The gang problem in Los Angeles is spreading and civil rights attorney Connie Rice is working against time to implement a long-term strategy to reduce the violence. Rice told Fox and Hounds Daily she feels the solution has perhaps two years to get in place and start producing results or she fears the gang problem could spin out of control.
At the request of the Los Angeles City Council, Rice undertook a massive study to determine the effectiveness of the city’s anti-gang efforts. Eighteen months ago she released the “Gang Activity Reduction Strategy Report” done on behalf of the Advancement Project, which Rice co-directs. The report concluded that too many anti-gang programs were scattered under too many different authorities to have any effect. Further, she argued trying to confront the gang problem simply by relying on police force would fail.
“If you look at this as a public disease it would be the same as looking a malaria epidemic and handing out fly swatters,” she said. “If you have a malaria epidemic and you’re in the malaria zone you have to organize your entire ecosystem to fight that disease or it will wipe your population out. “
Well-meaning efforts in the past have not turned the tide against gang violence. For all the time and money spent on the problem in the last thirty years, gangs have not gone away, but in fact, have increased many times, Rice said. Twenty to thirty years ago there were maybe 20-30,000 gangbangers in L.A. County. Today she estimates the number of gang members is 80,000. The current system dealing with gangs has been a “catastrophic failure.”
Since the release of Rice’s report the Los Angeles City Council has moved to bring some of the disparate anti-gang programs together. The city has hired a gang czar. And Rice is now working with the mayor, city council and LAPD Chief William Bratton and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca in an effort to bring a centralized strategy to bear on the problem. She said that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa “has stepped up to the plate” much more than he was willing to two years ago. Rice also gave credit to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for recognizing the problem and bringing in a statewide gang czar.
“What has changed is that the police are saying we cannot arrest our way out of this,” and they are seeking help through a wider strategy. That strategy starts with police efforts on the streets but would be supplemented by programs to deal with comprehensive prevention and intervention with the gang members, plus plans to deal with recidivism, centers and programs for youths, and efforts to transform the gang culture.
Changing the culture seems like a tall order, but Rice believes there is a model to follow. “It’s a public health model, just like they did with smoking. Do you know why smoking ended up plummeting? Because it became unsexy. Make gangs socially unacceptable.”
Rice says, ultimately, this can only happen if youths create a viral movement against gang culture, but they must be helped in that direction. She estimates that perhaps 5% of the gang members carry out most of the violence and that those gangbangers must be locked up. The others can be turned, she says hopefully.
Unlike a lot of civil rights lawyers, Rice does not blame prosecutors for using injunctions to deal with the gang problems if they are “done right.” Injunctions are a tool to try and keep gang members from associating with each other in designated areas of the city, often referred to as “hot zones.” You can’t simply run a gangbanger to a different neighborhood, she says.
“The goal shouldn’t be to keep the kids and the gangs from talking to one another, the goal should be to pull the plug on that gang’s power in that neighborhood. The injunction can be part of that strategy.” However, she notes, injunctions can empower gangs because it shows they are getting attention. ‘We’re so bad,’ the gang says. The strategy requires conducting truce negotiations, peeling away leaders and validating them as individuals but does not validate the gang.
Rice does not shy away from the price tag associated with her strategy. She says there is money that can come from current anti-gang programs, and money that will come with savings as the gang problem diminishes. But, she also would support a tax increase to deal with the problem once a program is put in place.
One other controversial idea she has to fund gang programs is to decriminalize some drugs and tax them. She argues that reducing or eliminating the war on drugs would undermine the criminal cartels that have contacts with L.A. gangs, so, as she puts it, “you are not fueling the monster at our door.”
Rice argues that dealing with the gang problem is part of government’s main responsibility of establishing public safety and if the problem is not reversed it will only get worse spreading to neighborhoods that are not currently infested with gang violence.
Rice believes her strategy will take ten years to substantially reduce gang violence and end the youth gang homicide epidemic and choke hold that the gangs have on hot zones where gangs dominate portions of the city.
From personal observation, Connie Rice works tirelessly on gang troubles. She is way ahead of others in understanding this growing problem to public safety. She has the skills and purpose-of-will to successfully make inroads in dealing with the problem.