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How the LAPD Got Smart and Started Winning the War Against Street Gangs

Gang violence on LA's streets decreased dramatically, and experts say the tactics used in the turnaround could serve as a model to cities across the country.

by Colleen Curry
Jan 10 2015, 8:50pm

Photo via Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

The Los Angeles Police Department may have won the fight against street gangs — at least in some critical ways, and at least for the time being.

Police statistics — in addition to analyses by experts and advocates on the ground — suggest that gang violence on LA's streets has dramatically decreased. The city's most dangerous communities are markedly safer today than they have been at any point in the past 30 years.

"It's like night and day," gang expert and author Sam Quinones told VICE News. "Really, it's a remarkable change."

The story of the city's turnaround — widely credited to a combination of new policing strategies started by former LAPD chief Bill Bratton and the work of community organizations focused on preventing gang recruitment — could serve as a model to cities across the country, police and experts told VICE News.

The progress can be measured in part by LA's annual body count. According to city data, there were 658 murders when Bratton, who is now the New York City police commissioner, arrived in 2002. That total was down from a peak of 1,092 murders in 1992, but still relatively high. There were 250 murders in the city last year.

Quinones, who detailed the incredible transformation of several gang-plagued LA neighborhoods in a recent article for Pacific Standard magazine, said the city's turnaround is partly attributed to changes in behavior by street gangs.

"Gangs have not vanished, but they have changed their fundamental nature," Quinones said. "In Los Angeles, the fundamental DNA of the street gang was being on the street, showing the neighborhood they were in charge, and they'd do this through graffiti and shootings and carjackings… And that's what has changed."

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But Bratton also deserves credit for changing the way LA fights gangs. He introduced the LAPD to CompStat — computer-generated statistical analysis of crime data — and used gang injunction laws that make it illegal for gang members to congregate together in public.

Community groups also came up with ways to prevent recruitment of young black and Latino men into gangs. In one successful example, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Gang Reduction and Youth Development office worked with community groups to create prevention programs such as Summer Night Lights, where parks and recreation centers stayed open until 11pm in the summer, a time when violence and gang recruitment were most prevalent.

"I've been lucky enough to see the changes of how we approach our police work to do a lot of work through community policing," LAPD spokesman Jack Richter told VICE News. "It used to be, maybe 20 years ago, just incarcerating people and thinking that was going to solve the problem. But we found out that we can't do it by ourselves."

Richter added that the community partnerships established by Bratton and Beck were "uneasy" at first, "but over the years we've all taken responsibility, and it's been very good."

'Gangs have not vanished, but they have changed their fundamental nature.'

The relationship between LA's police and communities was one of the worst in the country for years following the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots. In 2000, 18 percent of black Los Angelenos approved of the job the LAPD was doing; by 2009, 68 percent of black people had a favorable view of the department, according to Los Angeles Times polls.

"The LAPD has a notorious history of community oppression," said Aquil Basheer, executive director of A Better LA, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce gang violence. "But under the current leadership and somewhat the leadership before, [the LAPD] has reached out as a police department and tried to invest itself with much more of a community-oriented approach."

Basheer noted that the LAPD isn't perfect, but he said the department's overall mindset is "much more community-oriented" than in years past.

"It's not going to be something that's won overnight because of the history and some of the things still going on in the LAPD," Basheer said. "The ground troops don't necessarily see it the same as the leadership, but the leadership is setting the foundation. In some areas it's extremely good, in other areas it's not so good."

Though gang crime is down in the city, many experts cautioned that gangs haven't disappeared. They've simply gone underground, stopped committing crimes that are visible to the public, or moved out of the city.

The Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang that taxes and exerts control over many of LA's Latino street gangs, has reportedly become more structured and businesslike over the past decade. David Kennedy, a criminal justice expert at John Jay College in New York City, told VICE News that the powerful gang's "business model" — which prioritizes profits over controlling territory — has helped minimize violence.

"There's a rule that the more organized crime is, the less violent it is," Kennedy said. "There's a perception that when it's violent it's making money and protecting territory, but that couldn't be further from truth… It's bad for business, it brings law enforcement attention, and it disturbs the community."

Jorja Leap, a UCLA professor who researches gangs and criminal justice, told VICE News that, while violence has declined overall, gang members have just become savvier about avoiding the police. The Bloods and the Crips have dissipated into more widespread areas as neighborhoods have gentrified, she said.

"Gang members and gangs altogether have gone underground, pure and simple," Leap said. She noted that social media has allowed gang members to retreat indoors, and that they have become more involved in lucrative illicit activities such as human trafficking. "They have not disappeared but become more knowledgeable."

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The LAPD saw an uptick in violent crime this year for the first time in 12 years. But criminal justice experts said that doesn't necessarily mean the city is becoming unsafe again.

George Tita, a criminologist at University of California, Irvine who has studied LA gangs, told VICE News he hasn't observed a resurgence in longstanding gang "beefs" and rivalries, and that drive-by shootings are far less common than they once were.

"Kids are not hanging out on the streets in the same manor they used to," Tita said. "Homicides haven't gone underground, they simply aren't occurring like they used to."

Kennedy said LA's progress from the aggressive policing of the 1990s to the community policing of the 2000s represents a national change in thinking about how cops can make communities safer.

'The old way said we have gangs, they're violent, therefore what we're going to do is destroy gangs. It didn't work anywhere.'

"The old way said we have gangs, they're violent, therefore what we're going to do is destroy gangs," Kennedy said. "It didn't work anywhere."

Kennedy called LA a "prime example" of a new type of police thinking. Before, police wanted to totally annihilate gangs. Today, the ultimate goal is preventing violence.

"That turns out to be a really big distinction, because it doesn't presume that to stop violence you have to get rid of the gangs," Kennedy said. "It just says if we're able to stop the shooting and killing, we may disapprove of the other things the gangs are doing, but we have won that one important victory."

Those working on the ground in LA, including law enforcement, advocates, and criminologists, said New York, St. Louis, and other cities could learn something from the LAPD's success in bringing down the crime rate while improving community relations.

"Here in LA, we have a very good dialogue with our communities," said Richter, the LAPD spokesman. "It took us awhile to get there, I would say 15 years for us to achieve that, and it hasn't been easy — it's been a very uneasy relationship in some instances."

Bratton also implemented "broken windows" policing in Los Angeles, tasking his department's captains with cleaning up the neighborhoods under the premise that crime festers in neglected areas. The tactic has become a lightning rod for criticism in New York, where opponents say the emphasis on arrests for petty crimes has unfairly targeted minorities and led to increased resentment of police. Bratton did not respond to requests for an interview with VICE News. Quinones, however, said "broken windows" yielded positive results in LA.

"Community policing is part of broken windows policing, where they are looking for small things," Quionones said. "Captains now, especially a captain in a beleaguered neighborhood division, will spend most of his time dealing with issues related to broken windows, marshaling the city's trash collectors or parking or traffic folks to deal with small issues. That's the job now."

In comparing Bratton's legacy to his new role in New York, Kennedy said the commissioner has already created a new position, Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing, to focus on outreach to community groups. Over the past month, the groups held their first face-to-face "gang call-in," with members of violent groups.

"With a small amount of arrests they seem to be making a substantial impact on violence, and that's very much in parallel" to Bratton's time in LA, Kennedy said.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen