DionRabouin.com (sort of)

My night with the LA gang czar

Posted in Articles, Features by dionrabouin on August 12, 2011

(written for OnCentral.org)

Just about every night, Wednesday through Sunday, Guillermo Cespedes, the Deputy Mayor of the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD), will be making rounds between his 22nd floor office at City Hall and some of the most heavily populated gang territories in LA.

Cespedes is the man behind LA’s Summer Night Lights program. He works with police officers and various members of 40 community-based organizations every night to coordinate activities at parks and recreation centers. When he created Summer Night Lights in 2003 it was a six-week program called Summer of Success. It was implemented at Baldwin Village, an area commonly known as “the Jungle,” and on its most popular night counted 300 people, according to the LA Times. This year Summer Night Lights has grown to include 32 parks and more than 700,000 residents.

According to statistics from the mayor’s office, gang related homicides are down 57 percent, 45 percent less victims have been shot and 55 percent less shots have been fired in communities where the program was implemented. Police data also shows serious gang-related crime overall fell 40 percent.

The GRYD strategy is a six-pronged approach centered around 15 different programs, each connected in some way to Summer Night Lights. The summer is most important because crime and gang activity spike from the Fourth of July to Labor Day weekend.

“The best way to think of it is Summer Night Lights is like a giant community inoculation strategy and the rest of the time is booster shots,” Cespedes said.

Given the nature of the job – his office responds to every single incident of potentially gang-related activity throughout Los Angeles – one might assume the position was occupied by a grizzled, lifelong veteran of the LAPD. Cespedes is not that. He’s a Cuban immigrant, raised in New York City who plays the piano and has a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University.

On August 15 the mayor’s office will release an evaluation of the program to the public with the 2011 statistics. Provided the numbers continue going the way they have been, Summer Night Lights may become a model for cities around the country to emulate. According to Cespedes, Visalia, Long Beach and Jacksonville, Fla., have started programs based on Summer Night Lights.

But the program is not without controversy. After shootings at the Van Ness and Wilmington Recreation Centers happened outside Summer Night Lights events within eight days of one another, some questioned whether the program was actually making people safer. Cespedes insists the incidents only prove how much the program is needed.

“Does that mean the program is gonna go forward?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course the program is gonna go forward. This is precisely why we are in these neighborhoods. We move things around, we increase patrol, we’re constantly retooling, because violence in these neighborhoods is not a stagnant dynamic. Summer night lights requires daily retooling, whether there’s a shooting or not.”

Retooling sometimes requires his physical presence and on a brisk Friday evening in August, Cespedes will be making two stops. The first is at Lemon Grove Recreation Center in East Hollywood. A community organization known as Aztecs Rising has set up a softball game between members of the area’s most prominent gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS or MS-13), and Cespedes wants to check on it.

As the game begins, five cops lean anxiously against a squad car that is parked directly outside the fenced-in baseball diamond, beneath the lamppost nearest to home plate. As the hits start coming and the teams start swinging for the fences, the tension outside the diamond begins to ease.

“Our role here is to keep the peace,” LAPD officer Omar Cedre said. “We’re not gonna stop and detain these guys after the game. We’re gonna maintain a high visibility, let people know that ‘Hey, the police are here, nothing’s gonna occur.’ At the same time these, guys are welcome to enjoy the festivities like anybody else as long as they stay within the rules that we impose.”

Normally, active members of MS gathered on the field and in the stands at Lemon Grove would violate the city’s gang injunction. But Cedre said the police are more lenient on enforcing the injunctions during Summer Night Lights events, so a softball game between gang members is not an unprecedented sight. Injunctions are restraining orders against members of a known gang from gathering at public places like parks. LA currently has 37 injunctions against 57 gangs.

“What Summer Night Lights does is it tries to put everybody under the same conditions, from [7 p.m.] to midnight, and that includes gang members,” Cespedes said. “When they stay away from the park, that’s when stuff happens. If they’re at the park, we know where they are. It’s a different approach altogether. It’s about engagement rather than pushing away.”

After checking in with the officers and a few community members at Lemon Grove, Cespedes heads out. His next stop is the Algin Sutton Recreation Center on 88th and Hoover. This is the first year for Summer Night Lights at this site and the relationship between the cops and the community has been strained recently, which has drastically lowered participation.

“This is the first empty night I’ve seen,” said Maryum Ali, program coordinator at Sutton. “[Summer Night Lights] has been working really well, it’s just the past two days LAPD has been a little rough, so I think some of the guys got tired of it. But they’ll be back. They’ll probably be back next week.”

Kevin Orange, a former gang member who now works as a gang interventionist with the city, agreed that the low turnout was temporary. He was part of the force that encouraged gang members and others to participate in the program before it started in June.

“It wasn’t hard to bring the so-called gang members of the community in here. It was the people that didn’t gang bang around here,” Orange said. “We targeted everybody in this community, North, South, East and West. And for this park, the history on it hasn’t been good for the last 15-20 years, so it was kind of a challenge.”

That challenge, of making gang members and unaffiliated civilians both feel comfortable in the same space, may be the key to the program.

“The approach prior to 2003 was pretty much law-enforcement driven,” Cespedes said. “My office was created because the mayor’s office said, ‘let’s try something different.’”

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