By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
L.A.’s Police Chief Bill Bratton unveiled the first stage of what he promises will be a complete restructuring of the way the department deals with gang-related crime. “When I came to this department, it was totally out of the game when it came to dealing with gangs,” said Bratton when he formally announced the plan last week. “Well, today marks us getting back into the field. We‘re at the 1 yard line with 100 yards to go. It will not be easy. There are only 9,200 of us. But we’re going to build trust, we‘re going to build compassion, and we’re going to build relationships.”
Of course, the LAPD has been trotting out gang plans since the late 1970s when Daryl Gates formed CRASH, followed in the late ‘80s by his 1,000-officer-strong Operation Hammer, under which gang members were rounded up en masse. Hammer succeeded in alienating residents of the city’s poorer communities -- as they watched every kid in the neighborhood wearing baggy pants or a Raiders jacket regularly thrown up against walls -- but produced few prosecutable arrests. Meanwhile, gangs and gang violence proliferated. Other gang initiatives included the 1993 plan, originated under then--Police Chief Willie Williams, involving a partnership with the FBI‘s Violent Gang Unit. This strategy was at its most aggressive in 1995, when an 800-member FBILAPD team executed the largest raid in department history, resulting in 83 arrests, but only one actual charge for a violent felony.
Bratton announced his gang plan at the Crenshaw Christian Center, a large pristine, gated complex in the area policed by the 77th Division of the department’s crime-heavy South Bureau. Historically, gang crimes tend to ebb and flow between the poorest areas of East L.A. and the poorest areas of South Los Angeles. In recent months, South Bureau in general, and the 77th Division in particular, have been ground zero for gang murders. In fact, last year, out of all 658 homicides that occurred in the city of Los Angeles, nearly one in six occurred in the 77th.
The knot of officers from the 77th that had gathered at the back of the room as Bratton took the podium admitted they knew little about what to expect from this latest strategy. Nonetheless, in the past few weeks the mood of the rank and file has gone from a wait-and-see attitude about the new chief to a mood of hopeful expectancy. “Bratton put on the LAPD uniform the very first day,” said a senior lead officer. “Willie Williams never wore the uniform.” “And he likes cops,” added another. “Our last chief didn‘t like anybody but himself.”
Mayor James Hahn spoke first and said the gang strategy has two parts: a plan for a partnership with the community, and a system for assigning resources. Versions of both components are being put into place first in South L.A., since right now it is there that the need is the greatest. Then, in coming weeks, the dual gang strategies will be reassessed as to which portions of them might be rolled out to the rest of the city.
Hahn introduced the community-partnership section of the model using upbeat buzz phrases like “ . . . holistic approach . . . community collaboration . . . reforming the internal culture . . . foundation of trust . . .”
All well and good. But what does it mean? In the bad old days of the LAPD, the police also claimed they were partnering with the community. However, the groups that the police sought out for its “partnerships” were of the Neighborhood Watch Committee ilk -- factions that by their nature were prone to cozy relationships with law enforcement, but operated nowhere near the heart of community life. Grassroots gang-intervention organizations -- the people who actually spoke to gang members on a daily basis -- were avoided as if plague-ridden. In fact, many officers openly characterized the very concept of gang intervention as a form of aiding and abetting criminal activity.
So what did Bratton intend to do that was different?
Two months ago, when meeting with community organizations on the gang issue, it was true that Bratton threw out a wider net than those of his predecessors. Still, he talked with mostly mainstream political powerhouses like the Reverend Cecil (Chip) Murray of the First AME Church and John Mack of the Urban League, but failed to seek out closer-to-the-ground groups that had real influence and credibility on the street. More recently, however, he and his deputy chiefs began to meet with the kind of experienced gang-intervention workers that the department had previously shunned. Bratton was also reportedly looking to the Valley Bureau as the model for the gang initiative he and Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann were in the midst of designing.
In the past year, the Valley’s two commanding officers, Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann and, under him, Commander Michael Moore, had been quietly pioneering what was far and away the department‘s most enlightened gang policy. Bergmann and Moore formed a working coalition made up of law enforcement and the heads of community-based organizations -- including such high-profile gang-intervention personalities as former kick boxer Blinky Rodriguez. In addition, they pulled in researchers at Cal State Northridge to help them map out how they might best use their overstretched resources. They attempted to differentiate between hardcore shooters and the gang members on the periphery who, with the right kind of help, might move toward a decent future. They also started work on a small pilot program to address California’s horrendous prisoner-recidivism problem, sending multidisciplinary teams to meet with gang members ready for parole in order to aid them with reentry to society. (California leads the nation with a staggering 71 percent recidivism rate, with each prisoner costing $26,690 per year to incarcerate. Budget crisis anyone?)