Crafting Local Responses to Gang Problems: Case Studies from Five Cities

By Painter, Ellen; Weisel, Deborah Lamm | Public Management, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Crafting Local Responses to Gang Problems: Case Studies from Five Cities


Painter, Ellen, Weisel, Deborah Lamm, Public Management


It was 4:30 p.m. on September 20, 1990. Rush hour was just beginning in Austin, Texas. A bus driver who regularly stopped at 5th Street and Congress Avenue looked into his rear-view mirror as he pulled away from the stop. He saw half a dozen youths on the intersection's southwestern corner begin to cross the street toward a dozen youths on the northwestern corner. He could tell by their gestures and facial expressions that a fight was about to begin. Then, abruptly, he heard gunfire. The violence he had previously only read about was now happening in the middle of the central business district - a gang confrontation complete with guns, violence, and chaos.

The day before the Congress Avenue shooting, 18-year-old Arthur Harris, a member of one of East Austin's gangs (the Este Grande Varrios, or EGV) had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The news reports said that his biggest dream had been to quit the life of a gang member. The next day, some of Harris's friends and fellow gang members, hurt, angry, and depressed by his death, got into a fight with members of a rival gang they suspected of insulting the memory of their deceased friend.

And fight it out they did. Armed with a 9mm Smith & Wesson, EGV members found the offending Latin King gang members in front of Eckerd's Drugs at the bus stop at 5th and Congress. The groups taunted each other with words and gestures. As the EGVs approached the Latin Kings, one of the Latin Kings pulled a glass bottle out of a trash can and threw it at the EGVs. One of Arthur's grieving friends pulled a gun from a fanny pack around his waist and opened fire. Three people were hit: a 16-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy (both with the Latin Kings), as well as a 61-year-old man who had tried to stop the fight.

The Congress Avenue shooting was a decisive event in the history of the Austin, Texas, Police Department's response to gangs. The death of reluctant gang member Arthur Harris sparked a movement that made controlling gangs the number-one item on the agenda for the public, elected officials, and the police department.

Austin's Response

In the six years following the 1990 shooting, the police department, in dialogue with elected officials, schools, social services, and citizens, worked to craft an appropriate response to gangs. They examined numerous types of responses - multidisciplinary prevention efforts, gathering and sharing of gang information, enforcement, investigations - and the city implemented some of these responses.

After the Congress Avenue shooting, some citizens expressed their belief that the police department needed a special unit devoted to gangs. At that time, the department, under Chief Jim Everett, chose instead to pursue a broader response - not centered on a single, specialized unit - that would incorporate prevention, education, and enforcement. Everett began a departmental reorganization and added antigang responsibilities to the duties of several groups of officers.

The Criminal Intelligence Unit started its own local gang file and began publishing weekly bulletins on gang-related activities. Officers were trained in how to recognize and report gang activity. The district attorney's office committed itself to high-priority prosecution of gang members and obtained criminal histories from the Criminal Intelligence Unit. A new, two-person Gang Liaison Unit developed a public-service media campaign urging kids, "Say no to street gangs. Say yes to your future."

These police department changes took place in the context of a citywide effort to provide integrated services to at-risk youths. In 1991, the mayor and city council added more than $1 million to the city budget for youth programs, the first increase in six years in such areas as health, social services, and child care.

Specialized Unit

These antigang efforts following the Congress Avenue shooting largely remained in place until October 1994, when the Austin Police Department implemented another major shift in its response to gangs by forming a specialized gang unit.

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