging in the behavior that once forged those ties. That means no drinking with old buddies on corners, no exchanging gang signs, no cruising around looking for fun.

“You can’t be out here straddling the fence, shooting dice and drinking,” says James Dunn, an intervention worker for Soledad.

“We still have some definite situations with gang signals” among some interventionists, Bosch says.

While the certificate gives workers a credential for jobs, their credibility on the street comes from something that is more informal and is discussed a lot in training: their “license to operate.” People earn LTOs, as they are called, through experiences and connections in the neighborhood, which may include past gang activity but also a history of coming through for people. Gang and neighborhood leaders grant intervention workers an understood license to operate in certain communities or situations.

Not overstepping your LTO is crucial. “Some folks can only work within their neighborhoods,” says Susan Lee, director of the Urban Peace program at the Advancement Project. “Some can go between gangs. Some can work black/brown [Latino]. Those are very rare.”

One challenge for contractors, then, is finding people with the right LTOs for certain neighborhoods. The GRYD intervention contactors must provide six intervention workers, two case managers and a supervisor in each zone, says Guillermo Cespedes, the deputy mayor in charge of GRYD.

Consider Soledad: To reach people on the streets, it uses a combination of intervention workers from its own staff and four subcontractors that are based in the different zones. The subcontracting carries a business risk. One of Soledad’s subcontractors was dropped for nonperformance, and a new one was hired.

 

Impact?

It remains to be seen whether the interventions and other GRYD efforts give Los Angeles an effective and maintainable strategy.

Deputy Mayor Cespedes says that since the initiative began, gang-related crime is down 10.7 percent in the zones. But previous efforts by the city have shown short bursts of crime reduction, and Cespedes says that comparing crime changes between gang neighborhoods and others might not be the most valid way to measure GRYD’s impact.

The city awarded the Washington-based Urban Institute a $525,000 contract to evaluate the effort, but the study has been pushed back. In July, a report by City Controller Wendy Greuel said GRYD “is on the right path,” but that “it’s unacceptable” that that GYRD and the Urban Institute “have yet to complete an evaluation.”

Outreach workers say they see less violence in their communities and that they’ve toned down volatile situations. Bosch tells of a teen boy whose cousin was shot and killed. The teen had no history of violence, but was so distraught that in group therapy, he ranted for 20 minutes about his anger and his need to retaliate. The other young group members listened, shared similar experiences and feelings, and discussed the implications of striking back. The boy abandoned his plans for vengeance.

“You can’t measure that,” Bosch says. “But I believe we saved a life that day.”

Contacts: GRYD http://mayor.lacity.org/Issues/GangReduction; Advancement Project (213) 989-1300, www.advanceproj.org; Soledad Enrichment Action (213) 480-4200, www.seacharter.org.