THE POLITICAL CULTURE THAT GOVERNS ?Los Angeles is in many ways like a teenager clutching a remote control, zipping from channel to channel every few seconds and finding little capable of holding his or her attention. The city and its leaders race distractedly from issue to issue, unveiling upbeat proposals for solving homelessness, then traffic, then public schools — changing the subject every few months as the problems persist.
So last week it was time for the city to revisit the issue of gang violence, a topic made especially vivid by the deaths of two children in separate neighborhoods last month. For three hours, everyone from Sheriff Leroy Baca to Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer III lined up to discuss the 4-inch-thick, long-awaited gang report from the Advancement Project, the nonprofit group paid by the city to assess its anti-gang strategies.
To save a little time, let’s sum up the report’s findings in a couple of sentences: Los Angeles needs a gang czar, a gang department, a gang task force, a gang deputy mayor, a gang think tank and a comprehensive gang initiative.
Oh, and the city needs a ton of money — Rice personally told some city officials as much as $1 billion — to help families cope with poverty, joblessness and the other social ills gripping Los Angeles.
Attorney Connie Rice, who heads the Advancement Project, acknowledged that the city has already asked her group three times why its gang programs aren’t working. And in an echo of comments she made last year and even two years ago, Rice laid out a detailed case for why an uninterested homeowner in West Hills should care about families in Watts.
Rice warned that gangs are expanding into neighborhood after neighborhood, exacting an annual economic toll on the region of $2 billion. And she made a convincing case that there is little coordination among different government agencies responsible for dealing with the problem.
But then she ran into trouble. Deep in the report, Rice estimated that the city would need up to $55 million worth of programs just to keep every student at South L.A.’s Manual Arts High School — plus all the elementary and middle schools that feed into it — out of gangs.
That staggering sum didn’t address the dozens of other high schools in L.A., many with low-income students. By the time she finished her 20-minute presentation, some council members privately wondered whether Rice was providing too much epidemiology, not enough common sense.
Rice had many more suggestions, asking the city to work with the county to rebuild its probation system, transform the juvenile justice system and coordinate a campaign to stop the entertainment industry from glorifying gang violence. This, by the way, is the same city government that can’t get its parking meters to work. Can it really persuade Snoop Dogg to stop performing “Drop It Like It’s Hot”?
“Now, if the entertainment industry wanted to fund after-school programs, that merits an immediate campaign,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry. “But beyond that? We have immediate issues we need to focus on.”
Councilman Bill Rosendahl was even less complimentary about the report.“It didn’t tell me anything new,” he said. “It just said that everyone needs to work together to come up with a plan.”
If Rice’s take on gangs was all brain, Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s response to the report was all heart — or to put it another way, all emotion. Still reeling from the shooting death of a 14-year-old girl in her district, Hahn immediately began lobbying her colleagues to put a $50 million tax increase on the May ballot to pay for gang prevention and intervention programs.
Hahn’s solution neatly ignored the main thrust of Rice’s report, which warned that the city has for too long taken a scattershot approach to the gang crisis, spending money on programs without having a clear goal or a way of measuring success.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this crisis,” Hahn told a crowd of business leaders Friday. While that’s probably true, how would we know for sure? These days, LAPD has fewer police officers patrolling the city than it had a decade ago.
Hahn impatiently pushed for the tax even though the city has not audited programs like L.A. Bridges II, which receives $4.1 million annually and reaches only a tiny fraction of the city’s 40,000 gang members. (Last month, the L.A. Weekly reported that one former Bridges II subcontractor, Hector Marroquin Sr., had been identified by police as a collector for the Mexican Mafia, yet continued to reap city monies.)
On Tuesday, council members blocked Hahn’s plan, agreeing to draft a tax proposal that generated a lot of media coverage — but in fact will not be seriously considered by the council until November. Councilman Tony Cardenas called the whole thing premature, since city officials don’t even know how much money they need.
Cardenas nearly broke into sobs as he discussed the anti-gang tax, describing in detail his fear for the safety of his children. But Cardenas, who is chairman of the council’s ad hoc gang committee, also said, “There’s no way that I could conceive that we would be ready [by May] to look the voters in the eye and say that we know how to hold these programs accountable.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was far more muted, giving the tax debate a wide berth and avoiding Rice’s presentation altogether. While Rice delivered her report, Villaraigosa was giving his own policy speech on public schools.
Even without the mayor, Rice managed to draw an overflow crowd, with dozens of gang-intervention workers being ushered down the hall to listen to the audio of the meeting. Many of those workers were part of Bridges II, the disappointing program that seeks to persuade gang members to abandon their criminal ways.
Council members might have been hoping that Rice would play the heavy, identifying the problems in the city’s anti-gang programs, and that they wouldn’t have to be the bad guys. Rice didn’t take the bait, declining to draw any conclusions. “Until the city adopts a competent overall strategy that is capable of reducing gang activity and violence, it would be unproductive to focus extensively on problems in the few existing programs,” she wrote.
That leaves it to the mayor to gauge the effectiveness of the city’s anti-gang programs. If Rice had the brains and Hahn had the heart, then Villaraigosa may be the one who’s going to have to find some courage.
Councilman José Huizar, a close ally of the mayor, got things rolling last week by announcing his plan to seek an audit of the city’s anti-gang programs. By the time the city gets the results, the council may well have moved on yet again.
After all, it’s supposed to get its report on the Los Angeles River, another project that ignites discussion every two or three years. That might provide just the opportunity for a distracted city to once again change the channel.