Are Gang Task Forces Outdated?

LAPD vet says Seattle's proposed gang task force will be “ineffective.”

King County Sheriff Sue Rahr has taken a pretty bad rap in her two-year tenure, slammed for everything from a nepotism-heavy system of internal investigations to crooked deputies pulling pensions. So it's no wonder she and County Executive Ron Sims have stepped up to embrace something everyone can support: banging on gangs.

This month, Sims announced that his proposed 2008 budget will include $408,000 for a gang suppression unit. The money will add two detectives and a sergeant and will be part of a $3.7 million allocation to fill 30 new positions in the sheriff's office.

It couldn't come at a better time for the embattled Rahr, who faces an election in 2009, though her office says the total falls short of what's needed to really get on top of the problem. "It's not enough but it's a great start, and we're very appreciative of it," says sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. John Urquhart.

Crime has risen during Rahr's first two years in elected office, after falling off between 2003 and 2005. Gang-related crime in particular has shot up, according to sheriff's reports.

County Council member Dow Constantine attributes the leap to an increased concentration of young men in the county, particularly around White Center (an area he represents), and to former gang leaders finishing prison sentences. "They're interested in going back and picking up where they left off," he says.

So will the money help? Not according to the gang experts in L.A.

Jorja Leap, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, says the emphasis in these units on collaring gang members and leaders is "outdated and ineffective."

Ron Bergmann, who recently retired as deputy police chief in Los Angeles, says that after years of poorly performing gang units in his city, he decided to stop focusing so hard on arrests and made stopping retaliatory violence a top priority. A local outreach group was put on speed-dial and called immediately to the scene of violence to start rumor control and try to calm tensions. Bergmann says gang-related homicide dropped 42 percent in the first year of the program.

Urquhart says there will be an education-and-deterrence component to the sheriff's new gang plan, but policing is taking top priority. "There is no one answer to what is the best way," he says. "You can't ignore the ones that are breaking the law."

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