Cutting crime: Put a sharper focus on gangs

It is a frustrating and familiar cycle: Just when it appears that inner-city neighborhoods are making progress against crime and gang-related violence, another wave resurrects the worries.
So it goes this summer in the Twin Cities. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul police are ramping up efforts to address another uptick in violence.

This latest rash raises questions; what lessons were learned from previous bouts with gang crime and violence? Why is progress tough to maintain?
How can neighborhoods tamp down the trouble and make it stick?
While a �silver bullet� solution is nonexistent, many law enforcement and community experts stress vigilance on several fronts.

For starters, they urge that pressure be kept up through peaks and valleys in crime statistics. It's comparable to having a roach problem � just because you don't see any for a few weeks doesn't mean you should stop your pest control service.
But with persistent gang and drug-related crime, the ongoing effort involves a combination of proper police staffing, aggressive community policing and observant neighbors who collaborate with cops. The strategy must include prevention, especially activities or employment for boys and young men who might otherwise choose gang life. And reining in this brand of crime means that those who know the criminals, including family and friends, must report them for the greater good of the community.
And as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak points out, gang violence is driven by drugs and money. The larger community must recognize that those who buy the drugs are also part of the problem.

Both core-city police departments are responding. During the past two weeks, Minneapolis officials announced a series of initiatives, including foundation donations to expand rec center hours. And when homicides in several North Side neighborhoods increased during the winter, the department introduced the Strategic Tactical Operations (STOP) program in April. The 50-officer unit is designed to quickly saturate any area of the city. Working with the city and police on the summer strategy is Chuck Wexler, a nationally known crime expert.
St. Paul police are wisely mounting similar efforts, recently organizing a special unit to tackle growing concerns over gang activity. Like Minneapolis, St. Paul officers are seeing increased graffiti and a new dynamic: a wave of brazen violence caused by younger members of small, less organized gangs. That suggests getting to children at earlier ages and diverting them to positive activities is more important than ever. So in addition to enforcement, the unit will work with community organizations to give children alternatives to gangs and help current members leave the lifestyle.
Foundation donations to preserve summer programs are crucial; more nonprofits and businesses should step up to that challenge. Through various city programs, Minneapolis put more than 1,100 youth to work this summer, but needs the ability to do more. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's recent veto of youth jobs programs certainly won't help. As a result, Minneapolis has lost the ability to employ another 160 teens this summer.

Law enforcement crackdowns come with the territory when crime levels rise. However during better times, the community and police cannot let up � proper staffing levels must be maintained. As we have argued before, a force of 788 sworn officers is not enough to police a city of 350,000.
It is not enough when the number of Minneapolis homicides has risen nearly 50 percent over last year � from 20 up to 31. It's not enough when innocent bystanders are hit by flying bullets while eating in a restaurant or sitting in their own homes. It is insufficient when nearly 100 guns were seized by officers during May, the highest ever in a single month.
All metro-area residents have a stake in reducing or solving this problem. Government, foundations, businesses and churches must redouble efforts to punish the bad actors and support those who can be salvaged.

As Rybak said, �This whole community needs to unite to out-recruit the gangs.�

12 July 2005

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