How 10-year-olds, not cops, spearhead gang prevention in South L.A.

If you want to limit gangs, law enforcement cannot be the driving force of your strategy.

It seems counterintuitive, but it was one of the most important lessons I learned while leading Los Angeles’ Gang Reduction & Youth Development (GRYD) program in South L.A. and other neighborhoods. The police and other law enforcement officials are precisely the wrong people to be working on gang reduction. Los Angeles is fortunate to have a smart and diverse police force, and officers are needed to stop violent and law-breaking gang members from putting the public in danger. But the gang prevention focus needs to be on keeping gang-age young people out of gangs. Too often, the police can provide a common enemy that solidifies the bonds of young people in gangs, and keeps them there.

This insight was not my own—it’s one of the central ideas of legendary gang researcher Malcolm Klein, an emeritus sociologist at USC. In one of my conversations with Mac, he compared the social relations that bring together gangs to the lifelong affection and solidarity that soldiers have for those with whom they served in combat. In countering gangs, it is vital not to put potential gang members under siege or to give them a common enemy; that just fuels their cohesion.

Applying this insight was an enormous departure in L.A. For 30 years, the city handled gangs as primarily a law enforcement matter. In the 1980s, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates declared war on gangs—which Mac’s research showed was counterproductive. Our overcrowded prison system, too, reinforced gangs by segregating prisoners by race and gang affiliation.

But a decade ago, Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided to shift strategies. They figured out that to disrupt the gang phenomenon, you needed to focus on weakening the social ties between gang members and strengthening other kinds of relationships and social ties among gang-age young people.

In 2006, South L.A. was the source of half the gang-related violence in the city. By that year, every category of crime was in decline L.A.-wide—except gang violence, which had increased 16 percent in one year. There had been a series of shootings in Watts at the end of 2006, with nine people killed. On the heels of the violence came a report from attorney Connie Rice and The Advancement Project  and an audit from Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick that deemed the city’s anti-gang approach a failure, creating enormous public attention—and an opportunity to change.

At the time, I had recently completed two years as chief of staff at Sojourners, the Washington, D.C.-based Christian community dedicated to social justice. I’m also an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene. But my expertise and work had been with young people, and figuring out how to engage them during my 17 years at the Bresee Foundation.

Which is why the mayor hired me to develop the new approach to combating gangs that became GRYD. Until then, the city’s anti-gang and youth resources had been spread thinly across 15 Council Districts in Los Angeles like peanut butter. In mid-2008, we won a bruising political battle to consolidate them, taking the money and targeting it in eight zones where rates of violence were four times more than in the rest of the city. Four of these zones were in South L.A.

In summer 2008, we had our first big initiative, Summer Night Lights. We kept certain public parks open late into the night, turned on the lights, and brought in programming that had been designed in consultation with young people, including gang members. Summer Night Lights was, and still is, an immediate hit with young people. It became the linchpin of our efforts to turn public spaces into places where everyone could participate.

We put two-thirds of the money into prevention programs and activities like Summer Night Lights. We spent a lot of time talking to LAPD officers, and suggesting that they focus their attention only on the hardcore gang members who do the shooting, and stop arresting kids who look or walk like gang members.

We also had researchers at USC create an assessment tool to produce data on who might be most likely to become a gang member. The researchers told us we were actually looking for a very small number of people. Even in neighborhoods considered gang-infested, 85 percent of kids will never join a gang; only 15 percent will join, and most will be active for two or fewer years. So how could we identify those few kids who were most at risk to become hardcore gang members, and focus our resources on them?

The research showed that kids are most likely to join gangs between ages 10 to 14, and we came up with 15 primary risk factors to assess that age group for gang membership. If the assessment tool scored them as likely to join a gang, they were eligible to be in the GRYD program.

This was controversial, especially when the assessment tool contradicted what people thought. People might look at a kid whose father and brother were gang members and say, ‘this is a high-risk kid.’ But it turned out that for some kids, having family members who were gang members provided daily reminders of why they didn’t want to be in gangs.

GRYD brought together city agencies to develop plans for high-risk kids that would include improving their school performances and encouraging activities that built strong social relationships. Some of our biggest allies in much of this work turned out to be grandmothers, who worked with their grandchildren, and some of whom also drove the work of the Watts Gang Task Force, a joint effort of law enforcement, communities, and agencies that has made a huge impact on reducing gang violence.

GRYD was just one factor in the decrease in gang violence in South L.A. Gang-related crime was dropping at the time across the country. We don’t understand all of the reasons why, and it’s not clear if previous strategies will work in today’s landscape, where gang violence has shifted to being done online and through human trafficking instead of drug trafficking. But we do know that aggressive assessment of risks and youth development make a difference in keeping kids away from law enforcement—and out of gangs. 

Rev. Jeff Carr led GRYD and served as Chief of Staff under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Most recently he was the interim CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles, a new umbrella organization of seven clubs, three in South L.A.  He recently relocated to Portland, Oregon.

This essay is part of South Los Angeles: Can the Site of America's Worst Modern Riots Save an Entire City?, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and The California Wellness Foundation.

Films: Teen gang members take a page from Anne Frank in ‘Freedom Writers’

“Freedom Writers” opens with a montage of scenes from Long Beach two years after the Los Angeles riots. Images of gang life and the neighborhoods where members stage their brutal rites float on a stream of hip-hop sound.

Into this picture steps an eager but overdressed Erin Gruwell, a depiction of the real-life teacher whose blossoming as an activist provided the emotional catalyst for yet another alchemical performance by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.
“Lovely pearls,” says the head of the English department at Woodrow Wilson High School, where Gruwell has taken a job teaching the freshman students nobody else wants in their classroom.

The film’s first 45 minutes chart Gruwell’s initially fruitless efforts to connect with teenagers hardened by violence. Then, when Gruwell intercepts a racist caricature of one of her African American students making the rounds on a typically frustrating day, she makes a discovery that eventually changes the lives of everyone in Room 203 — including hers.

“You all may think your gangs are pretty tough,” Gruwell says as her self-segregated black, Latino and Cambodian charges glower at one another from the turf each group has staked out for itself in Gruwell’s classroom. “But you’re nothing compared to the most famous gang of all. Who can tell me about the Holocaust?”

Stunned by the silence and blank stares she receives in reply, Gruwell — and, later, the team of students, actors and filmmakers who have brought “Freedom Writers” to the big screen — perceives an important opportunity.

“The kids you see in this film are living in a world this country denies exists,” said Richard LaGravenese, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “Freedom Writers.” “They’re children just trying to survive. That’s why the kids connected to Anne Frank.”

When Gruwell introduces her students to Frank’s diary, they discover a youthful voice describing a violent world with similarities to their own. Empathy and the deep fulfillment of self-expression begin to stir in the students as Gruwell encourages them to record the loss and trauma in their own lives.

Gruwell’s visit with her students to the L.A. Museum of Tolerance is also recounted in a scene shot at the museum, including appearances by real-life Holocaust survivors who regularly volunteer there — Elisabeth Mann, Gloria Ungar, Eddie Ilan and Renee Firestone.

“This is not the story of a white person coming to the rescue of non-whites,” LaGravenese said. “All Erin did was listen, and listening transformed her and the kids.”

In an interview, the real-life Gruwell herself likened her talent as a teacher to a peculiar knack her father brings to his work as a baseball scout.

“My dad doesn’t carry a radar gun when he goes to college games — he can tell a ball’s speed just by watching it,” she said. “I’m kind of like that. Sometimes I can see a student’s ability even before it begins to blossom.”

That skill figures into one of the most affecting moments in “Freedom Writers.”

“The scene in the hall with Hilary and Mario” (the single-name singer is another actor in the film) “is verbatim what happened with me and one of my students,” Gruwell said. “He had given himself an F on a personal evaluation, and I told him that was like giving me a big F— you. ‘I see you,’ I told him, ‘and you are not a failure.'”

The exchange is jarring, not least because it’s the only time the word is used in the film.

“Richard’s original script had 27 F-words,” Gruwell said. “For a PG-13 rating you can only have one F-word. Eventually we were unanimous that there should be only one F-word to get a PG-13 and reach as many kids as we can.”

LaGravenese, whose writing credits include “The Horse Whisperer,” “Beloved” and “The Fisher King,” described his work on “Freedom Writers” as one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life. He also admits it has been among the most grueling.

“I wrote 22 drafts,” he said. “It was tough, because I was adapting the script from diaries. I also got to know Erin and the ‘Freedom Writers’ very well, and I didn’t want to invent.”

Having to direct the Holocaust survivors who met Gruwell’s students and who play themselves in the film was also difficult for LaGravenese.

“I thought it was a beautiful idea — I told them, ‘Just tell your stories.’ But then I had to say ‘cut.’ It was really traumatic,” he said.

Still, that day of filming brought storytelling opportunities that LaGravenese hadn’t expected.

“I was too shy to ask Gloria [Ungar] to reveal her number, then she walked up and offered,” LaGravenese said. “Seeing her show her number to the kids in that scene is one of the most powerful moments in the film for me.”

Since the period of her life depicted in Freedom Writers, Gruwell has taught in the College of Education at Cal State Long Beach. Many of the students she met at Woodrow Wilson followed her to CSULB and are beginning teaching careers of their own. Together they’ve established the “Freedom Writers” Foundation to provide training to teachers who want to replicate Gruwell’s success with at-risk students in their own classrooms.

“We see our activism as a movement to spark education reform,” Gruwell said. “An education system can both liberate and oppress. The only way it can liberate is if we change the idea that there’s only one way to teach children.”

“Reel Talk” with Stephen Farber will be screening “Freedom Writers” Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. Wadsworth Theatre, on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., building 226 Los Angeles. $20.

Mayor Hahn Deserves Another Four Years


There is no doubt that Antonio Villaraigosa is flashy. But Los Angeles has enough movie stars. What our community and our city need is a mayor of accomplishment and whose values are in line with ours.

We should especially appreciate Mayor James Hahn’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish community. His efforts have resulted in maximum police protection for synagogues and Jewish community centers during the High Holidays. His administration also launched a citywide campaign against hate crimes and hate language, and he’s partnered with the Museum of Tolerance in programs, for example, that offer training in resisting racial profiling.

In addition, he’s participated in economic development initiatives and cultural and educational programs in conjunction with the mayor of Tel Aviv. Mayor Hahn’s city budget, through Cultural Affairs, supports the Jewish Federation’s Zimmer Children’s Museum. And city funds also assist the Aviva Center’s work to help at-risk teenage girls.

But our community also has benefited, along with the rest of the city, from Mayor Hahn’s work to make Los Angeles the nation’s safest city.

He chaired the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Aviation Security Task Force after the attacks of Sept. 11 to lead the fight for safer airports and aircraft.

Before Mayor Hahn, the LAPD was shrinking, reforms to stamp out racial profiling were stalled, community policing was being eliminated and crime was on the rise. Mayor Hahn dismantled that status quo, and with the help of the police chief he hired, Bill Bratton, more officers are on the street, reforms are under way, community policing is a cornerstone of the LAPD and violent crime is down this year by 27 percent.

But our city is still facing challenges, and Mayor Hahn will not rest on the successes of the last four years. He is developing an unprecedented citywide gang injunction to make every part of Los Angeles off limits to gangs, and he has never slowed his constant battle to hire more police officers.

I trust Mayor Hahn to keep up the pressure on criminals. I do not trust Antonio Villaraigosa.

Then-City Attorney Hahn pioneered the use of gang injunctions, now a crime-fighting tool that’s being used nationwide. At the same time, Antonio Villaraigosa was suing in court to stop gang injunctions.

City Attorney Hahn helped draft the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act to bring some of the toughest crackdowns on gangs California has seen. Antonio Villaraigosa was one of just 10 votes against that law.

Time and time again, Antonio Villaraigosa has acted against crime victims and for criminals — like when he was the only vote out of 63 against a bill to toughen penalties against child abusers who kill a child.

It may be a cliché, but there is nothing more true than the fact that our children are our future. I trust Jim Hahn to turn around our schools, just as he turned around the Police Department. Our kids deserve an educational system that prepares them for success, and one that ensures the future peace and prosperity of our city.

Jim Hahn has already led the fastest-ever expansion of city after-school programs, giving more than 20,000 kids a safe place to learn after school, when they may otherwise be out on the streets and getting into trouble. And his office has provided assistance to the school district on 60 of its school construction projects, because classroom overcrowding so negatively impacts classroom learning and the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

Now, he is fighting to appoint members to the school board, establish charter schools and provide incentives for teachers to make sure the best ones come and stay in Los Angeles public schools, where they are sorely needed.

Antonio Villaraigosa is saying that he will be the “education mayor,” but in light of his failure to attend even one meeting of the City Council Education Committee he sits on this year, I question his commitment.

Although Antonio Villaraigosa takes credit for state school bonds voters passed in 1997, the reality is that, because of his mismanagement, it took a lawsuit by Los Angeles parents before our city started receiving its fair share of the bond money, which is now helping to build schools all over the city. Before the lawsuit, Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the nation, stood to receive as little as 1 percent of the bond’s funding for construction of new schools.

I trust Mayor Hahn to move our city forward. He’s proven over his tenure as the city controller, city attorney and as mayor that he does what he says he’s going to do, and he brings results.

He’s always acted in the interests of the people, regardless of the political consequences. Hiring a new chief for the LAPD cost him thousands and thousands of votes — but it also prevented thousands and thousands of people from becoming crime victims.

Jim Hahn is a man of faith. He is a man of integrity and he is a man who delivers results for our community and the entire city. For our own good, we should vote to give him another four years.

Carmen Warschaw is a longtime Democratic Party leader, philanthropist and community activist.