Dallas’ gang problem does not yet rival New York’s or Los Angeles’, where it seems that 18-year-olds with machine guns rule neighborhoods, scare the police and kill each other – and anyone else in the line of fire.

We still have time to reverse course.

“The public sees gang members as springing full-blown as agents of the devil,” says Raymond Eve, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Arlington who has studied gangs.

“But gang members are made by what goes on around them.”

Which means they can be unmade, something the City of Dallas is attempting to do, beginning this summer, by instituting a juvenile gang intervention program headed by a Lakewood resident.

But East Dallas and Lakewood residents don’t have to wait for the City’s help. There are a number of things we can do – individually and as neighborhoods – to ensure youth gangs don’t menace our neighborhoods in the same way they have muscled in on parts of Pleasant Grove and West Dallas.

“Most neighborhoods don’t ask this question until it’s too late,” says Luis Llerena Jr., coordinator of the City’s gang intervention program. “Prevention has to start in the neighborhoods.”

How do we start?

DON’T OVERREACT

With television bringing daily images of drive-by shootings into our living rooms, it’s easy to assume the entire City is overrun by teenage hoodlums.

These images, however, do little more than scare people needlessly. Studies indicate most people (including, presumably, journalists) overestimate the danger of crime, Eve says, causing them to hunker down in their homes, quaking in front of the television.

Such action simply gives the streets to gangs, who are more than happy to step into the vacuum.

LEARN WHICH KIDS ARE POTENTIAL GANG MEMBERS

Llerena, who ran with a gang while growing up in northern California and who has since become a Baptist minister, says it’s not difficult to identify kids likely to wind up in a gang.

In fact, he says, each neighborhood should actively look for signs of trouble among its children.

Kids need structure, he says, and kids who don’t have structure are most likely to join gangs. The most likely to be affected: kids who come from single-parent families and kids who are the first generation born in this country.

Gangs don’t necessarily attract only kids from the worst parts of town, either – economic status, according to several studies, doesn’t always predict gang membership.

“You have kids supervising themselves with time on their hands,” says Gary Sykes, director of the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute in Irving. “And then they get together with other kids.”

OFFER POTENTIAL GANG MEMBERS AN ALTERNATIVE

Provide an alternative: This theory, so obvious it seems unworkable, has successfully been implemented throughout the country.

“If we offer kids things to do, then they don’t have to go to the gang for activity,” Llerena says. “Their behavior is based on a need – a need for pride, a need for power, a need for respect. If we fill the need, we can change the behavior.”

Some suggestions, gleaned from conversations with City and police officials, include activities that can be held in conjunction with churches or YMCAs:

• Throw a block party

“Man, I love it when I see streets roped off for a block party,” Llerena says. “But there are so few neighborhoods that do that.”

A block party offers kids an opportunity to enjoy themselves in a controlled environment, while neighbors get a chance to meet each other. And such parties are a big improvement over six or eight teenagers meeting at someone’s house because their parents aren’t home.

• Sponsor neighborhood big brother/big sister-type programs

One of the main reasons kids join gangs, especially the Hispanic groups that comprise up to three-quarters of Dallas’ gangs, is because they have trouble communicating in English (as do their parents).

One solution: Set up a program where volunteers are available to help kids with school or social problems caused by language barriers.

• Organize neighborhood outings

A trip to a baseball game, Six Flags or a rock concert – even to Fair Park – are powerful tools in stunting gang growth, despite their seeming naivety in the violence-prone 1990s

But these simple outings make a difference, and they are one reason the City is centering its gang intervention program on neighborhood recreation centers.

The centers already have the infrastructure – location, facilities and bureaucracy – to offer these programs.

START SMALL, AND BUILD FROM THERE

Gang prevention – like gang eradication – won’t happen in a day, a week, a summer, or even a year.

The keys are patience and persistence: Find a program and stick with it.

And don’t start a gang prevention program by doing the biggest, most spectacular thing that comes to mind, experts say. Lots of small successes are more effective than one or two big ones – and infinitely more effective than a couple of big failures, which happen all too often.

The City gang program’s first project, for example, is recruiting neighborhood residents to paint over gang graffiti in two of the worst gang areas.

It’s hardly an earth-shaking development, but City officials expect it will be the first step in showing residents they can have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods.

Before it becomes too late.


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