In the 1980s, Southern California set the modern street gang loose upon the world. In the city of Los Angeles alone, gang-related violence caused the deaths of thousands of people, many of them innocent bystanders felled by the bullets of drive-by shooters. Entire neighborhoods fell into disrepair, and gangs openly conducted lawless activity in the streets. Today, more than two decades since the peak of gang violence in the early 1990s, everything has changed. In the City of Los Angeles and numerous other parts of Southern California, once-dangerous streets are now safe, graffiti is gone, and gang members are not to be seen. Homicides are down to levels not seen in decades. Reporter Sam Quinones notes that the changes “are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my decades of writing about gangs.” Quinones looks into what might have led to the taming of an epidemic.
Sam Quinones' Pacific Standard feature will be made available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—soon, and will be posted online in full on Monday, December 29. Until then, an excerpt:
Community policing changed the job description of every LAPD officer, but perhaps none more so than that of the division commander—Captain III. Under the new philosophy, an LAPD Captain III became a community organizer, half politician and half police manager, rousing neighbors and fixing the broken windows. Captains even began to lobby the city for services—street sweeping and tree trimming—that had nothing to do with law enforcement, transforming themselves into a miniature city government for neighbors who didn’t know who to call. They started to recognize that bringing crime rates down—their ticket to promotion—could happen only through alliances with the community. So Captain IIIs began to spend much of their time among pastors, librarians, merchants, and school principals. “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem” became their startling new mantra.
Supporting the new approach to gangs was City Hall, which worked with the police through the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, or GRYD. Whereas the city had previously disbursed gang-intervention funds evenly across all the city council districts, the new approach took a more targeted approach. “We narrowed it down to the young people who were really at risk,” recalls Jeff Carr, who was deputy mayor and director of GRYD under Mayor Villaraigosa from 2007 to 2009. “Like the police, we were going to concentrate our resources in the neighborhoods where the problems were most acute.”
The L.A. City Attorney’s office noticed the headway being made with community policing and placed prosecutors out in communities, where they heard residents talk about what really concerned them. Previously, prosecutors had simply taken cases and argued them before courts. Now, like Captain IIIs, they were partially taking on the role of community organizers, helping neighborhoods identify threats and finding ways to combat them.
The result: A 2009 Los Angeles Times poll that showed more than two-thirds of black (68 percent) and three-quarters of Latino (76 percent) residents had a favorable view of the LAPD.
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