Mystery Science 2000

Mesa is home to a multimillion-dollar quest to quantify gang-intervention techniques

So far, nearly $3 million in federal and local funds -- about evenly divided -- has been devoted directly to the Mesa Gang Intervention Project. Most of that money has gone for staffing: 14 employees work with about 120 program participants who live in a targeted area of the city. Of those 120, only 100 are identified as gang members or gang associates. The rest are classified as "at-risk."

More than a third of the program participants have been arrested in possession of a weapon; 65 percent are on probation; but of the 100 gang members and gang associates, program officials admit that as few as a half-dozen are "hard-core" gang members, gang leaders who are frequently involved in such violent activities as drive-by shootings.

Case management coordinator Dan Zorich cherishes his small successes. Many gang members have broken the law while in the program, but some come back for help when they get out of jail. Five program participants have obtained high school diplomas, and the program is paying for each to take a class at Mesa Community College. Zorich is proud of the East Valley tattoo removal program he started -- even though only a handful of the 60 who have had tattoos obliterated are actually a part of the Mesa Gang Intervention Project.

Mary Ruiz (pictured with a client) works with at-risk kids.
Mary Ruiz (pictured with a client) works with at-risk kids.

At times this summer, it seemed almost impossible to get a kid to come in the door. Zorich and his staff couldn't get a counseling group for girls up and running; they couldn't convince more than a couple kids to come to art class.

Although the Mesa Gang Intervention Project was designed as an academic model -- similar programs exist in Tucson; San Antonio; Bloomington, Illinois; and Riverside, California -- after four years of operation, the feds have little to report beyond a vague notion that crime and drug use are down and employment is up among project participants in Mesa. They don't know if the drop in crime they perceive is any higher than it is outside of the target area. Preliminary results may be available as early as next March, but final data likely won't be released for another two years -- at least.

Even then, it might never be as reliable as the evaluators would like. To get reliable results, 100 kids in the target area must be compared with 100 kids in a control area. That has been more difficult than anticipated, evaluators say. To date, they've only interviewed 50 of the 100 kids in the control group.

Further confusing evaluations of efficacy is the fact that Mesa's gang numbers continue to grow. Since 1990, the number of gangs identified in the city has increased from five to 25. Between 1994 and 1999, the number of identified gang members climbed from 518 to 1,035. (These figures are not adjusted for population growth, and could reflect the growing awareness of gangs by the Mesa Police Department.)

And yet, the Mesa Gang Intervention Project is recognized nationally as the best of its kind. The Justice Department had planned to pull out of the project at the end of 1999, but asked the five pilot sites to justify another year's funding. Authorities such as U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, Mesa Police Chief Jan Strauss and Maricopa County Juvenile Court Services director Cherlyn Townsend wrote rave reviews. Only Riverside and Mesa were successful in getting fifth-year federal funding; Mesa will continue next year with $500,000 from the feds and another $350,000 from local sources.

When asked to identify the best anti-gang program in the country, Jim Burch admits Mesa isn't perfect, but says it's about as close as it gets.

That begs some questions:

Is the Mesa Gang Intervention Project the Justice Department's equivalent to the Pentagon's $640 toilet? At these prices, it might be effective to simply pay kids -- and they could be paid very well -- to eschew the thug life.

Or will this experiment provide the elusive model for limiting gang violence?

Irving Spergel has been studying gangs -- usually in Chicago, he's a professor at the University of Chicago -- since the 1950s.

Spergel believes it takes a village to defeat gang violence. Part of the theory has to do with exchanging information. For example, the cop and the probation officer should share details about individual gang members, to better assess what's going on in the neighborhoods and stop violence before it starts. The educators who see the gang member at school should be consulted. Information must flow freely.

And, Spergel says, it's not enough to focus only on the gang member. Younger siblings are at high risk for gang involvement; they need outreach from positive sources. And because gang activity often takes place in poorer areas, families usually need economic assistance and counseling. The fact that so much gang activity takes place in first-generation immigrant neighborhoods -- metropolitan Phoenix is a good example of this -- presents an even greater challenge, Spergel says, because of issues surrounding illegal immigration. People who aren't supposed to be in this country are afraid to ask the authorities for help with a kid in a gang.

The feds took an interest in gangs in the '60s, then largely ignored the problem until the mid-'80s. In the '60s, gang suppression was considered the province of social-service agencies; in the '80s, the cops came to the fore. But no one came up with a comprehensive approach until 1987, when Justice Department officials began to work with Spergel and his team at the University of Chicago to develop a model anti-gang program for midsize cities. It had been decades since anyone had done a comprehensive evaluation of an anti-gang program -- a key component of Spergel's model. The plan was finished in 1991, but sat on a shelf for two years before Justice officials announced a search for cities to implement the model.

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