Gang activity is difficult to measure. Different organizations have different ways of defining a gang member, and the competing systems lead to discrepancies in reports on levels of gang activity.
This ambiguity makes it hard to tell whether gang-prevention programs are effective. It’s even harder to connect the efforts of any one program to perceived improvements.
These issues lie at the heart of the recent debate over the findings on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s multimillion-dollar program, Gang Reduction and Youth Development.
In defense of the program, Villaraigosa asserted that his positive data is “incontrovertible.”
He highlighted a 17 percent overall reduction in gang crime since the inception of the program.
But the data is not nearly as clear as the mayor’s office makes it appear. Inconsistencies between data collectors conspire to make it rather convertible.
Instead of hiding behind its questionable data, GRYD should involve more researchers, take alternative viewpoints into account and begin reforming the program.
The very definition of “gang activity” relies heavily on the extent to which events are connected to individual gang members. A crime can be counted as a gang crime because the victim was involved with gang members, even though other organizations no longer consider that person a gang member. Some gang databases list people as gang members years after they have stopped engaging in any gang-related activity.
With the disagreements over definitions, it is easy to see where doubts can emerge.
Beyond conflicting numbers, it is extremely difficult to connect reduced gang activity with the efforts of GRYD alone. The Urban Institute, the agency that performed the study on the effectiveness of the program, explains the trend was observable before the foundation of the program in 2007.
Many factors might contribute to a decrease in gang activity, so claiming that this reduction is largely thanks to GRYD’s efforts is misleading.
Thomas W. Ward, a USC professor who is an expert on youth violence and gang intervention and prevention, shares the skepticism of the Urban Institute toward the program’s claims, if only based on the scarce success that past gang programs have achieved. He said these programs are combatting gangs in the wrong fields.
Currently, GRYD focuses on areas such as youth mentoring, violence prevention, parenting classes, family therapy and mediation to combat the escalation of shootings. Though the list is long, it is by no means comprehensive.
“Instead of what these agencies are doing, they should focus a lot more on drug education and prevention and finding jobs for these individuals,” Ward said.
Larger involvement by experts who deal with gang members on a personal basis would allow for a refocusing of programs like GRYD toward a more definitive outcome.
In terms of distance, the world of gangs and gang activity is very close to USC. Thankfully, the associated dangers do not reach campus. One can live nearby and never hear a thing about the turmoil raging a short drive away.
Still, as residents of Los Angeles and members of the community, it is important for us to be aware of the issues facing our city. If we observe failures or waste in the city’s attempts to fix its problems, it’s important to express dissatisfaction to the city — or to Villaraigosa’s office — about these shortcomings.
It is equally important to make sure these shortcomings are transparent.
Daniel Grzywacz is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and anthropology. His column “72 Degrees and Shaking” runs Wednesdays.