Rise in gang violence

by Brenda Maceo

Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County have increased dramatically in the last 16 years, reaching epidemic proportions especially for young male African Americans and Hispanics, according to a study by co-authored by Deirdre Anglin, assistant professor of emergency medicine at LAC+USC.

The study was published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"Every day, as emergency physicians, we see the tragic results of gang violence," said Anglin. "We conducted the study to determine the trends in gang-related homicides in Los Angeles and the populations at greatest risk-hoping that if we get a more accurate picture of what is taking place we can begin to work toward finding solutions."

Using data from the homicide files of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD), the study showed that from 1979 to 1994 there were 7,288 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County-of which 5,541 occurred in LAPD or LASD jurisdictions.

During that time, the proportion of all homicides in the county which were gang related increased from 18 to 43 percent.

Of the 5,541 gang-related homicide victims included in the study, 86 percent were between 15 and 34 years of age. African Americans and Hispanics comprised 93 percent of all the gang-related homicide victims, and 96 percent of all child and adolescent victims. Ninety-three percent of the victims were males.

Firearms were used in an increasing proportion of homicides, up from 71 percent in 1979 to 95 percent in 1994. Deaths by semi-automatic handguns showed the greatest increase, jumping from 5 percent in 1986 to 44 percent in 1994. According to the LAPD and LASD, L.A. County has the largest number of documented violent street gangs of any county in the U.S.

The study results showed also that of homicides where the race of both victim and perpetrator were known, 82 percent were intraracial murders (i.e. Hispanic vs. Hispanic, African American vs. African American).

A majority of the gang-related homicide victims (64 percent) were identified as gang members, however one third of all victims had no gang involvement.

"We know that gang members are 60 times more likely to die from homicide than the general population," said Anglin. "Those who live, play or work in communities where there are large numbers of violent street gangs are at increased risk of injury and death from gang violence."

Two thirds of all child and adolescent homicide victims in L.A. County are victims of gang violence.

Study authors state that the most likely reasons for the increasing numbers of gang-related homicides are an increase in the use of firearms, worsening socioeconomic conditions, and a breakdown in sociocultural institutions. Drug trafficking has not been shown to be a major factor.

"Other studies have shown that the estimated societal cost (medical costs and lost productivity) of one firearm death was approximately $1 million," said Anglin. "Eighty percent of medical costs for victims of violence is uncompensated care borne by taxpayers." "Clearly preventing violent street gang formation is of utmost importance," said Anglin.

In the JAMA article, the authors stress that interventions must be directed at alleviating the root causes of violent street gang formation (i.e. poverty, lack of education, unemployment, underemployment, stressed families, racism, and the breakdown of sociocultural institutions). Injury prevention programs must also be instituted, they say, and must be community based; and a concerted effort must be made to control firearms, in particular illegally-obtained firearms.

In addition to Anglin, study contributors included: lead author H. Range Hutson, who was on the faculty at the USC School of Medicine when the study was begun and is now at Harvard Medical School; Demetrios Kyriacou of Olive View- UCLA Medical Center; Joel Hart of Calif. State Univ., Los Angeles, and Kelvin Spears of Martin Luther King/Charles Drew Medical Center.

To view Deirdre Anglin's profile, visit http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/experts/24.html

Another USC authority on gang violence is USC College professor Thomas Ward. To view his profile, visit http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/experts/1387.html