What Can Local Governments Do About Gangs?

Posted on July 17, 2014

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Joe Walsh the City of Gresham, Oregon’s Gang Prevention Policy Coordinator is sharing his expertise with an article on what local governments can do in the battle against gangs. Joe reveals that gangs aren’t just a big city problem and local governments have a key role to play in combating gang activity.

gresham gang plan

The local government role

Gangs aren’t new to this country. As the American Revolution ended in 1783, the first American gangs emerged on the East Coast, primarily in the form of youth fighting over local turf. More serious gangs plagued the streets of New York City beginning around 1820 as a wave of European immigrants struggled to establish themselves amid the crowded slums of the Lower East Side. In the early 1900s gangs flourished in Chicago where, as in New York, large numbers of European immigrants filled the city’s ghettos outside of the economic and social mainstream. Out west, Latino gangs emerged in Los Angeles as early as the 1920s as youth without strong ties to either a Mexican-American or Anglo-American culture formed their own identities through a subculture of gang membership.

portland area bloodsBut no longer are gangs a big city problem found only in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Increasingly, criminal street gangs are popping up in smaller cities, suburbs, and rural counties. Camden, New Jersey (pop. 77,250) for example, has one of the worst gang problems in the country. Frequently named the most dangerous city in the nation, Camden is home to several gangs including Bloods, Latin Kings, and MS-13. In 2012, the city experienced a violent crime rate that was 560% higher than the national average, including a record-breaking 67 homicides.

According to the National Gang Center, smaller cities, suburban and rural counties now account for 42.9% of all gang members in the United States, with suburban counties representing the fastest growing segment among all area types. Additionally, nearly all law enforcement agencies serving cities with populations of 100,000 or more have reported multiple years of gang problems. These trends ring true in Gresham, Oregon (pop. 108,956), a once-quiet suburb of Portland that experienced six gang-related homicides in 2013. In contrast, the city has averaged less than 3 total homicides annually over the past 25 years. The level of violence has shocked residents, who demand action and change. But what can be done? And who is going to do it?

gresham gangsIn the nation’s largest cities, gang reduction is an institution. Networks of non-profit agencies provide gang prevention services, outreach workers patrol the streets, and anti-gang initiatives are broadly funded. This is a big ask in a smaller city like Gresham, which struggles to provide just the basic services to its residents. Non-profits are unlikely to fill the void. Despite the havoc gangs can wreak on a community, gangs directly impact a relatively small number of people, and donors aren’t exactly lining up to “save the gangsters”. Nevertheless, an emerging gang problem brings with it an increase in violent crime, graffiti, drug-related crimes, prostitution and even the sexual exploitation of minors. Residents feel less safe, youth potential is derailed, and local businesses suffer. It’s an issue that can’t be ignored, and can’t be solved by law enforcement alone. That’s where local governments must step in.

The Gresham experience

gresham gangsterAmid a wave of gang violence last summer, Gresham city leaders recognized the need for swift action. Without internal expertise in gang abatement, the city turned to local consulting firm Jensen Strategies for guidance. The ensuing report, “Gang Abatement Best Practices” found several key elements of effective gang initiatives after sifting through dozens of programs nationwide. Among the key findings was the need for a comprehensive and community-based approach. Comprehensive in this context means inclusive of prevention, intervention, suppression and re-entry strategies; community-based refers to the need for involvement from multiple agencies across varied sectors. In other words, a successful gang strategy requires coordination of many programs and multiple agencies – no single entity or program can do it alone.

gresham police 2Like many other cities and counties with emerging gang problems, the City of Gresham has provided the leadership to coordinate such an effort, creating a new position (Gang Prevention Policy Advisor) for the task. While a number of different agencies can and do take the lead in organizing a comprehensive response to gangs (law enforcement, schools, state agencies, local service providers), there are a number of benefits in having a local government entity take the lead. These may include access to elected officials, access to key personnel in various departments, access to law enforcement data, ability to set policy, perceived neutrality, and a level of credibility that helps bring other agencies to the table.

Even with these advantages, it’s not easy pulling together a strategic, collaborative and coordinated effort to combat gangs – especially in a smaller community where resources aren’t abundant. It takes focus and committed leadership that understands any long-lasting improvement will take years to achieve, not months.

gang signsExperts say the first step for any community attempting to stem the tide of gang violence is to thoroughly understand its problem. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) provides a “Guide to Assessing Your Community’s Gang Problem” with recommendations for collecting and evaluating law enforcement data, school data, community demographics, perceptions and resources related to gangs.

In Multnomah County, which includes both Portland and Gresham, such a gang assessment was recently completed after several months of data collection and surveys involving more than 1,000 residents and dozens of agencies. The gang assessment process, which necessitates agency collaboration across multiple sectors, is a natural starting point for the collaborative steps laid out in the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model. In the coming months, the City of Gresham, along with its regional partners including the City of Portland and Multnomah County, will use the key findings from the gang assessment to inform a strategic plan that will include program and policy recommendations for countywide gang prevention, intervention, suppression, and re-entry.

gresham policeWhile this step-by-step process unfolds, the City of Gresham has already begun testing new programs and is finding sizable rewards from relatively small investments. Several months ago, the city began funding a gang outreach worker through a contract with a local nonprofit agency. This person engages at-risk youth at schools, parks, and bus stops to form positive relationships and connect youth to needed services. Shortly after, the city hired its Gang Prevention Policy Advisor. Simply having a dedicated staff position to focus on the gang problem has sent a clear message that city leadership is not willing to accept gang crime and will do whatever it takes to improve conditions.

gresham gangsAdditionally, the emphasis on mobilizing the community around the issue has immediately revealed new opportunities for partnerships and funding. Federal, state, and private grants are available to address gangs or related issues (mentoring or job training for example), but will become missed opportunities if the right players aren’t already at the table with an intentional focus and high priority placed on gang abatement. Many federal gang grants, in fact, list community mobilization and completion of a formal gang assessment as prerequisites to applying for funding. Earlier this summer, the city launched a very cost-effective program in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs that provides free lunch and activities to youth every day in three city parks. The city is also exploring potential partnerships that would provide a free, open gym basketball program to at-risk youth on Friday nights when many gang-related incidents occur.

It may be coincidence, but Gresham has now gone nine months without a gang-related homicide. Gangs continue to be a major issue, but the leadership role taken by local government to address the issue from multiple angles has galvanized the community and provided much-needed hope for residents.

If you have any questions for Joe he can be reached via email at: joe.walsh@greshamoregon.gov.

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