Another problem with federal commitment is that different administrations have different priorities. A new administration will appoint new agency heads and charge them with new directions. Many times this leads to the redirection of labor resources and priorities, leaving local law enforcement to fend for itself in trying to salvage the ongoing program.
In the last few years, the FBI has implemented the Safe Streets Task Forces, which has been beneficial to local law enforcement and in most cases has established stability in the working relationship between federal and local law enforcement. The gang problem, however, is of such magnitude that with limited federal funding, the available agents are simply overwhelmed by the problem and must limit their combined task forces to specific targets rather than the hordes of other gangs operating in the greater metropolitan area.
Climate of Acceptance
Lack of congressional leadership, as well as absent leadership in local political entities, has also had devastating effects on law enforcement efforts to eradicate or limit the criminal activity of gangs. This is easily seen by the rise in the illegal immigrant gang populations.
The establishment of local "sanctuary" policies that shelter illegal immigrants contrary to national laws provides a climate of acceptance for criminal gangs. Many of these gangs have far-reaching involvement with Mexican and Central American drug cartels. And there is mounting evidence that these ties are bringing cartel violence across the Southwestern border into the heartland of America.
Many of the major cities that have offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants refuse to or simply don't attempt to count this population. Some even prohibit local law enforcement from documenting the immigration status of a gang member.
Because of such policies, there is no definitive method for determining the extent of illegal immigrant involvement in gangs. In California, an admittedly unscientific and informal survey was conducted through a combined effort of established gang investigators' associations. The results showed an estimated 20 percent of the Hispanic gang population is comprised of illegal immigrants. This "best guess" estimate is based on the data accumulated from intelligence gathering by trained personnel and includes certain presumptions, among those being that most illegal immigrant criminal gang members are of Hispanic origin and that local gang investigators know which gangs are made up of primarily illegal immigrants.
Such stats should not be used to infer that all of the undocumented immigrants arriving across our borders are criminals or engage in criminal activity. After all, the California gang investigators' survey reveals that 80 percent of the gang crime is committed by U.S. citizens. However, it does indicate that there is a significant problem with the illegal immigrant gang member.
Far too many of these gang members who have been raised and schooled in extreme gang violence in their homelands bring that approach to the streets of America. Statistics show that overall violent crime is down; however, this particular brand of violence is growing. News media reports say that Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the nation and almost all of these crimes are attributable to Mexican and Central American criminal gang or cartel activity.
Federal and state legislators seem to be locked in a deadly struggle of ideology regarding gang enforcement. This struggle allows people to die in senseless gang violence while politicians argue over the minutiae of unrelated issues and neither side budges from its ideological stances. What gets passed is usually neutral, "feel good" legislation that has little or no practical value in the battle against gangs. Activists scream "racism" when get-tough methods of gang enforcement and interdiction are proposed. And such charges prevent our leaders from practically explaining what needs to be done to calm the violence. Elected officials are terrified of being called racist.
"Feel good" political responses from politicians serve to mollify members of the general public, most of whom have no concept as to the inner workings or deadly purpose of street gangs. However, this innocuous type of feel-good legislation is designed to placate the citizenry without having really addressed the problem and its inherent complications.
Political rhetoric surrounding violent gangs is loud and prolific particularly after a heinous gang-related crime, yet strangely quiet soon after the television cameras are gone. Very little is ever legislated that impacts the daily activity of gang members.
All of this means that communities cannot wait for legislators to address the gang plague. To react in a timely and responsible manner requires a lot of preparation such as identifying the extent of the problem and appropriate resources needed to address the problem. Once that is done the involved agencies need to begin acquiring and funding resources, training personnel, and fielding a task force from law enforcement and community prevention and intervention programs.
None of this can be done unilaterally by law enforcement. There needs to be involvement from all parties: community representatives, law enforcement, schools, corrections, probation, and parole. Generally speaking, the law enforcement entity is the obvious organizer of the task force approach as they usually have the paramilitary leadership to pull such a force together and the contacts to make it work. Funding such task forces should be a priority, and they should be accorded the longevity necessary to continue to work toward a true management of the problem. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past or fail to act.
Wes McBride served more than 35 years with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department retiring as a sergeant in the gang unit.