An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 19: Solutions

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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The most fruitful strategies for dealing with gangs are those which emphasize prevention and intervention instead of suppression and enforcement–on this most social scientists and criminologists agree (Goldstein and Huffl993) (Conley 1993) (Winfree, Mays & Vigil-Backstrom 1994) (Father Boyle l996).

The fortress mentality doesn’t work. In l992, just two hours before New York’s Mayor Dinkins was to address a high school student body, another student shot and killed two classmates. At the time of the shootings, there were seventeen police officers in the building not to mention other security personnel and measures taken especially since the mayor was on the grounds! (Shields 1993:8)

Neither stepped up police surveillance nor short-term incarceration does much good. If anything, incarceration gives the individual prestige among peers. The publicity that gang violence generates satisfies the adolescent hunger for recognition. “Kids like to have their names in the paper, even if someone is killed…” said one youngster to the Boston Globe. Others boast about the things they have done and like to portray themselves as public enemy number one. Ironically, treating gangs like public enemies may encourage gang membership because of the widespread publicity and notoriety furnished by that sort of reaction.

The gang phenomenon, according to both the liberal apologists and anti-gang activists, is a by-product of moral breakdown in the community. While the apologists tell us that it is the conditions that drive young people to crime, not all youths from these conditions join gangs–a much overlooked, but salient point to remember. As a mater of fact, the majority do not affiliate with gangs, and only some 4 to 10 % do.

Thus, prosecution must be directed at the crime, not the social group. A war on gangs hurts the working poor who live in the neighborhood and are humiliated and harassed by it. Furthermore, it arouses people’s outrage and further prejudices society against them.

Of course, issues of race cannot be ignored in looking for solutions to the gang problem. Clearly, difficult conditions are relegated to certain races and not others in our society.

If “tough on crime” measures fail, perhaps society’s resources must be realigned in a way that respects the humanity of all people, and that addresses the inequities that give rise to violence. Until society realizes that every child has value and that every child can succeed, the youth in the lower socio economic areas will continue to be a lost resource. The first step, then, becomes one of supporting young people who are trying (the other 90 plus percent who live in these destructive environments).

Probably most important is acknowledging that individual moral responsibility is a necessary pre-condition to the resolution of the gang problem. Some of the parents do not themselves have the moral wherewithal to instruct their children away from gang membership (See Why Join and Criminal Behavior).


Perhaps teens who don’t want to be in school should not be there. Why not have schools for those who want to learn? Those who want to be in gangs need to be dealt with differently, but not in our schools where they poison the well for everyone else.

Schools for youths who want to learn might also dry up the sources of recruitment for gangs. School ranks high among those who instill young people with contempt for education if schools are irrelevant and unchanallenging. School is also where we learn what constitutes a “book-worm.” Clearly, young people’s attitudes are subsidized after school as well and in the community, on MTV and even in department stores that have made not only gang attire “trendy,” but have recently made the “junkie” look popular too. Hence, between videos, rap feuding, songs about the drug culture, bad boy entertainment, and gang clothing, kids are inundated with the opposite value system of that which the mainstream society purportedly would have them learn.

Along this line of thinking, at a Kansas City gang summit the recommendation that African-American parents develop their own separate school system actually garnered support according to Ralph Reiland, Prof. at Robert Morris College. Reiland maintains that the African American Community at large is too focused on what injustives have been or are currently being done to them. He attacks the “It’s not fair” mentality, and charges that it has made people contemptuous of business. Hence, he recommends capitalism for Black America. Reiland would create hope through capitalism by opening stores, generating jobs, and supplying examples of success (Reiland 1994). This may not be bad advice for the Latino community as well, a community that has also wallowed in vicitimization moaning about repression for much too long.

While the schools try to draw the students, and while the parents advocate education, anti-intellectualism is often unintentionally fostered at home as well as throughout the society. Frequently in the lower socio-economic household, there is a good deal of animosity towards college graduates who are unable to assemble a push broom down at the plant where mom and dad work–overlooking, of course, the fact that with education, one doesn’t have to deal with push brooms very often if at all!. Latino college people are berated and described as individuals who act like big-shots, know it-alls, who are “agabachado” and trying to be Anglo-like. In addition, it is also not “cool” to be studious.

Other forms of anti-intellectualism are more subtle, although prevalent throughout the society. They are expressed by sports heroes — many of whom behave like hoodlums themselves –i.e. the wife beaters, drug abusers, etc. Instead, “cool” is cutting classes and not doing homework.

Health professionals working with mental disorders have suggested a mandate for special education programs to find methods of teaching and counseling antisocial students (Lewis 1992). If a special environment for peer approval and recognition is needed, something that offers identity and status, perhaps it should be separate from the classroom environment of those students who want to go to school to learn and behave normally.


CHICAGO: From the Chicago suburb of Cicero, one of the more resourceful strategies to stem the spread of gang-related violence, grew out of an Illinois law that allowed officials to treat street gangs as unincorporated associations. Thus, officials filed suit against 14 street gangs with the intent of recovering nearly $200,000 that had been spent by the city on cleaning up graffiti and related vandalism committed by gangs. (Ponessa 1993: 18-19)

CALIFORNIA: One pilot program brought “at risk” youths to the morgue so that they might be disinclined to join gangs (Ponessa, 1993).

PROJECT SUPPORT: LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) A prevention program directed at elementary students in six inner city schools, included drug/gang policy awareness, drug and gang prevention education, racial and cultural sensitivity development, after school alternative programs, tutoring and mentoring, community service opportunities for kids, career awareness instruction, and parent education. Many programs go under (as was the case with this one) because of delays in both funding and budgetary approvals for subcontracts providing services to the various schools (Slovak 1993). Programs like this can be greatly assisted by parents who might contribute a bit of time and energy for free. After all, it might very well be they who need the programs most for their own youngsters, themselves, or their neighborhood.

THE PACT PROGRAM: In this program (PACT) Parents and Children Together aimed at early intervention by increasing parental responsibility, involvement, commitment, and awareness. The program insisted that the nucleus of the problem centered in family background and social characteristics and that these predisposed a youth to gang membership. These tactics work well “before” a youth joins a gang, but they are not a good “after” approach. Once adolescents are in gangs, different strategies are needed. Most research indicates the need for building juvenile self-esteem (Sloan l993).

INTERVENTIONS: Other intervention strategies have a few characteristics in common. Most suggest targeting which adolescents are most vulnerable. The also advise early peer counseling and support group session. Conflict resolution programs seem to work well. Establishing tutoring schedules permits young people to experience success in school for a change. This, in turn, empowers young people and boosts self-esteem. Other interventions provide moral and ethical counseling. Some have values clarification sessions. All struggle to make the targeted youths feel appreciated and valued. Most try to bring parents, extended family, and any significant others into the plan and try to get them as far away as possible from the influence of gang youths not enrolled in the school.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA: The Anaheim City Council appointed an ad hoc task force and initiated project Save-A-Youth which was a partnership between city, YMCA, Parks & Recreation, and parents. It blended individual counseling with crisis intervention and education programs for parents and youths. A distinctive feature of this undertaking was the “street school” which offered genuine encouragement and gave drop-outs an opportunity to really do something about returning to mainstream classrooms (Willis Kistler: 1988,46).

Programs die out after a while primarily because the principal players move, burn out, or are unsupported by the rest of the community. Funding, of course, is a tremendous problem although many programs have continued long after funds ran dry supported only by the donated time and efforts of those die-hards who remain interested in rescuing the communities’ neglected children.

DARE. Los Angeles (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in l983 the Los Angeles Police Department along with the Los Angeles Unified School District developed the DARE program for adolescents in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades. The objective was to assist youths in foiling peer pressure by saying “No” to alcohol and other drugs. DARE has had its successes as well as its failures, and has been used as a preventative model across the country. However, it oversimplies. It certainly underestimates the complexities of the task involved in just saying “no,” which would probably get a youth’s nose bloodied at the very least, if not utterly smashed beyond repair even by the most masterful reconstructive surgeons. The ethos of the streets calls for a far more circuitous technique than to simply blurt out “No.” (See student essays under “Non-Gang Affiliated: Essay excerpts” and under”Why join? How do Non gang Affiliated Survive: More Case Study Essays” to see how young people manage to live in these neighborhoods without affiliating or using).

JEOPARDY: Los Angeles. Many of the troubled teens these days are sincerely looking for alternatives to gang activity. Frequently, however, there is no other way out of the abject rejection, poverty, and disdain they face from day to day. Hence, in l988 LAPPD established “Jeopardy” designed to redirect young people at high risk. It addressed adolescents who fell into the “wanna be” category and other peripherals including younger siblings of gang members. School officials, parents and community organizations or businesses, seeks to balance the odds that youths in a gang dominated neighborhood will join a gang.

CHURCHES AND CITIZENS GROUPS: These groups are doing a great deal in prevention as well as in the area of intervention. Some of the citizens groups have come up with the most creative and colorful solutions yet. Clearly, there is no single solution to the gang problem because not only are there individual differences to deal with, but also regional and geographical differences too.

TACOMA, WASHINGTON: When the number of gang members in the Tacoma, Washington area surpassed 500 known gang members, the community took the “war” approach consisting of the following measures: gang members were not allowed to liter or to sit on the hoods of their cars; they were stopped if they were drinking beer in public, if they were driving without seat belts, and for even slight infractions as part of a general harassment approach. Police saturated the area if they heard of a planned gang event. The community and even the military began to exchange information about gang activities. This kind of mobilization sends the message that gangs are not welcome. Meetings and briefings with local parents and team commanders were held frequently. The DARE program approach was implemented as well.

PRIDE (Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education) was developed at the prompting of Congressman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as part of the Coalition For A Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati which, according to some, could be a model for anti-drug activity anywhere in the country (Forbes, 1996). The group involves parents, religious and business leaders from the community, and the media, all of whom use forums of various types to drive the anti-drug message home. The underlying premise in this program is a good one: everyone must get involved because–”If you want a drug-free community, you must begin with the areas you personally can control–your homes, streets, neighborhoods, and schools,” according to Walter Williams, a specialist in community anti-drug efforts (Forbes 1996).

COMMUNITY BASED POLICING A new style of policing, criticized by some as soft on crime, but praised by others, is the old-fashioned concept of a police officer on a beat who gets to know the merchants and folks in the neighborhood. There are various types of patrols in place in “Community Based Policing;” for example, officers on horse back, on bikes, and on foot beats work throughout an area. Generally, such programs have Police Advisory Boards composed of community residents who work with the Captain of that area or with the “Senior Lead Officer” as they are sometimes called. Because these are area Captains, their purpose is to achieve a territorial imperative for each area. (McDonald 1996)

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS: The Douglas Center, an unofficially neutral zone, with coach Walter Smith and his teams has been successful in an area that is about 75 to 85% gang affiliated youths. In the midst of this, Walter Smith has diligently plodded along giving the gangs tremendous competition (Orr 1995:28). The Walter Smith teams played football, basketball, etc. It made no difference if a teen was a Vice Lord or a Gangster Disciple. A youth could go to the Center and play ball for a while, so long as no one caused any trouble. A no nonsense attitude from coach Smith made that point all too clear. Traveling was one of the most memorable parts of being on one of Coach Smith’s teams. And camping at the end of their season was another much appreciated perk. The program was funded, although very marginally, by the Park District as well as by private collections and fund raising drives.

Champaign Community Policing Units have been successful in the area as well.

CRASH: In the early l970′s, CRASH was a specially trained police unit taking the traditional approach of waging war on the gang problem. The approach means putting a lot of gang members in jail thereby creating enormous pressure on their very existence. Hindsight has confirmed that this approach hardly makes a dent. Today, Gates and Jackson, who helped establish the l970′s effort, themselves support multiple strategies. While the presence of police at every turn does drive the dope dealers from the streets and frightens off a few gang members and other unsavory characters for the time being, the long term effects are negligible. Nevertheless, Los Angeles resurrects CRASH units from time to time whether or not they function productively in the long run.

AURORA GANG INTERVENTION UNIT — This unit’s underlying approach is to let gangs know they are being identified. Thus, if a gang commits a crime, they are going to get caught–that’s the word out on the street (Barrow 1991). Actually, this is the purpose behind a number of community outreach programs. They meet with parents and merchants and form a coalition; a viable method of reporting crime or any suspicious activity is devised. The Aurora Gang Intervention Unit sought to get a grasp of the real problem and get away from the fascination with gangs that is distracting us from the “need to develop effective coordinated strategies for preventing and combating crime” (Clay & Aquila, 1994: 68) The fascination referred to here is the sensational such as how may gang members a girl has to have sex with in order to join. Instead Clay and Aquila advocate treating gangs as a symptom of underlying community problems, not as the problem in and of themselves.

MENTORING PROGRAMS: Part of the frustration experienced by adolescents who join gangs is that their academic skills are usually way below par. Thus, mentoring programs — peer tutoring – kids helping other kids, is one inexpensive way of serving youngsters and helping them raise their confidence in themselves.

GREAT (Gang Reporting Evaluation and Tracking) is a computerized information resource of gang activity that runs on a software program called Prime Information from Prime Computer Inc. of Natick, Mass. GREAT targeted 5th and 6th graders at Fort Lewis, Washington according to an article, “Fort Lewis Says No.” Here the DARE program focused on “gateway drugs” tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, with GREAT, on the other hand, addressing crime, violence and teaching youths how to resist pressures to join gangs. Military police administered the program which greatly added to the credibility of lectures on firearms (SFC Douglas Ide 1995).

COMMUNITY RECREATION: There is no way the police or community recreation center can compete with the sense of belonging that the gang subculture offers. It certainly cannot replace the money to be had by selling drugs with the gang either (McBride & Jackson 1989:31). Technological tools like GREAT help, but here again the effort is to stamp out, intervene and arrest. The real solutions lie outside the realm of the police–in the community, and primarily in the home. “Kids need alternative to gangs and some positive adult leadership,” as well as a place to “hang out” said Dick Tillson a CYA official (California Youth Authority). Principals, parents and teens must all take part in prevention programs.

Instead of spending on prevention, schools are spending on metal detectors and school safety plans. Richard Katz, Assembly Democrat from Sylmar in Los Angeles County is the author of a bill to set up metal detectors in most Los Angeles schools. Dan Lungren would close the school so students could not leave during the day for lunch; he would also have us increase security guards, discouraging outsiders from loitering near the school. (Barber 1993)

Politicians, law enforcement and school administrators are targeting younger children nowadays, teaching them self-esteem and communication skills as well as where to get help. Focusing on student behavior is far more productive than targeting style of clothing (Hethhorn 1994) or using “get tough” approaches.

Although suppression is the strategy most frequently used, it generally fails in reducing or in controlling juvenile crime, if used by itself with no intervention or follow up program. (tape # 258-93 Pannell)

SPECIAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS AND MENTAL HEALTH: According to Beverly Lewis, a mandate for special education programs and mental health professionals is warranted in dealing with the gang problem considering the dimensions to which it has grown. The need is to uncover methods of teaching and counseling antisocial students. She notes that the number of gang members who present problems in a community would certainly meet clinical criteria for identification as “conduct disordered.” Thus, the problem is seen as a treatment issue here (Lewis 1992)–an interesting and no so far-fetched idea.

MENTAL PROGRAMS HEALTH PROFESSIONALS: Belitz and Valdea claim there is very little literature with clinical information on the “assessment and treatment of Chicano gang-involved youth.” They advocate addressing family and cultural identity factors. Mental health professionals are needed to work with and to advocate for the needs of Chicano Gang involved young people in both mental health and correctional settings. (1994)

A SUMMARY OF TYPES OF PROGRAMS: Strategies with differing degrees of success include community mobilization using a number of resources from the area, social intervention which involves counseling and tutoring and a number of other assists, providing opportunities within the community such as job assistance and recreational programs, and suppression–the “war” model (Silverman: 1994) Basically, most strategies are an adaptation of one of these basic approaches.

Although there is little empirical data available, a pattern emerges indicating that successful programs have the following things in common:

  1. Many sponsors both public and private
  2. Involvement of police and community service agencies
  3. Reaching out to at-risk youths
  4. Providing a variety of services such as counseling, positive life experiences and goals (See Silverman l994).

WAYS OUT OF A GANG: One of the best ways out of the gang is to have “an ol’lady and a kid.” In the current study, males with both were left alone and not expected to participate in many gang activities. Others seem to outgrow the gang by age 24, 25 or so. Those who continue membership in such groups beyond their adolescent years are generally thought to have made the transition from being gang members to being what might be called independent criminals with gang affiliations (Berland, Homlish and Blotcky 1989:39)

Others find it very difficult to leave or to be left alone. Two youths in the current study reported having brothers who moved away from the area completely in order to get out. Those who want to exit often find jobs and simply fade away into the work world. Those who are not employable in any capacity because of long police records do not do so well. Others find themselves constantly pulled back by the gang and unable to exit. Getting out is not as easy as getting in for many.

But a pattern that emerges in the current study over and over again is that most gang members will outgrow their gang involvement, provided of course they live that long.

A small percentage of hardcore members will go on to adult prison gangs — i.e. Nuestra Familia –but most move into some range on a broad spectrum of adult life. Research shows that young people often leave the gang because of the influence of a girl friend, parent or other adult (Spergel 1990:100). There simply comes a time when the gang member is ready to move on. Of course, the best solution is to get to the pee-wees and end recruitment- nipping the problem at the bud.

Actually, the prognosis for gang members is better than for other criminal defendants, because many will simply outgrow their criminality particularly if they get any kind of job skills, remedial education and emotional support along the way providing them with self-esteem, or with someone who cares about them (often a girlfriend fits the bill).

Imprisonment inevitably leads to prison gang membership. The California Youth Authority estimates that four out of every five inmates become affiliated with a gang. (Haddock & Ginsburg At A 1, Col 2A-14, Col 2)

PUNISH THE PARENTS: California has not yet gone so far as have authorities in some states (Burrell 1990). In one Arkansas town, an ordinance was passed permitting the jailing and public humiliation of parents whose children violated curfew…” (Burrell 1990). Thus one solution is to have consequences for parents (when there are parents visible). Getting the message out that gangs create problems for parents of adolescents may make gang membership less appealing (and may especially be useful in a Latino community where the family is still somewhat important). Arresting gang leaders doesn’t do much good. But drying up the sources of recruitment is toxic to the perpetuation of the gang. The long-term survival of a youth gang, depends on its ability to attract new members (Decker & Van Winkle p.170)

AVOID A CRITICAL MASS: Something other than the threat of expulsion is needed. Thrasher recommended providing an atmosphere of excitement and thrills through camping, mountain climbing, canoeing, etc. Corny as it may seem, in the current study some of the best loved teachers mentioned by the gang members were those who had taken them camping in the early grades (Kindergarten through 6th).

CYGS (Community Youth Gang Services) offers direct services to neighborhoods awarding actual intervention and mediation of gang conflict, providing preventive educational programs, setting up partnerships with community groups and businesses aimed at reducing gang activity and even furnishing employment programs.

Funding for this kind of work is, of course, an ongoing problem. The rest of society certainly doesn’t want to pay for it. Sometimes because Latino and Black gang activity is largely directed at their own ethnic groups within their own neighborhoods, the rest of the society presumes that they need not concern themselves. However, our system of governments maintains that all residents of the U. S. are entitled to protection regardless of color and ethnicity. History demonstrates that all “… criminal groups in the U. S., whatever their ethnic origin, eventually extend their corrupting tentacles to the larger community as they seek more power, influence and money” (U.S. Senate 1991:5 quoted in Karen A. Joe: 1995:8). Gangs, therefore, are decisively everyone’s problems.

DE-EMPHASIZE THE NEGATIVE, ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE: The current L. A. Police Chief, Williams, has said repeatedly during a number of public appearances that what we have done the last 20 years has not worked. He adds that children long for someone to accept them, love and praise them. They need approval. Police Chief Williams suggests that we tell them that they will achieve, and not that they will fail.


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