Earlier this year, Witnessla and Spot.Us collaborated on our first joint project under the banner of The LA Justice Report.
The resulting two-part investigation was called Follow the Gang Money, and was reported and written by Matt Fleischer and is below. It examined how the city of Los Angeles spends its $26 million per year in gang violence reduction dollars.
Just to recap: LA’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, or GRYD, as it is called, has mapped out the city’s most troubled communities into 12 zones. Inside those 12 GRYD zones, the city’s gang strategies are divided into two categories: Prevention and Intervention. Prevention tries to keep high-risk kids out of gangs. Intervention, in the most general sense, deals with those who are already in gangs. In LA right now, the intervention side of GRYD consists primarily of a form of pro-active peacemaking that attempts to interrupt individual cycles of violence and retribution by literally going into the street to talk to the participants.
Those of you who read the two Follow the Gang Money stories know that, in both cases, we were critical of GRYD.
Yet, over and above the criticism, we want to support the fact that LA is committed to having a rigorous gang strategy and that significant strides have been taken since 2008 when the city’s fractured and ineffective LA Bridges program was disbanded in favor of a single entity housed in the mayor’s office, the now more than two-year old GRYD initiative.
With the positive strides taken in mind, we offer Part 3 of the Follow the Gang Money series:
To arrive at these suggestions we spoke to approximately 20 different experts in the field, both national and LA-based. Some of those interviewed were academics and researchers such as:
• Louis Tuthill, social science analyst for the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice)
• Thomas Abt, Chief of Staff of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs
• Dr. Jorja Leap from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs
• Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice from the Advancement Project
• Dr. Barry Krisberg from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice
• Dr. Denise Herz, of Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.
Just as many were practitioner/experts working on the ground, including people such as:
• Blinky Rodriguez from Communities in Schools
• Aquil Basheer from the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI)
• Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries
• Hector Verdugo from Homeboy Industries
• Guillermo Cespedes. Director of LA’s GRYD program
All of the LA based people I spoke with—those within the GRYD structure and those outside it—unmistakably care very much about healing the violence afflicted communities in our complicated city—even if they might occasionally disagree about what path we ought to take to get there.
It is in that spirit that WitnessLA and the LA Justice Report offers our list of recommendations:
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? 6 SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING FORWARD
1. RIGOROUS EVALUATIONS ARE ESSENTIAL TO ANY SUCCESSFUL GANG PROGRAM
One of the things that the mayor promised when he allowed GRYD to come under his roof was that the city’s new gang programs would be evaluated from Day 1.
The thinking was that, this way the new GRYD programs would be evidence based. We would know what was working and what was not. It wouldn’t be like the bad old days of LA Bridges when no one had any idea if any of the programs receiving big bucks from the city were doing any appreciable good.
Yet despite all the promises, the GRYD office did not follow their own dictums. Evaluators were eventually hired, but they were not brought in at the planning stages. This error led to a year’s worth of wasted time, money and opportunities when data was either not gathered properly or not gathered at all. [All of this is outlined in Part 1.]
“The purpose of a real evaluation,” said Dr. Jorja Leap, “is to determine how to make a program better and what is not working and should be eliminated. As a research evaluator I’m saddened by the loss of opportunity missed to do a real evaluation, and that is one of the things I’d most like to see changed.”
Jim Mercy of the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention agreed: “Good data helps cities to change their plans so that they get better results.”
There are signs that the city is taking seriously the need to revamp its evaluation strategy. Most notable is the fact that the GRYD office has retained Dr. Denise Herz, which was a great move. Herz is loaded with experience and is knows what needs to be done.
“We need a model that is informed by best practices and then evaluated to see if it works,” she told me on the topic of evaluations. “That way everyone is held accountable.”
She pointed out that the public is unlikely to support additional investments in the city’s gang strategies “unless they can see some quantified results”—in other words, solid and ongoing evaluations.
Let us hope that Dr. Herz will be allowed to make sure such evaluations are launched quickly and correctly.
2. GANG MEMBERS NEED VIABLE ALTERNATIVES TO LIFE ON THE STREET
GRYD’s intervention programs have, to date, primarily consisted of what is described as hard core street intervention—a kind of “proactive peacemaking” in which former gang members and others with street clout in various communities reach out to gangs to broker peace treaties and stem retributive gang violence.
No one can argue that saving lives and diverting violence is a worthy goal. In addition, the GRYD office has worked to professionalize hard-core street intervention by creating an intervention training academy called Lavita.
Monday morning, I attended the second Lavita graduation (the pictures from which are posted here). It was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement the 29 graduates felt at the ceremony. As we watched them pose over and over for photographs with their diplomas, Connie Rice pointed out that some of these men and women have never before graduated from anything in their lives.
Yet, , even at its best, violence interruption is a tourniquet to stop the bleeding temporarily so that, hopefully, the underlying condition may be treated. It is a single puzzle piece in a very large and complex puzzle. Every study done on the matter piece of research and every prominent researcher tells us that violence interruption alone (AKA hard core street intervention)—without some kind of services offered as an alternative to gang involvement—(job training and placement, mental health services, reentry programs, community support, etc. etc.) does not lead to a sustained drop in crime nor does it lead to healthier communities.
Gangs are not nation states that, in addition to warring with an enemy, build roads, schools, electric grids and hospitals. Neither are they equivalent to armed separatists and/or guerilla fighters who engage in violence to achieve a political end. Thus if young men and women are to walk away from violence, they must have something other than gang life that is visible to them to walk toward.
Thomas Abt was unequivocal when he described to me earlier this week what the programs that have been proven effective in lowering gang violence in a community have in common. Abt is Chief of Staff of the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs and has, as he describes it, the 10,000 mile view of the programs that have been implemented across the nation.
“The programs that work are comprehensive and multidisciplinary.” Under multidisciplinary he ticked off the same elements I have listed above, jobs, mental health services, et al.) “And they have to involve the community.” [We’ll get back to the community piece in a minute.]
Dr. Barry Krisberg of Berkeley said it more plainly. “Overall, street outreach has failed. The research is very clear.”
Connie Rice strongly favors hardcore street intervention. But when we had lunch last week, she also agreed that the other components are needed. “Reentry has to be a part of the model,” she said. “You can’t do prevention and intervention work in a hot zone without reentry”—reentry being the wrap around services of jobs, housing, mental health counseling and the rest of the list.
The question is: how does the city get such additional programs up and running on its limited resources?
Collaboration with existing programs is one part of that answer. Organized community involvement is another.
3. THE COMMUNITY MUST BE ACTIVELY ENGAGED
One of the widely acknowledged success stories of GRYD programs is the six-week end of summer program known as Summer Night Lights.
SNL keeps parks open after dark, employs up to 100 high risk youth at each park, and has a slew of activities and programs, plus lots of free food. Guillermo Cespedes, GRYD’s director—otherwise known as LA’s gang czar— was the original architect of the SNL and says that the first of the SNL programs was born out of extensive meetings with the community. Then when it expanded into rest of the 12 GRYD zones, and was in 24 parks, each time it was with community input, involvement and, therefore emotional buy in.
“I don’t think of SNL as a model,” Cespedes says, “I think of it as a way of thinking. It taps into the problem solving method of the community. You have to provide resources and leadership. “ And the involvement and of the community makes those resources have impact well beyond the sum of their parts.
Hector Verdugo of Homeboy Industries articulated much the same sentiment. Verdugo is a former gang heavyweight who grew up in Ramona Gardens, one of the city’s toughest housing projects—and among the highly successful sites for Summer Night Lights.
“Summer Night Lights doesn’t just involve the community,” he said, “It helps build community. People suddenly come out of their houses for the movie nights, the video games, the little kids getting their faces painted—and it’s beautiful to see. And it changes how the community thinks.”
SNL should be expanded.
However it is still only a six-week program. (Although Cespedes would like to add additional weeks during the holidays.) The challenge is for the prevention and intervention sides of the GRYD programs to similarly engage and involve the various community groups and stakeholders in each GRYD zone.
Cespedes is very much a fan of community involvement. When I asked him recently what he would do if GRYD was suddenly handed an extra $20 million, he named the programs that would be first on his list, like a jobs program and a program that specifically target at girls and women “I think Father Boyle has it right when he says ‘Nothing Stops A bullet like a job.’” Cespedes said.
But they would all need community involvement, he said. “The community organizing piece would still have to come first.”
4. THIS IS A PROBLEM THAT REQUIRES ALL HANDS ON DECK
When it began in 2008, in an effort to standardize and professionalize its programs and to create replicable “models,” GRYD became very exclusive, working only with its contract agencies. While this was perhaps a well-intentioned effort to guard against the higgledy-piggledy disorder of LA Bridges, as is often the case in such matters, in attempting to correct one wrong, it created another larger one.
Instead of finding ways to partner with and build upon, some of the nation’s most valuable and proven gang intervention and prevention resources, which fortunately happen to be located in Los Angeles, GRYD instead excluded them totally. The most high profile of these exclusions is, of course, Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, which provides the kind of wrap-around services that GRYD most notably lacks.
But Homeboy is far from the only such exclusion. Aquil Basheer’s Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), which does intervention training all over the country, yet is deeply embedded in LA’s communities, is another perplexing example. But there are more.
It is time—way past time, really— to find a practical way to turn that early exclusiveness into inclusiveness.
Simply put: We cannot afford to have the city’s officially sanctioned programs siloed off from some of LA’s best resources. Addressing gang violence and healing our endangered communities requires all hands on deck. Connie Rice’s excellent Advancement Project report (which everyone involved in this work ought to reread, by the way) made that clear many times over. And all of those interviewed for this story acknowledged it.
Yes, there are limited dollar resources. But if all are brought to the table to work toward the same goal of partnerships, cooperation and inclusiveness, a plan can be found. Exclusiveness means we get less bang for our buck. Reinventing the wheel is inefficient. Collaboration is one of the best ways to stretch resources.
5. IF GANGS ARE A PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM, IT’S TIME TO WALK THAT TALK
“I look at gangs as a symptom,” Cal State LA’s research expert (and GRYD’s new evaluation guru) Denise Herz told me.
That same view was repeatedly expressed at The California Wellness Foundation’s Conference on Violence Prevention held this past October: at it’s heart gang violence is a public health problem not a crime problem.
The Advancement Project’s 2006 report, A Call to Action: A Case for a Comprehensive Solution to LA’s Gang Violence Epidemic, (generally considered LA’s bible when it comes to gang violence reduction analysis) documented the public health perspective all through its 131 pages.
For instance, there is this from its executive summary:
City approaches must stop focusing on isolated, tiny programs that address less than five percent of the problem and must begin to confront the size and scope of the gang problem.
City approaches must address the conditions in neighborhoods and the unmet
needs of children that allow gangs to take root, flourish, and expand.
The strategies must focus on the ecology of neighborhood violence using
the public health and healing, child development, job development and
community development models that address the major underlying drivers
of violence and gang proliferation.
Father Greg Boyle has been communicating various versions of this message for nearly 25 years.
When tens of thousands of LA’s children worry that they cannot walk safely to school, and as many as one third of LAUSD’s middle schoolers in high crime areas suffer from equal or higher levels of PTSD–-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—than soldiers returning from Iraq, that’s a public health problem.
Add to that the fact that every month thousands of guys and women—many of them gang members or former gang members— are paroled from prison on to LA’s streets with many of the pathways to a positive future blocked to them, and the fact that most coming out of prison and/or gangs are dealing with high levels of emotional scarring you have a public health problem that provides fertile soil for future gangs to grow.
“That’s why the programs that have worked come out of a public health model,” says Berkeley’s Barry Krisberg. “Kids often join gangs because they’re scared and feel unsafe. Gangs provide protection.”
GRYD has made a valuable structural start by taking the time to map out the city’s highest need communities with its 12 GRYD zones, so that in this era of chronically limited resources we are putting our efforts into the neighborhoods most critically affected.
Ideally, we’d have $500 million to aggressively address the health of our communities. But we have 5 percent of the needed amount.
So we will need to be creative.
Aquil Basheer pointed out that if community needs are prioritized after consulting with the community members themselves, then methods can be found to begin to address those needs. Kids can’t walk safely to school? Do what one small community in Boyle Heights has done with their Camino Seguro/Safe Passage program:
Twice every school day, 70 mother volunteers in bright green T-shirts and jackets emerge from their homes and offices to help children walk to and from school safely.
Such programs can be inexpensively expanded and replicated, said Basheer. “We are invited into cities elsewhere in the country to give what we call Community Survival Training,” he said, adding that one community victory breeds others. “When you give people some level of self sufficiency, they’ll get out there and find solutions you’ve never thought of.”
Blinky Rodriguez, whose Communities in Schools is a GRYD provider for hard core street intervention, offered his own example. “When we organized the mothers in Pacoima to march against gang violence, pretty soon we had the men coming out too. And before that, the men had never come out for anything. Now it’s evolving into a mentoring program.”
Surprisingly, none of Blinky Rodriguez’s community organizing is part of his GRYD contract.
“But it should be,” says Basheer. “Because the best of what Blinky does can and made replicable for other communities.”
6. THE GRYD OFFICE MUST PROVIDE LEADERSHIP TO COORDINATE STAKEHOLDERS AND FOSTER PARTNERSHIPS
So how do we make all of the above happen given the available resources and the existing GYRD structure? Leadership is required and the GRYD office is in an ideal position to provide it. It has the clout and the manpower.
Yet it need not do it alone.
“I would put together the best brains we have and talk about where GRYD goes from here and how we should get there,” says Connie Rice.
“Leadership,” agreed Father Greg. “All this requires good leadership.”
It’s the next step.
Is the city pouring its gang dollars into a strategy that won’t work?
by Matthew Fleischer
Jose Leon remembers the first time he saw a shootout in the streets of his Boyle Heights neighborhood. “I was 5 years old and staying at my uncle’s place. I looked out the window and saw this guy running down the middle of the street, shooting. I got scared.”
A squat, powerful man with a shaved head, tattoos peeking out of his sleeves and eyes that read much older than his 21 years, Jose’s life in Boyle Heights got, if anything, more traumatic as the years passed until it read like a blueprint for gang membership by the time he was an adolescent.
“I had aunts and uncles who used to slang [sell drugs]. They were from the old neighborhood—Soto Street.”
As Jose got older, the shootings in his neighborhood became a routine part of his day, and fear of street life turned to fascination. He joined a tagging crew when he was 11 and joined a full-fledged street gang shortly thereafter. He was stabbed at age 14 when a rival crew ambushed him at Roosevelt High School.
“I got stuck in the stomach,” he says. “Spent a few days in the hospital.”
When Jose graduated from Roosevelt in 2006, he thought about getting out of gang life. But he was unsure how to replace the camaraderie and the income, frankly, that the gang world provided. He tried to find a job, but with no luck: By that time, Jose had a criminal record and no one wanted to take the risk in hiring him.
So he continued to sell drugs to get by when things were lean.
Then, two years ago, Jose saw a road out when he began working with Johnny Godines, a local gang intervention worker with the East LA nonprofit Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA). Jose had met Godines back in high school. He was an old-timer who had turned his life around and was now helping kids in the schools and on the streets. Godines knew the game, knew all Jose was going through, and had kept an eye out for him. But more importantly, he was a friend and mentor who constantly reminded Jose there were better things in life than what gangs had to offer.
“Johnny and me had some really good conversations. He said things that made me start thinking about me.”
Nearly eight months ago, thanks to his relationship with Godines, Jose landed a job in SEA’s human resources department. Now he works 8:30 to 5 to support his infant son and says he has no desire to return to gang life. By all accounts, Jose’s is a true gang-intervention success story—the kind that the city would seemingly want to see replicated with other troubled youth across the city.
But even though SEA is the largest organization within the Gang Reduction and Youth Development network (it runs one-third of the GRYD’s 12 neighborhood zones) stories like Jose’s are rare within the city-run program. Therapy, education, tattoo removal, and especially job training and placement—the kinds of things that are essential in helping gang members to leave the life for good—are not the priorities of the roughly $7 million intervention side of the $26 million program. (GRYD also has a prevention component [see Part 1 of this series].) Instead, the city’s intervention focus is on something called “proactive peacemaking,” otherwise known as hardcore street intervention.
GRYD’s intervention model is based on Chicago’s “CeaseFire” program, and it works like this: Local men and women–often former gang members who still have clout on the streets–are assigned to the GRYD neighborhood zone they are most familiar with, and instructed to sniff out threats of retributive violence between gang members and to try to broker truces between rival gangs. Intervention workers serve as both liaisons between gangs—a reliable means of transmitting messages between rivals—and information sources for the Los Angeles Police Department, with whom they have weekly meetings and are supposed to contact if a violent showdown seems imminent.
GRYD has codified this method of intervention by investing $200,000 per year in the Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy (LAVITA), which is attempting to train and professionalize street intervention workers and standardize their approach in the field.
“Our mission is not to break up a gang,” says Susan Lee, the Advancement Project’s director of urban peace, who oversees LAVITA. “Our mission is to reduce violence. We are about peacemaking.”
Advancement Project co-director and civil rights attorney Connie Rice explains the mission in more detail: “Hardcore police suppression has not reduced gang influence in our city. Gangs saturate the physical spaces of our neighborhoods: parks, schools, hospitals. We’ve let this problem get to the point where we need people with the street credibility to negotiate with gangs. Police can’t do it. Academics can’t do it. Politicians can’t do it. I can’t do it. These guys can.”
LAPD agrees, and though initially skeptical of street interventionists, they have come around to viewing these men and women as a useful component of violence reduction. “Without question we call on these guys,” says Northeast LAPD Captain Bill Murphy. “It’s my experience they know what’s going on and they provide options for how to deal with various situations. You can’t just arrest your way out of a problem.”
But while the idea of training former gang members to roam their old stomping grounds and talk their homies into forgoing violence has an undeniable narrative sexiness, and the backing of the LAPD, it’s an open question whether this strategy actually has a measurable impact. There is much evidence to suggest that, absent other services and active community involvement, “proactive peacemaking” produces no long-term effect, and in certain instances can even make things worse. In a 2010 RAND study of Pittsburgh’s GRYD-like street intervention program, RAND researcher Jeremy Wilson theorizes “that the presence of outreach workers increased the cohesion of gangs, making some groups more organized, in turn leading to increased violence.”
The real $26 million question facing Los Angeles is why are we basing a gang-reduction strategy on a model that has no proven long-term results?
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIFE?
On a hot, muggy day in mid-May, Father Greg Boyle enters the front door of Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles to find several hundred current and former gang members staring him in the face.
“Happy birthday,” the entire room yells in unison before launching into song—once in English and once in Spanish.
Boyle professes surprise, but the secret birthday party has become an annual rite of spring at Homeboy Industries, America’s largest gang-intervention program. Boyle’s efforts have helped thousands of kids escape gang life and have earned him a national reputation. This year, however, while cake is passed around and conversation flows, there’s somber reality lying just beneath the surface of the celebratory mood. Virtually all of its more than 427 employees have just been laid off, and the future of the program is in serious doubt. News of Homeboy’s financial troubles have gone national—yet the program is nowhere near to raising the $5 million it needs to continue to run its programs. Its fate, and the fate of all those celebrating, is a giant question mark.
The potential catastrophic cuts in Homeboy’s services come at an especially crucial time since, with unemployment still in double digits, former gang members needing jobs are coming to them for help in greater numbers than ever. Homeboy, as well as organizations like the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, practice a different type of intervention from the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development network—a services-based model that focuses on turning gang members into productive members of society instead of the tourniquet approach of asking gang members not to shoot at each other.
“We don’t deal with gangs, we deal with gang members,” says Boyle.
The logic behind the approach is similar to the CIA’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist organizations—although Boyle certainly wouldn’t put it in those terms. Instead of dealing with the gangs themselves, Homeboy serves gang members, plus men and women freshly out of prison and on parole, who want to turn their lives around. There are tens of thousands in each category, 12,000 of whom walk through the doors of Homeboy Industries every year looking to reinvent their lives.
Homeboy Industries offers various types of job training and placement programs. Its solar panel installation training program in partnership with East L.A. Skills Center has a long waiting list. Homeboy also has its own businesses, which employ 150 to 200 former gang members: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Maintenance and the Homegirl Café. In addition, the program offers tattoo removal, GED prep, computer training, substance abuse counseling, legal advice, reentry services for parolees and juvenile probationers, comprehensive mental health and family counseling.
In other words, Homeboy Industries offers the basic services that a gang member most needs to send his or her life in a productive direction.
Boyle admits he is not a big fan of the hardcore street intervention method. Before developing Homeboy, Boyle says he practiced street intervention for nearly a decade, brokering truces, racing late at night between warring gangs to calm violent situations, chasing down individual kids who he knew were at risk of shooting. But by the mid-1990s he concluded that it was not an effective strategy. He also says sending in former gang members to do street intervention keeps them bound to the gang milieu.
“You wouldn’t send a recovering alcoholic into a bar to recruit for AA,” says Boyle. “It’s the same principle here. People have to want to leave this life behind.”
But is there evidence that the services-based model works any better?
As it turns out, there is. Homeboy Industries reports a 70 percent retention rate, which is quite high given that 30 percent is considered good among program evaluators. (Alcoholics Anonymous has a 10 percent retention rate.)“And out of the 30 percent who drop out [of the Homeboy programs],” says Mona Hobson, Homeboy’s director of development, 10 percent to 15 percent return “when they’re ready to embrace the program.”
Homeboy’s individual programs show similarly upbeat results. For instance, Liz Miller of the University of California, Davis, studied 502 clients of Homeboy’s Mental Health Education and Treatment Assistance Service, and found a dive in “depressive symptoms” from 64 percent to 26 percent during a three-month period.
Now Homeboy is being evaluated even more rigorously. UCLA researchers are two years into a five-year longitudinal study of the program’s effectiveness. The research regarding Homeboy’s success in transforming its clients’ mental and behavioral health isn’t final, but lead researcher Jorja Leap, an adjunct associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Social Welfare, says: “Homeboy is off the chart at stemming the tide of reincarceration. Simply in terms of cost effectiveness, services at Homeboy cost about $40,000 per person per year. It costs upward of $120,000 a year to put a person through the criminal justice system. And the preliminary evaluation outcomes [at Homeboy] are remarkable.”
Homeboy isn’t the only model in Los Angeles that has shown proven results. Leap also spent two years evaluating the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), run by longtime interventionist Aquil Basheer, who’s been doing this type of work since 1969, and found promising results. Basheer’s training methods yielded a 95 percent retention rate.
Interestingly, unlike Homeboy, Basheer’s model incorporates hardcore street intervention into its services-based approach. “I applaud the city and anyone out there trying to save lives,” says Basheer. “But if gang intervention is an octopus, hardcore street intervention is just one tentacle.”
More important, he says, is community intervention. “If we’re not empowering, and putting systems in place for communities to provide for themselves, then we aren’t accomplishing anything. We want to put systems in place where we can eventually pull back from a community and have them take care of things on their own.”
PCITI has a job development program, it runs food drives, and it organizes community crisis centers where residents can speak to one another and get updates about neighborhood violence.
Connie Rice agrees that such strategies are critical to solving the gang problem in Los Angeles. But, she argues, there aren’t enough resources for their widespread implementation. Instead, building the intervention infrastructure to save lives and stem the tide of violence is the natural place to begin.
“There are 1,000 gangs in this city. You can’t develop these exit-ramp type programs in a war zone. The first stage of a wrap-around strategy is suppression. The real question is why aren’t we talking about a $100 million program. Why are we spending as much on an alligator enclosure at the zoo as we are on gang intervention?”
But Basheer argues that money is less of an issue than priorities: “I’d estimate we have about an eighth of the resources of your average GRYD provider and we’re able to get the job done.”
IF LA’S STREET INTERVENTION IS THE TOURNIQUET, WHAT IS THE CURE?
The need for job training and more service-based intervention within the Gang Reduction and Youth Development network isn’t a secret among the city’s street-intervention providers. City Controller Wendy Greuel’s June audit of GRYD mentioned providers openly complaining about not having the resources to provide reentry services to those recently released from California prisons. But that’s not all. During an interview with Soledad Enrichment Action’s intervention director, Tony Zepeda, Johnny Godines comes in the room, unaware a reporter is present. (Godines is the intervention worker who helped turn around Jose Leon’s life.) He says to Zepeda loudly, “We need to get more job training programs started.”
Asked to expand on his statement, Godines says, “If you give a kid a job, he’ll take it instead of selling dope.”
Other experienced interventionists in the GRYD network say the same thing. Leon Gallet, director of the Community Build intervention program in the Baldwin Village GRYD zone, says job development is absolutely critical to ending gang violence. Gang members have to support themselves somehow. But a job is only part of the service-based work that needs to be done.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to get these guys ready for a job,” he says. “You can’t just bring them in off the street and put them in a 9-to-5.”
Gallet explained that gang members often need to be reintroduced to standard social norms like showing up on time, not cursing at work, dressing properly, calling in when they’re sick, and not solving work conflicts with threats and fists. Many need anger-management and conflict-resolution skills, he says, so they don’t snap at co-workers during stressful times.
They also frequently need help with a place of residence. “A lot of gang members are homeless,” adds Gallet. “They’re not counted as homeless because they bounce between family and other gang members. But the lack of home is what often keeps these guys in the life.”
All of the above is what a services-based program attempts to provide, and GRYD makes a gesture in that direction. Community Build has enrolled 54 gang-affiliated men and women for “case management.” But other than weekly “life skills” classes and some limited mental health and family counseling, the two GRYD-paid case managers mostly refer clients to whatever county agencies might be appropriate or to other, non-GRYD-funded organizations, like Homeboy Industries, which provide the services the city has not deemed a priority.
“I could get the crime stats down with more resources,” Gallet says. “There’s about six guys in every neighborhood that cause most of the trouble. You work on two or three of them, get them enrolled in services and the violence starts to go down.”
Gallet doesn’t discount the notion of street intervention. It’s a valuable recruiting tool for the services, he argues. And Gallet says GRYD is making progress in coming around to services-based intervention. Under GRYD’s direction, Community Build has added mental health counseling to its repertoire of intervention services.
But when asked about the Homeboy service model and job development efforts, Gallet says, “We’d love to have something like that down here.”
…AND ANOTHER $120,000 VANISHES
These philosophical arguments about the merits of hardcore street intervention versus a services-based approach would be less important if there were hard evidence that Gang Reduction and Youth Development’s street philosophy was measurably changing the health and well being of the communities it serves. Unfortunately, as with the prevention side of GRYD, such evaluations, while repeatedly promised, have not materialized despite the $525,000 spent so far on assessments. Moreover, as with GRYD’s prevention programs, a perplexing level of bureaucratic bungling torpedoed what evaluation might have taken place.
According to Terry Dunworth, the lead GRYD researcher at the Urban Institute (UI), virtually all the statistics gathered by intervention providers on their gang clients—information on the volume and frequency of services provided, as well as on the growth and setbacks of clients and their families—lacked informed consent, meaning the gang members who received GRYD intervention services did not sign off on allowing a third party like the UI to study information compiled about them. Informed consent is federally mandated for studies like the kind UI was hired to implement, says Dunworth. Despite the fact that GRYD spent nearly $120,000 for intervention data collection last year—in addition to the money spent on the UI study—the Urban Institute is legally unable to evaluate this information, rendering it worthless. “The UI board wouldn’t allow us to review this information even if we wanted to,” Dunworth explains.
The reasons for the lack of informed consent are many. Intervention providers have refused to ask gang members to sign off on allowing outsiders to view their information because they fear the request could break the hard-earned trust they have built in the streets. Gang members want help, the argument goes, they don’t want to be studied—a concern Dunworth views as legitimate.
Leap acknowledges these issue are very tricky. It took nearly nine months to resolve the issue of informed consent in her study of Homeboy Industries. But Leap and others insist it can be done.
“In my experience,” Leap says, “some gang members don’t want to be tape recorded. But other than that, I’ve had no problems in recruiting gang members to participate in research studies.”
Leap mentions a three-year evaluation she’s conducting on the Weingart Foundation-funded Street Ambassador intervention program serving South Los Angeles, run by the Unity Collaborative. “The Unity Collaborative does a tremendous job. If the providers don’t turn over their data on a monthly basis,” she says, “they don’t get their check. I have never had a problem collecting data from them.”
Last spring, an intervention task force that included the UI, GRYD and various intervention providers was assembled to resolve the data-collecting issue—but the group disbanded after just one meeting, and has yet to be reconstituted.
“[Participating in a task force] wasn’t in the providers’ contracts,” says GRYD Director Guillermo Cespedes. “We recognized the problem, and a working group will be put together in the new contract year.”
In the meantime, the plan is to gauge GRYD’s intervention efforts primarily on crime stats in the GRYD zones. But even this analysis has not been completed, because the LAPD only recently turned over its detailed crimes statistics to the Urban Institute—stats that break down crime trends on a block-by-block basis and account for things like increased police deployment in certain neighborhoods. Without these variables accounted for, it’s impossible to tell whether drops in crime are attributable to gang intervention or increased police presence in certain neighborhoods, or if they are simply in keeping with larger state and national crime trends.
And even so, explains Leap, crime stats tell only part of the story. They don’t show how many gang members have left the life, like Jose, or whether middle school kids feel safer on their way to school.
“Crime stats alone have no validity in measuring community health,” says Leap. “They are a black-and-white photograph, instead of a 3-D movie.”
A similar principle arguably holds true for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s popular Summer Night Lights program, which he routinely likes to boast has single-handedly dropped crime in GRYD zones by double-digit percentages—although no such direct correlation has been proven. Furthermore, as wonderful as it is to open up neighborhood parks for extended hours and to add a list of new activities during those hours to keep kids busy and off the street, Summer Night Lights only exists for six weeks in the summer—hardly what one could call a comprehensive gang program for a complex metropolis the size of Los Angeles.
Cespedes counters that Summer Night Lights isn’t simply a device to keep potential gang members busy, it’s a recruiting tool. “We have intervention and prevention workers at these events, speaking to community and getting to know gang members.”
But, again, recruiting for what? If the city doesn’t make wrap-around services available, what are young men and women being recruited to? The idea of services-based intervention is to provide an alternative to the street. Without such programs, especially in today’s jobless economy, where are those recruited supposed to go? What does the city hope they will do?
THE FIRE NEXT TIME
While Los Angeles hasn’t yet worked out a methodology to evaluate its own intervention approach, a string of studies of other urban gang programs in Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh suggest that LA—the nation’s gang capital—may not be on the right track.
As mentioned earlier, a RAND study of Pittsburgh’s street intervention program, based on a model similar to GRYD, revealed the program to be ineffective. (Crime actually went up in the intervention zones.)
An audit of Chicago’s CeaseFire program by the state of Illinois showed that gang violence dropped just as much, if not more, in zones that didn’t receive hardcore street intervention.
In smaller pilot programs elsewhere in the country, where street intervention is combined with other, more comprehensive services, plus active community involvement, the results are more promising.
But that’s not what GRYD is doing.
So then why is the city putting nearly all of its gang-intervention dollars into a model that, over the long term, has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective when it is not accompanied by services that provide positive alternatives?
“Quantifying this kind of work isn’t easy,” says GRYD Director Cespedes. “How do you compile a statistic for a violent incident that was averted? We’re still struggling to figure that out. But I’m out on the streets every day, and I see this program working to defuse tensions and save lives. I don’t see how anyone can argue with us trying to stop people from being killed.”
Yes, of course. And if you have a wildfire you need to send in the smoke jumpers. But they can’t do it by themselves. Without a broad network of support, it’s only a matter of time before the fire spreads beyond their control.
Are LA’s Gang Prevention Strategies Excluding the Kids Who Most Need Our Help?
by Matthew Fleischer
On a hot day in early May, nearly 200 gang-reduction experts under the umbrella of the city of Los Angeles’ Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, or GRYD, gathered in the LA City Council chambers to fight for their jobs. There were too many intervention workers, some of them former gang members with extravagant tattoos and shaved heads, to cram into the rows of seats in the City Council chambers, so they spilled into the hallways instead, greeting each other fondly and chatting nervously about their fates. With the city facing a $212 million budget shortfall, the City Council was looking to do some serious fiscal trimming, and GRYD’s $26 million in operating funds were slated for the shears.
As the council meeting came to order and the public comment period began, these men and women stepped to the microphone at the center front of the chambers and told stories of bullets whizzing, children dying and the great risks they took in their daily lives to keep their communities safe. In between their testimonies, a sprinkling of tweedy academic types from the administrative ranks of these same gang-reduction programs came forward to bolster the street workers’ pleas with facts and figures.
No money should be slashed from GRYD, each of them said, in one impassioned way or another. Despite its budget woes, this is one program cut Los Angeles cannot afford.
“We’re saving lives,” was the common refrain.
Last to speak, and most eloquent, was civil rights attorney and gang intervention expert Connie Rice, whose 2007 Advancement Project report, “A Call to Action,” was part of what triggered the formation of GRYD in the first place. More recently, Rice and her Advancement Project have been tapped to run the city’s Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy (LAVITA)—which is attempting to train and professionalize gang intervention workers. “We are celebrating low crime, but in the hot zones, kids still dodge bullets,” said Rice. “These [gang workers] are the people who keep the kids safe. The GRYD office is absolutely essential. We just spent $7 million for a reptile enclosure. I’m happy for Reggie [the alligator], but we need to save our kids first.”
Although some of the city council members fully intended to snip GRYD’s funds, Rice made her pitch with the knowledge that the program enjoys the unequivocal backing of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Ever since his school reform efforts sputtered and stalled, Villaraigosa has taken to GRYD as his new flagship policy effort. He routinely touts it as “among the most innovative in the U.S.,” and has the habit of making lofty claims about GRYD’s impact: “The program has reclaimed our city for our citizens.”
Within days of the City Council hearing, the mayor, Connie Rice and the rest of the GRYD network got their way: GRYD would receive full funding for another year, which in 2009-10 amounted to $26 million, $18.5 million of which came directly from LA’s general fund. In the following weeks, virtually every other program in the city would be cut amid LA’s budget crunch—the library system, city attorney’s office and even the LAPD’s counterterrorism task force among them. GRYD was among the few allowed to remain intact.
It was a major political victory for Villaraigosa and Gang Reduction and Youth Development.
The mayor reacted to the news with a celebratory tweet: “Our GRYD programs WORK—gang crime is way down and more kids have a way out of the gang life.”
A two-month investigation by the LA Justice Report, however, has revealed that the mayor and the City Council’s confidence in GRYD’s central programs isn’t grounded in quantifiable facts. In truth, no one knows if, how well or how poorly GRYD is working—not the mayor, not the police, not GRYD itself.
Power and accountability have been consolidated in the mayor’s office, but there is still no way of determining whether the program is effective. And there are many indications that methodological errors have been made that have cost—and continue to cost—the city millions of dollars.
A recent audit by LA City Controller Wendy Greuel stated that, after nearly two years, GRYD, much like LA Bridges, still has no adequate evaluation of its effectiveness, or lack thereof—despite the city’s spending $525,000 (with another $375,000 soon to be paid out) for an assessment report from the Urban Institute (UI).
“We had years of a feel-good program under LA Bridges,” Greuel says. “Now we’ve spent more than $500,000 on a tool to see what’s working, but we still don’t have that yet.
“Transparency is the biggest problem we face.”
But while Greuel placed most of the blame on the irritatingly secretive assessment conducted by the UI, the Justice Report found the real failings to be not with the UI researchers’ evaluation of the GRYD programs, but with the programs themselves. Though it took weeks and multiple California Public Records Act requests, we acquired a copy of the UI’s 60-page evaluation and found it most revealing. After speaking with the UI head evaluator and two independent evaluation experts, we have learned that UI had a perfectly acceptable methodology in place. GRYD, however, has been hampered by serious bureaucratic blunders, prime among them poorly negotiated contracts that resulted in the loss of a year of data.
But beyond pure evaluation and data-collection screw-ups—of which there have been plenty—the Justice Report discovered gang prevention programs that may be systematically excluding many of the kids that most need their help and intervention programs that are based on a model that has little or no proven success. Further, the programs may fail to emphasize the most basic services that have been shown to help the men and women in LA’s most violent, troubled neighborhoods leave gang life behind.
As with many city and county problems, the situation is complex, so bear with us. Policy analysis can be wonky at times. But this is no academic exercise. LA is the gang capital of America, and the stakes of the gang-reduction debate are measured in blood.
THE BACK STORY
So what is Gang Reduction and Youth Development, and how does it work?
GRYD was born in 2008 after an audit by then City Controller Laura Chick, who, along with Rice’s Advancement Project report, pointed out that GRYD’s predecessor, LA Bridges, was a bureaucratic mess in which money was doled out to politically favored programs in each council district with no central authority, no means of evaluating the various programs’ efficacy, little transparency and no accountability about how the millions flowing out of the city’s coffers were being spent. To remedy this, Chick and Rice recommended that all the city’s gang money be moved under a single roof.
The city took Chick’s advice, and the program was consolidated under the exclusive control of the mayor’s office. LA Bridges was scrapped and GRYD replaced it.
Officially begun in the summer of 2008, GRYD operates from the premise that not all gang life is created equal in Los Angeles. Some neighborhoods are far more dangerous than others. (In other words, Larchmont and Brentwood don’t need lots of gang reduction services.) So GRYD focuses its resources in 12 zones that have been judged to be extraordinarily gang intensive: 77th Division, Baldwin Village/Southwest, Boyle Heights/Hollenbeck, Cypress Park/Northeast, Florence-Graham/77th, Newton, Pacoima/Foothill, Panorama City/Mission, Ramona Gardens/Hollenbeck, Rampart, Southwest, and Watts/Southeast.
So far so good. Maximizing this city’s slim resources by focusing on LA’s hottest zones is a wise strategy that may be marked as one of GRYD’s true accomplishments.
Within those zones, programs are further divided into two categories: prevention and intervention. Accordingly, each of these zones is served by gang prevention and gang intervention agencies.
Gang prevention efforts are just that. They are aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds who are at high risk of joining a gang but who haven’t yet taken that plunge. Prevention programs work to steer those kids in a positive direction.
Gang intervention targets teenagers and young adults who are already in gangs, strongly associated with gangs, or in tagging crews, and offers them help in leaving violence behind through services such as job training, mentoring and counseling. Intervention, especially as the city defines it, also means “proactive peacemaking”—reaching out to gangs to broker peace treaties and stem retributive gang violence.
In addition, GRYD also includes the mayor’s popular Summer Night Lights program, which keeps neighborhood parks open well past normal hours, and provides activities to keep kids out of trouble. The program also serves as a recruiting tool to help make contact with troubled kids and funnel them into the appropriate prevention or intervention program.
Classically, gang-violence reduction is divided into three categories: prevention, intervention and suppression—law enforcement. Politicians, gang workers and police have come to agree that all three elements are needed to address the complex problem of gang violence. Police can put out fires, but—as Sheriff Lee Baca and LAPD chiefs Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck have repeatedly pointed out—arrests alone won’t end gang violence. Without programs that address the sociological side of the issue, a new generation of alienated youth will always spring up to pick up where their parents, siblings, cousins and friends left off.
But despite the importance attached to the notion of gang-reduction work, figuring out what actually makes a measurable change in gang-afflicted communities isn’t easy. Like LA Bridges, plenty of well-intentioned but ineffective programs have come and gone throughout the country. But assessing any of these programs’ on-the-ground success requires the systematic analysis of an intricate array of variables.
For instance, Mayor Villaraigosa likes to point out that crime is down by 10.7 percent in GRYD zones over the past year. But without rigorous comparisons to nationwide and/or statewide crime trends (both of which have also taken a big dive) and microspecific information about whether more police were deployed to those same areas, it’s impossible to say what led to the crime decrease.
Real assessment, the kind that can’t be spun to suit political needs, is essential—without it, the mayor’s stat is nothing more than a political talking point and millions of dollars are being spent in the dark.
THE PREVENTION MODEL—AND THE PROBLEM
With this problem in mind, the prevention side of GRYD’s program has been the focus of a concerted effort to standardize its methods into an effective model that can later be replicated. To do so, all of the GRYD’s 12 contracted prevention agencies
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