No city wants to be the next Los Angeles.
Dubbed the world’s gang capital – a title it has traded with London, Philadelphia and Chicago – L.A. has approximately 250 gangs that count more than 26,000 members.
With 90 gangs and more than 3,800 documented members, San Diego pales in comparison. But gang violence is on the rise here, causing some to worry it might one day challenge L.A for the dubious title.
“It is a reality in every community in San Diego,” said Pastor Harry Cooper, chairman of the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. “The concern does not yet compare to L.A., but if the issue is neglected, and positive, proactive things are not done, it could easily sprawl into something like that.”
Aside from seeking a sense of belonging and status, kids in poorer communities join gangs primarily for safety from violence, gang or otherwise, according to Dana Nurge, an SDSU criminal justice professor who researches gangs. As neighborhood violence spikes, kids are driven to join.
In 2007, San Diego had 24 gang-related homicides, 15 attempted homicides and 222 deadly weapon assaults, up from 13, 10 and 194, respectively the year before.
“In the last year, we’ve seen overall crime go down while gang crime has gone up; everyone’s wondering why and we don’t actually know,” said Nurge.
Neighborhood by neighborhood
Nurge serves as technical adviser to the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, created by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilmember Tony Young last year.
Specifically, its charge is to bring together experts from law enforcement, social services, clergy and the community to examine the local gang issue, research best practices, review policy and make recommendations to the city.
The commission will focus on the five San Diego neighborhoods with the highest rate of gang activity: Mid-City, Linda Vista, Mira Mesa, South Bay and Encanto. Commissioners will form multi-disciplinary teams in those communities to address the specific needs of each neighborhood.
“What we’ve seen work in other cities is taking it neighborhood by neighborhood because each micro-community has its own set of problems and resources,” said Nurge.
With little funding beyond two small grants, and a strategic action plan that has yet to be approved by the city, the commission can already claim a victory. Implementation of its Safe Passages program has created safe zones in middle schools with historically high rates of gang activity and violence.
“Sometimes, I don’t think you need money,” said Benita Page, commissioner and CHOICE program director. “Kids are at school certain times of the day, so you have police cars cruise a tighter circle; you have teachers drink their coffee outside and monitor; you ask the surrounding businesses to stand outside and keep watch.”
Indeed, the commission has succeeded in leveraging existing resources — the knowledge of experienced individuals like Cooper and Page and the CHOICE program, a project of the SDSU Research Foundation.
In its 11th year, the CHOICE program works with San Diego’s at-risk youth – 35 percent already have a felony offense – to get them and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.
Some 15 percent of kids in the program are known to be gang members, either through law enforcement referral or by their own admission. Page estimates another 20 to 30 percent are affiliated through having a relative or friend in a gang.
“With the way things are in some communities, you almost have to associate with a group,” she said. “You may not be able to impact whether people are forming groups, but you can impact whether or not they’re becoming violent. We work with kids to try to get them to find a nonviolent solution.”
Many kids in her program often don’t realize there are options other than the violent, inner-city life they know. For example, Page says many of them have lived in sunny San Diego all their lives, but have never even seen the beach.
AmeriCorps case workers visit the kids daily, helping them connect with resources in their community. Tutoring, job training programs, free hearing and sight screenings at SDSU, college campus visits, recreational outings — case workers create opportunities for these kids to glimpse a life beyond their current circumstances.
So far, 7,500 kids have participated in the program; 800 will go through this year alone. CHOICE has an 80 percent success rate, meaning that those participants didn’t further escalate into the juvenile justice system within six months of coming through the program.
Gangs have been around for thousands of years and they are probably not going to go away any time soon.
But certain cities, like Boston, have found successful strategies to combat gang violence. Cooper, Nurge, Page and their fellow commissioners are eager to implement these vetted tactics to keep San Diego from becoming the next L.A.
“I am hopeful because I’ve seen some things work,” said Nurge. “With the types of programs we’re using now, we can’t eliminate the problem – we’d have to look at our education and healthcare systems as well as labor market issues and rampant inequality – but we can learn from other communities in terms of what works in addressing the problem and we can have some impact.”
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