If Gang Violence in Los Angeles is a Public Health Problem, What's the Cure?

Published on
September 19, 2009

Although gangs and gang violence have been reconceived in recent years as a public health problem requiring systemic cures---there is far less agreement on what those cures might be. While transforming the community conditions that produce gang violence is the purported goal for policy makers in Los Angeles, there is little consensus about what strategy or group of strategies are best suited to achieve this goal.

In the hope of shedding some light on the issue, I'm working on a series of multi-media stories profiling and analyzing three different approaches to lowering gang violence in Los Angeles. I'll be examining each of the three strategies in a series of stories---each story series employing videos, podcasts, still photos and, of course, written narratives.

NOTE: But I'm just at the beginning stages so, after reading this, if you have any suggestions, corrections, comments, clues, shouts of outrage or words of inspiration....all will be welcomed.


In 1995, epidemiologist, Dr. Gary Slutkin left his research post for the World Health Organization in Africa to return to the U.S. to address the violence epidemic in the U.S. In Chicago, Slutkin developed and implemented a new "epidemiological" strategy for violence reduction by literally interrupting the spread of gang violence on the street as it happened, using street smart intervention workers, fortified with outreach from faith-based and community groups.

The resulting program known as CeaseFire, showed an average of 45% reduction in shootings in the first five neighborhoods in which it was implemented.

Yet, while the drop in violence was dramatic, it was unclear if CeaseFire was creating systemic change and, in 2007, when the program was shut down due to budget cuts, violence shot up almost immediately.

Despite the questions, CeaseFire has become the most fashionable gang violence reduction model in the nation---with a newly designed version launched in Los Angeles in January 2009.

Here's the question: Although LA policy makers committed millions of city dollars to what they called the hardcore intervention approach, critic are wondering if it is more tourniquet, than cure. As in Chicago, LA is allocating few resources to address the conditions that produced gang membership in the first place.

So is LA headed for trouble by putting all it's gang intervention dollars into hard core street intervention Or is merely the logical first step in building a comprehensive and replicatable program.

Using as a partial portal LA "gang intervention trainer," Aquil Basheer, I'll be personally surveying three of these programs over a six month period for signs of their efficacy in terms of violence reduction and community recovery, both short term and systemic.


One of the critics of the CeaseFire approach is Father Greg Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries. Started in 1988, Homeboy is the largest gang intervention program in Los Angeles and arguably the nation. In 2008, Homeboy served 8,000 young men and women from approximately 700 gangs across LA County. Homeboy provides a blanket of services-- employment training, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, anger management, education, plus intensive case management---all within a "community" setting. Recovering from gang life, according to Father Greg, requires that the gang member be able to perceive a new life he might reasonably walk toward, as he walks away from the street. It isn't enough to hector a kid about how he must move out of the darkness. We must offer him or her some light in exchange, which then he or she will eventually bring out to the community at large.

While there are dramatic anecdotal examples of Homeboy having changed lives, critics contend the program hasn't been studied, so its actual cost/benefit efficacy is untested.

However, over a year ago, UCLA gang and youth violence expert, Dr. Jorja Leap, began a five-year longitudinal study of Homeboy---the first of its kind in the nation. Dr. Leap aims to determine whether or not Homeboy's approach really works. Leap will soon complete the first round of results and has agreed to allow the study to be the primary portal through which I'll examine Homeboy's approach.

Homeboy does not offer hard core street intevention. So are they more or less effective than the city's methods? Should they be one more pronge of a multi-prongued approach?


When civil rights lawyer Connie Rice delivered her 106-page gang report to the LA City Council in 2007, one of its primary recommendations was to involve the school system as a key partner in any violence reduction program "because schools are the one institution that has sustained contact with children." Yet to date, that call has gone largely unanswered---with one possible exception.

In 2006, Alain Leroy Locke High School was one of the most troubled and violent of LA's public high schools. Its graduation rates fell below 50 percent. Gangs proliferated. There were on-campus gang-based brawls, the most recent involving 600 students. Any neighborhood parent who could manage, sent their kids elsewhere.

Then in fall of 2007, desperate parents and faculty persuaded the Los Angeles Unified School District board to give the maverick Green Dot Charter Schools operational control of Locke High School. A reconstituted Locke opened a year later.

One of the largest problems facing the Green Dot/Locke staff was the chronic presence of gangs in and around the school. Green Dot's founder, Steve Barr, was determined that the solution was not to simply expel or transfer the school's most at-risk kids, but instead find a way to show that, they too, could help remake their community's future by remaking their own.

So has that come to pass? Can one see evidence of such a change in and around the school? The school itself has measurably improved. But can a school act as a public health catalyst that helps to create conditions that reduce gang violence and begin to heal trauma in both individuals and a community?

I plan to examine this question by drilling down into the Locke transformation and out into the community that surrounds it.

Okay, that's it! Let me know what you think.