Gang graffiti in Newark, N.J. Photo via Tony the Misfit (Flickr.com).
Back about 20 years ago when gangs in Los Angeles were shooting at each other in drivebys and hitting a lot of innocent bystanders, I was fond of saying that I had a solution for the gang problem: marksmanship lessons.
I figured if they hit the people they were actually shooting at that there would be fewer gang members on the street. OK, I wasn't known for deep thought in the '80s.
But the problem with gangs has now ballooned beyond anything we could have imagined in the waning days of the Reagan Administration. You go to just about any town, no matter how small, in this country and you will see gang graffiti.
The spread of urban gangs to the streets of every suburb and hamlet can be explained by a perfect storm of phenomena. Here's my list:
Gang members love to exploit their own people. So if a chicken processor in Iowa is hiring illegal alien workers from Mexico and Central America, Mexican and Central American gang members go with them.
Parents of gang members moved away from gang-ridden neighborhoods in the city back to small towns across the United States in order to keep their kids "out of trouble." In many cases, the kids organized gang sets in their new locales.
Finally, the media, music, movies, and even the Internet have glorified gang culture. The effect of this is staggering. There are actually white teenagers running around the suburbs pledging allegiance to the Bloods or the Crips. You can imagine what would happen if these guys ran into the real thing.
Gang culture is so strong in this country that it can't even be overcome with money. Case in point, Jose Luis Muñoz.
Three years ago, Muñoz was being chased by officers of the Anaheim Police Department, when he was struck by a patrol car. He reportedly had surrendered before he was hit. So Muñoz, a known gang member, sued the city and scored $2.5 million.
Subtract the legal fees of probably 40 percent, and you are still left with $1.5 million. A smart person could take a windfall of $1.5 million and build a pretty nice life with it.
Muñoz, who—I kid you not—goes by the street name "Dopey," ain't all that smart. You see Muñoz was on probation and one of the rules of that probation was that he couldn't associate with his former homies. Munoz is now back in jail serving 16 months.
If $1.5 million won't keep a kid out of the gang life, what on Earth will?
PoliceMag.com Gangs columnist and retired Los Angeles Sheriff's Department gang investigator Richard Valdemar says a gang member's allegiance to his or her gang is a hard thing to break. It can be more powerful than love of family or country. He adds that the only thing he's seen pull gang members out of the life is a true religious conversion.
So here's the situation. Gang culture threatens to overwhelm good, decent Americans nationwide. And we need something to get it under control. We can't kill them all. We can't even imprison them all. And we can't hire missionaries to bring them all to God.
But we can take some of the money we are currently spending on Homeland Security grants and build a surge of anti-gang resources.
Now, if this surge is going to work, we have to be smart about this. We can't just have law enforcement go in arresting everybody who looks like a gang member and release them back on the streets the next day because they had no case.
Valdemar says that what we need to do instead is build a gang intelligence unit in every gang-plagued community in America. The mission of these intelligence units would be to build solid cases on gang shot callers and work with local prosecutors to get them long sentences. With a concerted national effort, we could decapitate just about every gang in America. That's what Valdemar and his LASD Operation Safe Streets unit accomplished in Compton, Calif., until their budget ran out.
Think about it. Think about how much safer your jurisdiction would be without gangs. Wouldn't that be worth the money?