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Los Angeles seeks new ways to handle gangs. After mass arrests, city focuses on social ills

Los Angeles is moving toward a combination of force and social initiative to deal with one of its worst periods of gang violence in history. Several plans are being put forward to strengthen the hand of police in responding to the problem. This may include creation of a massive federal-local task force to curb drug trafficking - a key component of the escalating violence.

At the same time, however, there is growing interest in expanding youth employment and other programs to wean inner-city kids from gangs.

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These efforts, if approved, would come none too soon for some community workers, who have long felt too much emphasis is being placed on law enforcement to solve the gang problem.

``We've been saying for two years you can't wait on these programs,'' says Steve Valdivia, head of Community Youth Gang Services, a group that works with gangs.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley last week proposed spending $700 million on after-school tutoring and child care for youngsters as a way to prevent gang participation and drug use.

Although the services would be provided at all elementary schools in the area, the mayor - who faces reelection this fall - billed it as primarily intended to help children who live in poor areas where gangs thrive.

A special gang task force is recommending that Los Angeles County study setting up a multi-agency law enforcement group, similar to one that has been operating in south Florida, to stem the drug trade, which local gangs are increasingly becoming a part of.

The group is also proposing changes in court procedures to expedite drug cases and new probation measures to deal with gang members.

Beyond the get-tough measures, however, the task force is suggesting an expansion of anti-gang efforts in schools, youth job programs, crisis hotlines, and other measures to give youths alternatives to joining one of the 600 gangs in the county.

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``There is certainly a recognition that this is not a short-term problem,'' says Michael Genelin, chairman of the Interagency Gang Task Force, whose recommendations are now being studied by a criminal justice group that will report to the county board of supervisors.

The moves come amid continuing gang violence and corresponding political outrage in the nation's No. 2 city.

So far this year more than 93 gang-related homicides have occurred in Los Angeles County, a number well ahead of last year's record pace. There was brief talk at the county level of calling in the National Guard, something that hasn't been done here since the Watts riots in the 1960s.

Two weeks ago the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) launched a D-Day-like invasion of tough gang areas, putting 1,000 officers on the streets.

The mobilization, the largest since the 1984 Olympics here, resulted in the arrest of 1,400 people, about half of whom were gang members. Relatively few are expected to end up behind bars.

Nevertheless, police say the sweeps let the gangs know ``who the streets belong to'' and show neighborhood residents somebody cares. Critics contend the actions are political shows of force that are not effective in collaring hard-core gang members and can engender an ``us-against-them'' attitude.

``The gang sweep is just a variation on the theme of the cavalry coming to the aid of besieged settlers,'' says Samuel Pillsbury, associate professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School. ``It makes good drama,'' he recently wrote in an opinion piece. ``It is not serious law enforcement.''

Changes are being instituted, though. LAPD officers plan to visit parents of ``at-risk'' young people to warn them that their children have been identified as new gang members or possible recruits.

The police pressure is likely to continue, too. Mayor Bradley wants 400 officers added to the force.

At the state level, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco is calling for a gang strike force to be set up. Gov. George Deukmejian has said he would authorize rewards of up to $10,000 in certain cases for information leading to the arrest and conviction of gang members.

While these suggestions are being met with varying degrees of delight and derision, many gang specialists, including those in law enforcement, agree that the problem requires more than nightsticks.

They say attention is at least beginning to be focused in this election year on longer-range solutions - including by besieged neighborhood residents themselves: Next week a group of clergy, gang workers, and community activists will begin trying to take back sections of tough south-central Los Angeles, block-by-block, by working with the street kids.

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