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Richard Valdemar

Richard Valdemar

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Gangs

Gang Prevention: A Pound of Cure

Develop a front-end approach to preventing "wanna be" gang members from becoming "gonna be" members.

May 10, 2011  |  by Elliot Sneezy


Photo: Richard Valdemar.

Photo: Richard Valdemar.
Photo: Richard Valdemar.

How many people have you come into contact with who claim to be gang members? Law enforcement officers arrest and document gang members daily, but often forget about the gang prevention aspect of our work.

As officers, we're often consumed by the many cases and leads we develop that hopefully lead to an arrest of a gang member. Meanwhile, the "gonna bes" are out there doing what they can to replace the gang member we just took off of the street.

Some of you may know what I'm talking about when I say "gonna be." The "gonna be" is the kid who stands at a fork in the road; he or she can be led astray into the gang lifestyle, or be motivated to succeed as a contributing member of society.

Like some of you, I've learned some harsh lessons while working gangs. Far too many times I have heard a child brag, "I'm gonna be a gang member." Early in my career, I dismissed those kids as "wanna bes." The mistake I made was not understanding that the "wanna be" is the predecessor of the "gonna be" and will one day be the kid standing at the proverbial fork. When "wanna bes" are dismissed by officers focused on the big arrest, the "wanna bes" take it as a challenge to show officers they are capable of earning their place in the gang. As law enforcement officers, we have an obligation to serve and protect and certainly to prevent the "wanna be" from becoming the "gonna be."

Some gang cops remind me of shooting stars. They build excellent cases and gather incredible intelligence about gang activity, but what happens afterward? Some go on to teach or share their experiences with other officers, but often neglect to teach gang prevention. Others protect their knowledge like it's a precious, powerful secret. Like a shooting star, some fade into the night without reaching their final destination.

I've known a lot of great gang cops who've made a positive impact in law enforcement. I've also known a lot of non-law enforcement people who've made positive impacts in their communities. As gang cops, we need to embody the people who make positive impacts in our communities.

No one keeps track of the number of children saved from gang involvement. There's no database for an almost gang member who later became successful. We usually hear these success stories only as we sit around sharing a beer or two. This part of working gangs is sometimes especially hard for supervisors and managers to grasp, either because they've forgotten how successful prevention can be in combating gangs or because they've decided that what can't be seen on paper doesn't calculate to anything for the department.

Trust me, I enjoy the enforcement part of working gangs too, but community gang prevention is still one of the best ways to combat gangs. Too bad it's a tool that we often fail to use. We make excuses such as "we have a specialized unit to do that touchy-feely stuff" or "I have too many cases to work on right now." Like I said, they're just excuses.


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