In places like South Los Angeles, gang activity often revolves around physical intimidation and displays of loyalty in the streets, with rival groups flashing their crew’s signs, sporting tattoos and donning color-coded clothes.
But in 2015, the focus for much of the conflict between dueling gangs is online, say police. Law enforcement strategies to cope with a broad uptick in violence (12 percent crime increase during the first half of the year) has required a shift in emphasis. Previous techniques — such as sending more cops to high-crime neighborhoods and working with gang leaders to settle disputes — may be less effective when the conflict is expressed virtually over social media.
Whether in real life or online, in Los Angeles the debate continues over how to reduce violence and where to focus police energies.
At a news conference last month, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti declared that the gang intervention program would be expanding. He said, “Those are folks who can actually go to the shot callers and say, ‘Hey, can we put gang truces out there? Can we look at what’s happening and make sure that whatever retribution is going back and forth, we stop it in its tracks?’”
The police department also planned to deploy more officers from the top-level Metropolitan Division to take a bite out of the crime increase.
The LAPD communications division did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, some experts say policy should contextualize historical trends which show violence is going down. Annual homicides in Los Angeles peaked in 1992 at 1,094, with just 264 last year.
“2014 was the lowest reported [number of] homicides in the history of this city, when you account for population growth, ever,” said Alonso. “So when you talk about an increase, you’re not really talking about any increase.”
Over the long term, the factors determining crime and homicide rates are so complex that Alonso is skeptical of many prevailing theories.
“What’s weird is that economically, there are not really great opportunities for people of color or racial minorities,” he said. “No jobs, no money, but crime is still dropping.”
A counselor for at-risk families, Daisy Gomez knows firsthand the struggle gang interventionists face putting the past behind them. Not only did she see her older sister Angelica shot and killed in the family’s driveway by a gang member, but she is now raising her daughter as a single mother — with her husband, Max, facing open-ended incarceration.
For men accustomed to the gang lifestyle, staying balanced can be difficult. “Having one foot in and one foot out — that’s what gets them in trouble,” she said. “Trying to make peace agreements with gangs, you have to speak to criminals. And speaking to these people will make you guilty of a crime.”
In a neighborhood where as many as 15 percent of youths join gangs, many reformed gangsters such as Max work to discourage the younger generation from a life of crime. “They walk a really thin line that no one else can fully appreciate,” said Guillermo Cespedes, LA’s deputy mayor and director of gang reduction. “They keep one body bag from becoming 15 body bags.”
“Somehow, when a gang intervention worker gets arrested, there’s an I-told-you-so mentality from the public,” he added. “I know what these men and women do. They’re amazing human beings. But they do not walk on water.”