Last week’s police shooting of an unarmed alleged gang member in Anaheim sparked protests, fires, rock-throwing, arrests, and a potential FBI investigation. Our sister city to the south, best known for baseball, hockey, and Disneyland, is being torn apart.
Here in Los Angeles, we’re certainly no stranger to tension between local communities and law enforcement (see: MacArthur Park, 2007; South Los Angeles, 1992; Watts 1965), but things have been getting better. Crime has plummeted in recent years, and relations between the police and the public—especially in minority communities—are warmer than they have been in decades. The Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater L.A.’s Community Safety Scorecard, which measures neighborhood safety, gives a picture of where we are today. Below are some things that have worked here and could help Anaheim.
Redefine the “Gang Problem”
Los Angeles is where modern gang culture was born, bred, and exported, but it is also where innovative solutions are being practiced and proven. Many community-based programs are getting good results by treating violence as a public health issue, a disease that can be prevented. Rather than blaming young people for poor choices, these programs instead focus on the factors that push young people into gang life in the first place. The City’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development takes a comprehensive, family-based approach to reducing gang violence. GRYD’s Summer Night Lights program, for instance, gives young people a place to play sports and socialize safely by keeping parks open with programming into the evenings during summer, a time when violence tends to escalate.
Get Police to Work With—Not Against—Communities
Both Police Chief Beck and Sheriff Baca emphasize that arrest and incarceration are not the answers to stopping youth violence. Law enforcement, they recognize, is most effective when it is seen as a partner with community. Some officials in Anaheim seem to get that: Ironically, the city was applauded in a 2009 report by the US Department of Justice for its community policing efforts. But they obviously have a long way to go, as seen by the department’s strong-arm response to the community uprising after the initial shooting. In contrast, current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has created the first community policing unit that will promote officers based on how they help families prevent kids from being arrested in the first place. Leadership in law enforcement makes a difference, setting a tone for the entire department, and promoting a culture that works with, instead of against, communities.
Empower Local Communities
Community stakeholders and residents often outlast any elected official or assigned officer. Empowering local voices means that in times of tension, there is a partner who can represent local concerns, and can help ensure the community’s hurt and anger are channeled constructively. Los Angeles has a wealth of strong voices that come from the faith community, from our strong nonprofits, and from youth organizations. One of the most inspiring efforts over recent years has been the Dignity in Schools campaign, in which a coalition of organizations worked tirelessly to educate community members, law enforcement, and policymakers around the devastating impact of Zero Tolerance policies in schools. As a result, Los Angeles has had some success in changing school policies, a step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, and is leading the state-wide effort for change. This in turn keeps more kids in school, instead of creating more young people and parents who are angry, frustrated, and blocked from opportunity. In other words, it’s an example of creating positive alternatives, rather than taking a punishment-only approach.
Another level of empowerment involves political representation. Los Angeles elects its City Council by district, and our representatives live in (and often grew up in) the districts they represent. As a result, the community members have someone to bring grievances, challenges, concerns, and ideas to. In contrast, Anaheim has only at-large elected councilmembers. Without local representation, there can be no local accountability.
Redefine How We Talk About Violence
Violence is the second leading cause of death among our young people (ages 14-25). If a disease were killing our children at that rate, we wouldn’t be blaming those children for getting sick. We’d be investing in research, testing potential cures, and trying to get at the root causes of the illness. Violence is, in fact, an epidemic. And that means we need to invest heavily in preventing its outbreaks, not just treating its symptoms. We all know the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, yet when it comes to violence, we too often put our money mainly into dubious “cures:” more police, heavier sentencing, and more prisons. This “mis-investment” often comes at the expense of money for schools, after-school programming, and safe parks. Los Angeles has had some innovative, model programming that has worked at reducing crime and violence, but it remains in constant jeopardy as budgets tighten.
Invest in Prevention; Demand Results
It’s so important it’s worth saying again: Prevention matters. According to the latest Children’s Defense Fund report, incarceration costs nearly three times investing in education. Cutting early education increases the chance that a boy will go to prison by 39%. And that doesn’t include the lost tax revenue from an employed person, or the human capital lost. People released from incarceration in California are re-arrested at a rate of 70%. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that our current prison system is a terrible investment, and one that does little to improve public safety. But we continue to invest and support it without accountability for results.
Violence—including police violence—is not something that can be resolved through more violence or by locking people up. By seeing violence as a public health issue, something to be prevented rather than suppressed, and by creating systems that support positive rather than negative behavior choices for individuals, law enforcement, and elected officials, we may actually be able to achieve safer communities, in Los Angeles, and in Anaheim.
Kaile Shilling is the Coalition Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles.