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Crime statistics and gang membership numbers for 2009 are two puzzle pieces that just don't fit. One is down, but the other is up. While gang membership nationwide is reaching almost 1 million according to federal statistics, the violent crime rate dropped to its lowest level since 1973.
According to USA Today, the hard numbers are these: last year saw a 25% jump in gang membership from 2005, as recorded by the National Gang Threat Assessment. But, according to a National Criminal Victimization Survey from the Department of Justice released in September, 2010, crime statistics show the violent crime rate declining to 17.1 incidents per 1,000 people in 2009, down from 19.3 incidents in 2008.
Further numbers reported by USA Today only intensify the confusion. Taking representative statistics from cities with major gang problems like Chicago and Los Angeles, the same upwards/downward levels are shown. In Chicago, for example, gang membership is up to 105,000 in 2010 from nearly 70,000 in 2000. Yet the murder rate is down and on pace to match levels not seen since 1965.
Chicago Police Commander Leo Schmitz attributes the puzzling statistics to police efforts to remove top gang leaders. "We've taken out so many of the leaders -- stone cold killers -- that it has fractured some of these organizations," Schmitz told USA Today. The leader-less gangs appear to further fragment as lower level members spin off with outfits of their own.
In Los Angeles, gang membership in the city is up to about 45,000 this year from about 43,000 in 2008. Police Detective Jorge Luis Martinez cites work by former gang members with victims and friends after shootings to reduce retaliation as partly responsible for the drop in LA's violent crime rate.
One tool mentioned by Detective Martinez is the use of restraining orders or injunctions to control gang activities. For well over a decade, California and Illinois prosecutors have used injunctions and temporary restraining orders as a tool to limit gang activities. The constitutionality of these injunctions was brought before the California Supreme Court in People v. Acuna.
Whether the tools officials use to fight gang membership are effective or not is debatable given the new numbers. But with the numbers for violent crime descending, Los Angeles Police Detective Martinez is clearly correct when he told USA Today, "We've been very fortunate so far. We're going in the right direction."