Retired Gangsters Gang Up On Youth: Does Fed's 'Comprehensive' Strategy Work?

Jim Myers
November 1, 2000

The nearest thing to an official U.S. government anti-gang effort would be Project Bridge.

And if there's a reason the U.S. Justice Department chose Riverside, it's at least in part due to a Latin gang called the Tiny Dukes, who formed a brief alliance in the early 1990s with the 1200 Block Crips, a black gang. Soon all hell broke loose in the Eastside neighborhoods here.

Resentful that the Tiny Dukes had sided with a black gang against fellow Hispanics, other Latin gangs retaliated against the Tiny Dukes. The ensuing battles turned Eastside neighborhoods into a war zone.

"If you were the wrong color, it was extremely dangerous," says Riverside Police Lt. Peter Esquivel, chairman of the Project Bridge steering committee.

With the gang war and racial tensions, Riverside in 1975 became one of five cities in a pilot project, funded by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), to test a "comprehensive" model for addressing gang problems. Irving Spergel, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, developed the model; hence it is often called the Spergel model.

"Riverside had a gang problem," says Spergel, "but to their credit, eight or 10 years ago, they recognized it."

Over five years OJJDP spent $2.2 million in the Riverside experiment, which included elements of the three traditional strategies toward gangs: prevention, intervention and police suppression. The model was also designed to coordinate efforts by police, schools, courts, probation officers, gang outreach workers, employment services and other community resources.

"The problem is getting agencies to work together," says Spergel. "Now they're moving in the right direction. The police are on board. Probation is on board. They're working together and that's the biggest change."

Not Just Cops

From 1995 to 1999, the project was implemented in the Eastside and Arlanza neighborhoods, with the Casablanca neighborhood left untouched as a control group. The program targeted the 120 most seriously gang-involved youths in the target areas. Four youth workers were assigned about 30 clients each.

"We've targeted the worst of the worst," says Esquivel. "But people are realizing now it's not just a police problem. In the past, the only question they asked was,’ What are the police doing?'"

Sometimes, Project Bridge created its own program components, like anger management and cultural awareness training. Another component is Project TRY - Tattoo Removal for Youth - a service provided by the Loma Linda Medical Center.

Youth workers say the interconnection between the various services is a plus. "Things happen with the drop of a dime," says Riverside youth outreach worker Jay Franklin. "The schools call, there's a fight, and they let us talk to the kids. Or we hear there's a certain hang-out, so we'll target a place where we hear something's going to happen. When we're there, we become their excuse not to do negative things."

The workers recruit gang members or gang wannabes for a two-week job readiness program set up by the city's Department of Human Resources. "If they finish the two weeks, they can be identified as wanting to work," says Teresa McAllister, a job training coordinator.

After launching the program with no stipend, the program pays the youth $150. "Initially, we didn't seem to be getting their attention," says McAllister, who notes that Spergel recommended a stipend for job training.

"The professor was right," she says. In the latest tally of 68 youths who started the job readiness program, 52 completed the two weeks with no absences, and 40 got jobs or went on to more advanced city-run job training.

"The project was impetus to bring programs together," said Victoria Stephen, outreach coordinator for Youth Service Center, which was contracted to do the Project Bridge outreach and preventive counseling. "The [OJJDP] funding allowed us to focus on specific issues."

Cutting Back

But maybe it's easier to take a comprehensive approach - and get everyone on the same page - in two neighborhoods in Riverside (pop. 276,000) than to get everyone working together across a vast city like Los Angeles, 50 miles to the west.

And Project Bridge faces new challenges. OJJDP support ended Aug. 31, and the city budgeted $239,000 for the program, with the expectation the program will expand into the Casablanca neighborhood, the former control area, which had seven gang killings last year. The schools and probation department will now cover some costs that OJJDP funded, and Project Bridge is looking for grants to extend the program citywide.

"If you try to serve a whole city, you can't do it with four outreach workers," says Celeste Wojtalewicz, Project Bridge director. "But we're cutting back on administrative costs. We're trying to do more with less."

The big question is, does the Spergel model work?

As is often true with complex studies, all the data aren't in. "We know that people involved in the program are committing less crime than before," Lt. Esquivel says, "and that's what's going to come out when the studies are completed."

An analysis after one year showed promise: Arrests among youths in the program declined 34 percent, violent crime by 37 percent and property crime by 40 percent, although the number of program youths who were employed or in school increased by only 8 percent.

But Riverside still has a gang problem: Wojtalewicz says the city lists 86 gangs with 2,500-plus members. Last year police classified 17 of the city's 31 homicides as gang-related, up from three out of 19 homicides in 1998.

Spergel says the program can work, "but it is very difficult to put together. These [gang] kids can be reached. If you can get the agencies cooperating, the problem can be dealt with."

Myers, Jim. "Retired Gangsters Gang Up On Youth: Does Feds 'Comprehensive' Strategy Work?" Youth Today, November 2000, p. 41.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.