Invisible Scourge

While society frets over the threat of school massacres, a more insidious and lethal rampage mounts on the streets, unacknowledged

In the past three years, the rate of gang homicides in Phoenix has skyrocketed by nearly 90 percent. In 1996, street gang members killed nine people. In 1997, 11 people were murdered by gangs. In 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, 17 people died at the hands of gangs in Phoenix.

That's 37 gangland murders in three years.

These numbers were not noted in the media.

Images from an anti-violence PSA created by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council.
Images from an anti-violence PSA created by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council.

In the wake of eight months of relentless media coverage of the shootings at Columbine High School, the nation's top state prosecutors gathered in Phoenix earlier this month for a conference.

The National Association of Attorneys General wanted to let everyone know that they, too, were committed to ending the "outbreak" of school shootings.

So they enlisted the help of MTV.

On December 2, the prosecutors sponsored a "forum" at Horizon High School in northeast Phoenix. The purpose: to discuss "options" to fend off future Columbine-like school shootings in Arizona.

Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano announced to the audience of students, parents, politicos and, of course, attorneys general, that preventing violence against youths is a "national priority."

Then she turned over the microphone to Ananda Lewis, the star MTV emcee. Teens concurred with Lewis that it is preferable to "talk things out" than to ice each other in the library.

"It's amazing what can be accomplished if we could only talk things out more often," Lewis said.

Under a headline that read, "Looking for options to stop the violence in schools, Arizona students fight back," a December 3 Arizona Republic article about the forum failed to note that not a single public school student died in a hail of gunfire in an Arizona classroom this year.

Or last year.

Or the year before that.

Or, our research indicates, ever.

And if gangs were mentioned during the AG-MTV talk fest, the Arizona Republic did not report it, nor did it note that gang-related incidents were documented in at least 25 percent of the state's schools last year.

But in fact, gangs pose a far greater threat across America to juveniles and adults alike than psychotic teenage marksmen like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

From October 1997 to April 1999, a total of 29 people -- students and teachers -- were killed in school shootings in the United States, according to Time magazine.

In contrast to the 29 people who died in school shootings in the past two years, 4,251 gang-related murders took place in this country's major cities during the same time frame. The data come from the Tallahassee-based National Youth Gang Center, a division of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is the only agency that collects national numbers on gang-related crime.

Most cities in the country have experienced decreases in gang-related homicides since 1996, the last year for which statistics are available.

At the very time gang homicides have decreased in most communities, Phoenix is one of the few cities where gang-related homicides increased, says David Curry, a University of Missouri criminology professor who has pulled homicide numbers from the database of the center in Tallahassee. In fact, Phoenix was the only city among the nation's 10 largest that experienced a steady increase in its gang-homicide rate.

Los Angeles and Chicago, two cities known for their gang problems, saw 44 percent and 19 percent decreases in gang homicides, respectively, during the very same years that Phoenix suffered a 90 percent increase in gang murders.

"Whatever caused crime in general and gang homicides in particular to begin declining is not happening . . ." in Phoenix, says Curry.

Gang homicides rose in Phoenix even as overall crime rates decreased in Arizona, following a national trend.

And today, there are more gang members in Phoenix than ever before, according to Phoenix police records. In 1996, Phoenix police documented 4,136 gang members. By the end of 1998, the number of documented gang members had risen to 6,776.

A rise in gang membership generally signifies a rise in gang crimes. Researchers have discovered that gang members commit three to four times as many crimes as non-gang members, including juvenile delinquents and regular criminals.

In a 1998 city-sponsored "Community Attitude Survey," Phoenix residents listed the need to "combat" gang crime as the top priority. In fact, 73 percent of Phoenicians reported in the survey that they would be willing to pay more money to fund "programs to counter gang activities" within the city limits.

If ordinary citizens are distressed by current gang violence, the media are generally loath to cover it meaningfully or consistently. The three-year surge in gang-related murders in Phoenix, for instance, has been all but invisible because it has not been reported in the state's press.

This year, in the state's largest newspaper, Columbine took up the ink with approximately 600 stories mentioning the Colorado shooting. Last month, for example, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix, inevitably, would have its own Columbine.

On November 24, the Republic reported the arrests of two white 16-year-olds, Christopher Ciulla and Matthew Russ, who were charged with attempted murder in connection with an alleged plot to kill fellow students at Moon Valley High School. The Moon Valley case was "eerily reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado," the Republic said.

In fact, the Moon Valley case was eerily reminiscent of gang violence.

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