California gang violence is public health threat

Health officials say there’s a deadly threat to young people that most of us wouldn’t guess: murder.

According to the CDC homicide is the second leading cause of death for those between 15-24-years-old.

Overall, these deaths are a relatively small percentage of the country’s total mortality statistics. But public health experts are alarmed that gang violence continues to fuel homicides among young people.

A recently released CDC report studied five cities with high rates of gang murders.

Three of them were in California – Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The report looked at the rate of gang-related homicides to non gang-related homicides. Researchers report gang murders are declining around the country. But young, minority males are still the main victims.

The CDC report found in L.A. 61 percent of the homicides for 15-24-years-old stemmed from gang violence. In Long Beach it was almost 70 percent. 

Billie Weiss, an epidemiologist at the UCLA School of Public Health, says that gang violence in L.A. is a major public health issue.

On a basic level, she says it costs the health care system a lot of money. She says in the past hospital emergency departments in LA County have spent large portions of their resources on gang shooting victims. And taxpayers’ dollars bankroll most of that care.

Then Weiss says there’s the challenge of trying to stop it from spreading. 

“The theory of contagion is absolutely born out in gang violence,” she said.

Take a gang shooting, she says. If one person is shot, all the people around that person feel they have to retaliate. She says the violence then spreads from one gang to another, from one community to another.

Fernando Rejón is with an L.A. civil rights advocacy group, The Advancement Project. He says gang violence is an epidemic. Like a disease, he says it’s deadly and preventable. That’s why he says it’s important to take a public health approach to the problem. Rejón says a law-enforcement-only approach of arresting and locking up gang members can’t stop the deaths.

He compares it to trying to deal with malaria.

“You can give them the fly swatters and kill all the mosquitoes, but what are the root conditions that are breeding that violence and how is it culturally transmitted through generations?” he said.

Rejón says getting the community involved is more effective. He points to the City of Los Angeles Gang Reduction Program. When law enforcement and communities have come together to run programs in city parks with high rates of gang activity, they’ve seen results.

Rejón says in the summer of 2010 gang-related homicides dropped 57% around the participating park areas.

Now, Billie Weiss of UCLA says much more data collection and analysis is needed to identify what strategies work to reduce gang violence.

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