“We have a domestic-terrorist problem here – gangs,” Police Chief William Bratton tells 50 officers in Los Angeles’s Rampart section with the urgent conviction of a televangelist, reports Time magazine. A resurgence in gang activity was a main reason that the city’s homicide rate rose 51 percent in three years, making it the U.S. murder capital in 2002 with 658 killings.
Bratton has produced near miraculous results in Boston and in New York City, he presided over a 50% drop in homicides, Time recalls. His techniques – more cops on the street, making individual officers more accountable for offenses in their neighborhoods and shortening the civilian-complaint process – are controversial. As crime went down when cities hired more cops and jailed more suspects, academics disputed the idea that strong policing was the key. “It is still not clear what actually brings crime down,” says Andrew Karmen of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There is a certain contribution the police make, but they are not the only thing.” Says Bratton: “Economics and demographics are influences, not causes. It is a great disservice to the poor to say they lose jobs and so become criminals. The penicillin for dealing with crime is cops. I thought I had already proved this. Criminologists who say it is economics or the weather or some other thing are
Time accompanied L.A. patrol officers, and said, “It was clear the cops were becoming a lot more aggressive, routinely frisking suspected gangsters on the street on the basis of little more than how they were dressed. But the positive effects are rippling through the neighborhood. Stores that used to close at nightfall are starting to stay open later, and the level of fear among ordinary citizens is, at least for now, on the decrease.”
Bratton’s top priority is hiring new officers. “The L.A.P.D. has been historically understaffed, and it puts officers at risk,” he says. New York City has 36,720 officers, 1 for every 218 residents; Los Angeles has 9,320, or 1 for every 429. A request for funds was rejected by the city council, so Bratton has been thinking of launching a ballot initiative in November to appeal directly to voters. To get such a measure passed during California’s fiscal crisis, he will need the public to accept his claim that better policing is the reason for the drop in crime.
Some academic experts are skeptical that the new police efforts will make much difference with gangs in the long run, the New York Times says. “This country has made very little progress against gangs in generations,” said Irving Spergel, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. “We still don’t understand street gangs. They are institutionalized, but very disorganized, and their violence is usually not planned, like when a kid from one gang comes across a kid from another gang in his territory.”
Malcolm W. Klein of the University of Southern California, author of “The American Street Gang,” said Hispanic gangs had been active in Southern California since the 1920’s and black gangs since the late 1940’s, but, “nothing much has been done about them for decades.” Klein said gangs “come in several forms, and what works with one type of gang is counterproductive with others,” the Times reports. Smaller gangs that specialize in selling drugs are susceptible to tactics like undercover buys and court injunctions barring them from certain places. “But for the larger, traditional gangs, if you crack down on them, it only makes them feel stronger and gives them more status,” he said. “That’s why they joined the gang in the first place.”