Rise in Killings Spurs New Steps to Fight Gangs
New York Times
By FOX BUTTERFIELD
Published: January 17, 2004
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16 At a time when other types of homicides have been falling for a decade, police officials and criminologists are alarmed by one stubbornly volatile category, street-gang killings, whose spiraling numbers in recent years have prompted aggressive new antigang tactics in Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation's youth gang capitals.
Gang homicides rose more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2002, the last year for which national figures are available, but police officials say their strong efforts in Los Angeles and Chicago produced a sharp dent in the upward trend in those cities last year.
Los Angeles, using new strategies pushed by Chief William J. Bratton, saw the number of gang-related homicides fall to 262 in 2003, from 374 in 2002, a drop of 30 percent. The total number of homicides fell to 506 in 2003, down from 645 in 2002, a 22 percent decrease.
But Chief Bratton told a national conference on gang violence here this week that this means more than half of Los Angeles's killings are still being carried out by street gang members, an unacceptably high proportion. Gang violence, he said, is "the emerging monster of crime in America."
Chicago was the homicide capital of the country in 2003. There, the new police superintendent, Philip J. Cline, using many of the same tactics as Mr. Bratton, helped reduce the city's total homicides to 599 in 2003, down from 648 the previous year. But more than 40 percent were still gang-related.
F.B.I. officials at the conference said they had evidence that gang members were now migrating out from Los Angeles and Chicago to cities and smaller communities in many parts of the nation.
To underscore the threat, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, the latest F.B.I. annual report on national crime statistics found that youth-gang homicides had jumped to more than 1,100 in 2002, up from 692 in 1999, the latest figures available.
Gang homicides "are a growing problem in many cities, and it is not a problem that we have any agreed on solutions to," Mr. Bratton said at the conference, which was attended by police chiefs and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from around the country. Mr. Bratton, who first became prominent as police commissioner in New York City from 1994 to 1996 when he presided over a large drop in homicides there, told the conference participants that gang members are "domestic terrorists" who are now "taking more lives in this country than all the deaths from terrorism."
As an indication of the severity of the problem, Mr. Cline told the conference that over the past 80 years the Chicago Crime Commission had recorded 1,000 homicides by members of the Mafia, or traditional organized-crime families. But in just the last five years, Mr. Cline said, there have been 1,300 killings by street gangs in Chicago.
"The street gangs of today are worse than organized crime ever was," he said.
Some academic experts on gangs are skeptical that the latest police efforts will make much difference in the long run.
"This country has made very little progress against gangs in generations," said Irving Spergel, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. Mr. Spergel has been evaluating gang-prevention work in six cities for the Justice Department.
"We still don't understand street gangs," Mr. Spergel said. "They are institutionalized, but very disorganized, and their violence is usually not planned, like when a kid from one gang comes across a kid from another gang in his territory."
Malcolm W. Klein, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Southern California and the author of "The American Street Gang," said Hispanic gangs had been around Southern California since the 1920's and black gangs since the late 1940's, but, he said, "nothing much has been done about them for decades."
One problem in dealing with these gangs, Mr. Klein said, is that they come in several forms, and what works with one type of gang is counterproductive with others. For example, he said, smaller, less permanent gangs that specialize in selling narcotics are susceptible to traditional police tactics like undercover buys and court injunctions ordering them away from certain locations.
"But for the larger, traditional gangs, if you crack down on them, it only makes them feel stronger and gives them more status," Mr. Klein said. "That's why they joined the gang in the first place."
He said the difficulty in cracking down on the big gangs is especially pronounced in California because the state's prison system is in some ways run by inmates who belong to groups like the Mexican Mafia, the Crips or the Bloods, and when they come home to Los Angeles, they are even more involved in their gang identity.
Another possible reason for the increase in gang violence, said Abel Valenzuela, a professor of Chicano studies and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the continued influx of young Hispanic and Asian immigrants with their parents into areas like Los Angeles.
"The vast majority don't belong to gangs," he said. "But you have some practicing downward assimilation, with parents that are poor and struggling to hold two or three jobs, so the kids have idle time and get involved with gangs."
When Mr. Bratton became police chief here, in October 2002, the police force was demoralized after the beating of Rodney King, the subsequent riots and the discovery of a renegade unit that had been planting evidence. The gang units had been disbanded, and the city signed a consent decree that provided for monitors to weed out wrongdoing by officers.
In the three years before Mr. Bratton's arrival, the homicide rate had risen 51 percent.
Mr. Bratton soon discovered that officers in some of his elite units had stopped working nights and weekends, when most crime occurs. And the consent decree required that many had to work in marked cars and in uniform, and that they were barred from using informants, all impediments to dealing with gangs.
So Mr. Bratton set a priority gang violence and relentlessly pushed his command staff to get more patrol officers on the street and to make detectives work nights and weekends.
He also introduced Compstat, the computerized crime-tracking system that he employed successfully in New York. It provides information on where crimes most often occur, and through it Mr. Bratton has been able to hold senior officers accountable for lowering crime in their divisions.
Mr. Bratton even issued portable e-mail devices to all his top staff, giving them real-time information on every homicide, as well as the per capita homicide rate in Los Angeles for the year, comparing it with the previous year.
Mr. Bratton has also been very visible, visiting dozens of homicide scenes and trying to enlist community leaders and ministers in his campaign against gangs.
John Mack, the president of the Los Angeles Urban League, voiced strong support for Mr. Bratton's actions. Mr. Mack said said he was encouraged that Mr. Bratton's plans, using improved computer software to target only the worst gang members, "will be surgical and not a return to the bad old days of the L.A.P.D. profiling every African-American guy on the streets."
Mr. Bratton has also enrolled a new ally in his war on gangs: the federal government. The F.B.I. and the local United States attorney's office have agreed to put more resources into prosecuting gang members in federal court, using racketeering, drug and gun charges.
A major benefit, Mr. Bratton said, is that they will then be sent to federal prisons, outside of California, away from fellow gang members.