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L.A.'s anti-gang initiatives working; Gang killings drop sharply

By Joel Rubin and Duke Helfand
The Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Gang-related killings in Los Angeles declined dramatically in 2007 as the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies waged an intensive campaign against some of the city's most violent street toughs, officials announced Thursday.

Ismael Davalos, a Florence 13 gang member, gets a pat down from Los Angeles County Sheriff gang detective Adam Torres in the Florence- Firestone neighborhood in Los Angeles County, Nov. 2007. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
The dip in gang homicides was part of an overall reduction in serious crime in the city.

The LAPD recorded 216 gang-related deaths in 2007. Although that figure accounted for more than half of all homicides citywide, it was a 27% drop from the year before.

The decline was most pronounced in the Valley: Twenty-nine gang-related killings in 2007 represented a 40% drop from the number recorded in 2006.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton credited a gang counteroffensive launched in early 2007 after the LAPD recorded an increase in gang crime the year before.

Last February, officials took the unusual -- and controversial -- step of identifying what they called the city's 11 most dangerous gangs and targeted them with teams of police, federal agents, probation officers and prosecutors.

Then in April, Villaraigosa announced that the LAPD and city would step up policing and intervention programs in eight "gang reduction zones" in South L.A., on the Eastside and in the northeast Valley and other areas hit by gang violence.

"One year ago, Chief Bratton and I pledged to stop the bleeding, to stop the rise in gang violence, and we did," Villaraigosa said at a North Hills news conference, where he and Bratton were flanked by about two dozen officials, including City Council members, U.S. Atty. Thomas O'Brien and Salvador Hernandez, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles division.

But criminologists and gang experts cautioned against declaring victory.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice applauded the decline but said any celebration should be tempered by what she called a continued epidemic of gang violence stretching through whole swaths of the city.

"We have to break the norm of gang culture in hot zones. The ranks keep refilling," said Rice, director of the Advancement Project, which called on the city last year to invest $1 billion in a comprehensive mix of prevention programs. "The mistake is looking through the lens of crime fighting. You cannot arrest your way out of this problem."

Others cautioned against relying too heavily on one year of data, saying gang violence ebbs and flows in cycles.

"Gangs respond to suppression efforts, no doubt about it. But does that solve the problem? Absolutely not," said Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn. "Without bringing in social programs behind that, you'll just shift the problem elsewhere or hold it off for a few months."

Villaraigosa and Bratton emphasized the need for gang intervention and education programs but said those efforts can be successful only when combined with a strong police presence.

Along with the drop in homicides, overall gang-related crimes were down nearly 4%.

Copyright 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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