Politics & Policy

Gang Crackdowns are Effective, Says the L.A. Times

Except when they're not, says the L.A. Times.

Readers of the Los Angeles Times, however many there might remain of them, might be forgiven for being a bit confused as they leafed through the paper over their morning coffee one day last month. On July 18, there appeared this headline on the front page of the California section: “Homicide rates decline in the Southland. LAPD notes a 22% drop and credits an increase in the number of officers on the streets.”

“Well,” the reader might say, “bully for the LAPD. It’s about time we had some good news out of that bunch.”

And if our reader, between slurps at the morning brew, had delved beyond the headline to read the story, written by Times writers Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein, he would have learned that there are 56 people alive today who would not be had crime trends in Los Angeles remained unchanged from the previous year. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even took time out from dealing with his latest sex scandal to comment on the crime numbers, attributing them to the LAPD’s emphasis on gang enforcement. “We targeted the worst gangs in Los Angeles,” the mayor said at a news conference, “and gang homicides are down 29 percent.”

But this is where the reader may have found himself befogged, perhaps to the point of spilling a few drops of that coffee onto his newspaper. Directly beneath the conclusion of the story hailing the achievements of the LAPD’s gang-enforcement efforts was this headline: “Antigang crackdowns are ineffective, report says.”

This story, which was picked up from the Associated Press, begins ominously: “Antigang legislation and police crackdowns are failing so badly that they are strengthening the criminal organizations and making U.S. cities more dangerous, according to a report being released today.” The report identifies Chicago and Los Angeles as two cities that are “losing the war on gangs because they focus on law enforcement but are short on intervention.” Thus, on a single page of the L.A. Times, the reader is informed that the LAPD is simultaneously winning and losing the battle against gang crime.

The report referred to, “Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies,” was published by the Justice Policy Institute, which on its website describes itself as a “non-profit research and public policy organization dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration and promoting effective and just solutions to social problems.” In other words, the Institute endorses the fallacy that the government, through the usurpation of your tax dollars, can reduce crime by compensating for what families cannot or will not provide. The gang problem, they believe, is a failure of government, not of parents. In fact, the role of parents in inculcating a sense of morality in their children gets no mention at all in the entire report. And anyone at all familiar with the risk factors associated with youth crime will tell you that absent fathers are at the very top of the list, yet this is completely ignored in the report’s 104 pages.

One need only note two of the sources cited in the report to get a further sense of its ideological underpinnings. Former student revolutionary Tom Hayden and Marxist author Mike Davis are both cited extensively in the section called “Gangs in Los Angeles,” though they seem to have opposite views on the extent of the city’s gang problem. “Tom Hayden writes [in Street Wars, New Press, 2005] that some 10,000 of Los Angeles’ young people have been killed in gang conflicts over the past two decades,” the report says on page 25.

But on the report’s very next page, Davis is quoted as saying that “as bad as it was, the outbreak of youth violence never came close to resembling the phantasmagoric images portrayed by law enforcement with inflated statistics and supercharged rhetoric.”

The statistics from the ‘90s scarcely needed inflating to inspire dread in the prudent observer: from 1990 through 1997, there were 7,163 murders in Los Angeles, with 1992 recording the highest number of killings in the city’s history with 1,092. With the exception of a three-year upswing early in this decade (which I attribute to poor leadership in the LAPD), the carnage has decreased steadily since that grim year, presumably at least in part due to the efforts of the LAPD. There were 481 murders in the city in 2006, and in the first six months of 2007 there were 187. If the present trend continues, this will be the city’s first year with fewer than 400 murders since 1969.

These numbers are encouraging, but a look at the Los Angeles Times’s Homicide Blog, which tracks every murder in Los Angeles County, may jolt the reader from his sanguinity. Particularly jarring is the accompanying map, which identifies the neighborhoods where the murders are occurring. Only in such untamed hell-holes as Baghdad and Washington, D.C., can be found the horrifying concentration of violent death as occurs in South-Central Los Angeles.

Incredibly, the Justice Policy Institute’s report tries to portray America’s gang problem as cutting equally across all racial lines. “African American and Latino communities bear the cost of failed gang enforcement initiatives,” the report says. “Young men of color are disproportionately identified as gang members and targeted for surveillance, arrest, and incarceration, while whites — who make up a significant share of gang members — rarely show up in accounts of gang enforcement efforts.”

The well-meaning people at the Institute are of course entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. Yes, there are some white gang members in Los Angeles, but of the 245 murder suspects identified in the city in 2006, only 15 were white, while 123 were Hispanic and 97 were black. And, as most murders are intra-racial, homicide victims broke down along nearly identical lines. Blacks and Hispanics are not disproportionately targeted by police, they are disproportionately targeted by each other. (Hispanics make up just under half the city’s population; blacks are about ten percent, according to the 2005 American Community Survey.)

The Justice Policy Institute’s report was of course hailed in a July 19 editorial in the New York Times. “No city has failed to control its street gangs more spectacularly than Los Angeles,” the editorial began, and it went on to euphemize gang members as “children.” Take another look at the map I referred to above. In many of the murders signified by all those little dots, it was “children” who pulled the trigger. What would the Justice Policy Institute have us do with them?

  Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.

Jack Dunphy served with the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 30 years. Now retired from the LAPD, he works as a police officer in a neighboring city. Jack Dunphy is his nom de cyber.

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