Community Key to Reducing Youth Gang Violence, Expert Says

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Community Involvement, Relational Networks Key to Reducing Youth-Related Gang Violence in Los Angeles, says City’s Head of Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office

“Youth in a very diverse environment continue to solve conflicts through violence,” said Guillermo Céspedes, director of the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development for the City of Los Angeles. “We kept doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

Céspedes was the keynote speaker for Thursday’s “Improving Citizen Security in Central America: Options for Responding to Youth Violence” event at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He said that gang culture is “embedded in the identity of the city,” with many residents displaying a “certain unconscious pride” about Los Angeles being considered the “gang capital of the world.”

“LA has, documented, roughly 450 gangs within the boundaries of the city and 45,000 documented gang members” he said. “If we include the county, the whole county region, those numbers double.”

Prior to 2007, the City of Los Angeles primarily focused on community-based approaches and youth gang services, Céspedes said. Frequently, he said that law enforcement used “very aggressive” strategies, such as the controversial Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) and Operation Hammer programs to combat gang violence.

“I work very closely with law enforcement, especially with the chief of police,” he said. “If he was here, he would start the conversation, in essence, apologizing, for the fact that we have played some part in exporting this issue to the rest of the world.

In Nov. 2005, the Los Angeles City Council called for the development of a new citywide gang reduction program. The Advancement Project released a final report to the city, called “A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to LA’s Gang Violence Epidemic,” in Jan. 2007.

Céspedes said that the final report “restructured” and “redefined” how the city approached the issue of gang violence. In Aug. 2007, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa created the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD). Céspedes said he does not think of the GRYD as a “typical municipal government agency.”

He said that GRYD’s approach is to evaluate youth violence and gang issues through a “different lens.” One of the first things Céspedes notes is their definition of “gang-related,” which he considers to entail a “relational” aspect as opposed to a direct law-enforcement connotation.

“‘Gang-related’ means any crime that has retaliation attached to it,” he said. While officials may not be able to stop initial homicides, he believes that law enforcement agencies can prevent “a pile-up of body bags” stemming from retaliatory violence by speaking directly to “stakeholders” following gang-related homicides.

“Facts may be very ugly, but they reduce violence,” Céspedes said. He believes that talking to people at times when they are “most vulnerable,” like after homicides, provides opportunities for intervention, and encourages more interaction between police officers and gang members to prevent acts of retaliatory violence.

The badge needs to be able to see past the tattoo, and the tattoo needs to be able to see past the badge, he said. Céspedes believes that a series of “intentional strategies” are needed so that young people in gangs and city police can “humanize each other.”

Céspedes said one of the early changes under the GRYD was the emphasis on “gang reduction zones,” particular neighborhoods with high instances of gang violence and activity. Using demographic data, he notes many commonalities for residents living in the most “at-risk” communities. In Los Angeles’ most dangerous neighborhoods, he said that half of the residents live below the poverty line, while 29 to 40 percent of households consist of multigenerational families in which grandparents serve as the young person’s guardians. Approximately 40 percent of the population living in such zones, he said, was under the age of 18.

The Youth Service Eligibility Tool was created, Céspedes said, to identify who exactly in these communities were “at-risk” for gang involvement and violence. According to empirical evidence, he said, most young people in the areas are most likely to first become involved in gangs between the ages of 10-15.

Prior to the creation of the GRYD, Céspedes said that the city’s program strategies were situated at the poles of “total denial” and “total exaggeration.” He is a proponent of a “triangle” model of gang violence prevention, which incorporates gang intervention specialists, law enforcement and local officials in response to gang incidents and related violence.

In addition to the establishment of gang reduction zones, recent changes to Los Angeles’ gang-reduction policies include programs built around parks where gang members frequently hang out. Céspedes said that programs of the like help officials engage in neighborhoods with the highest propensities for violence, particularly at times when violence is most likely to spike. Community engagement is vital in promoting law enforcement in such neighborhoods, he said, stating that curbing gang violence requires the participation of “all members” along the family life cycle of current or potential gang members.

Céspedes said that the GRYD is currently focusing on a four-pronged approach to curb gang violence by focusing on prevention, intervention, re-entry and targeted suppression.

All of these, he said, are driven by “family systems concepts” and are designed to “intervene at a multi-systemic level.” The ultimate goal, Céspedes stated, was to reduce the number of young people that are fully identified as gang members while building an “exit ramp” for those that are already associated with gang activity.

He said that the issue of gang violence is tied to the concept of both formal and informal “relational networks.” He sees a definite “programmatic link” between gang activity in Los Angeles and Central America, noting the presence of transnational gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (M18) within the city. According to Céspedes, these are “relational networks that extend across national borders,” stating that gang members of the like live within the “same neighborhood,” despite being divided by geographical boundaries.

“We know we’re impacting crime,” he said. Since the creation of the GRYD five years ago, the City of Los Angeles has seen a reduction in many gang-associated crimes across its designated gang reduction zones; a 48 percent decrease in assaults against officers with lethal weapons, a 23 percent decrease in gang-related fights and most drastically, a 33 percent drop in total grid zone homicides.

Céspedes said that the program could be strengthen, as well as replicated in other cities, if stakeholders could “identify a common theory of change.”

“We all need to get in the same boat,” he concluded. “And row in the same direction.”

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