Mayors Discuss Surge in Youth-Gang Violence

By Alina Tugend — January 29, 1986 4 min read

Youth-gang activity, a growing problem in many American cities, can be controlled only by coordinated action on a variety of fronts, participants in a workshop at the U.S. Conference of Mayors were told here last week.

Such efforts should include stronger law enforcement targeted specifically to gang-related crimes, increased interagency cooperation, and a variety of school-based programs, experts said.

“We have before us one of the most complex, volatile, and tragic issues facing Americans today,” said Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago, the leader of a seminar on youth gangs and youth-crime prevention. “The issue is youth crime, gang intimidation-- children killing children.”

A number of mayors attending the workshop agreed with Mayor Washington’s assessment and expressed frustration at their failure to curb the problem.

“We arrest them and they’re on the street before we’re back at city hall,” one participant said.

Mayor Washington noted that Chicago, like many other cities, has experienced a surge in gang activities since the early 1980’s.

Schools are often the site of gang activity, noted Alfred S. Regnery, an administrator in the Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

The best way for schools to gain control over gangs, Mr. Regnery said, is to implement a “strong code of conduct,” administered by an active principal with backing from the city, the police, and the school board.

Principals should bar from school young people who do not belong there, forbid the wearing of gang colors or clothes, and institute punishments such as in-school suspension, Mr. Regnery argued.

In a number of studies of Chicago dropouts, young people frequently I cited fear of gangs in and around schools as the primary reason for leaving school, Mayor Washington said.

To try to combat such activity, the Illinois legislature last year passed a series of bills creating “Safe School Zones.”

The legislation establishes “safety corridors” between bus stops and schools and imposes stiffer penalties for certain criminal acts, such as carrying a weapon or drugs, that occur within the corridors.

Chicago’s Efforts

In conjunction with the legislation, school-based programs will be set up in 40 public high schools to provide counseling, peer support systems, and community activities, according to a mayoral aide.

Chicago, which has an estimated 110 gangs that range from the loosely knit to the highly sophisticated, has increased police manpower and enacted a policy of stricter law enforcement, Mayor Washington noted. This effort has been coupled with an intensified prevention and intervention program, built on a strong partnership between the public and private sectors.

The partnership was begun last July with the establishment of the Chicago Intervention Network, a citywide program with representation from business, neighborhood groups, youth-services agencies, and government officials.

After holding hearings in 25 neighborhoods, the group developed a comprehensive approach to youth-gang problem.

A key ingredient was the formation of mobile intervention teams, which patrol neighborhoods developing contacts, mediating gang disputes, and working with youth agencies. The city also allocated funds to community-based agencies and organizations to provide “hands-on” services to young people and their families.

A total of $4.2 million, including local, state, and private money, has been committed to the program, Mayor Washington said. It is administered by the city’s Department of Human Services.

A follow-up study six months after the program began reported a 19 percent drop in youth homicides last year compared with 1984, according to the Mayor. The number of total homicides fell by 10 percent, he said. The study also reported a 10 percent increase in the number of guns recovered from gang members and a 21.4 percent increase in gang-related arrests in comparison with 1984.

Unsophisticated Enterprises’

Mr. Regnery concurred that cities that have been most effective in dealing with youth gangs, such as Chicago or Los Angeles, have set up some sort of interagency task force.

“It must be remembered that while youth gangs are often criminal enterprises, they are also unsophisticated enterprises,” he said.

In Los Angeles, for example, police take photographs of the graffiti, which often tell them what sort of gang activity will occur in the next 24 to 48 hours, he said.

Mr. Regnery also noted that:

  • Some 5 to 10 percent of the juvenile population commits 70 percent of the gang-related crimes. “In order to be effective, you have to aim your resource at these kids. They are the same kids who will grow up to be career criminals,” he said.
  • Gangs generally are organized along ethnic lines. Black gangs often focus on drug activities, Hispanics on theft, and Asians on loan-sharking and gambling.
  • Most gangs use minors to commit so they will receive more lenient sentences if arrested and convicted.
  • The “profile” of a gang member varies. In some cases, a gang is often a substitute for a cohesive family; in other cases, members may simply find it expedient to join. “What is true,” Mr. Regnery said, “is that in some cases crime does pay.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week