The Mayors and Police Chiefs Task Force leads a panel discussion on youth and gang violence.

The Mayors and Police Chiefs Task Force leads a panel discussion on youth and gang violence. Ellen Garrison / Medill

WASHINGTON – Community programs and law enforcement are crucial elements in preventing gang violence, a group of mayors sad Wednesday.

During the Mayors and Police Chiefs Task Force meeting, Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., also stressed the importance of including young people in gang prevention efforts. “It became clear we were talking about young people, not to young people…” he said, “so we started a youth commission.”

He said one of the outcomes of the youth commission was extending the hours in the public parks — giving young people a place to play basketball or just hang out rather than loitering on street corners.

Ronald Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Justice Department, said that who controls these open public spaces controls the neighborhood. He said “the greatest deterrent to gangs is not a neighborhood saturated with cops, but a neighborhood alive with residents.”

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason joined Davis in pushing the mayors to partner with the DOJ to increase community policing.

Mason said preventing young people from joining gangs is a fundamental issue.

“If we don’t embrace these young people now and get them on the right path, we will be dealing with them in more costly ways…” she said, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We can’t.”

The National Gang Center, which conducts the annual National Youth Gang Survey, agreed in an email with the focus on preventing gang membership. “Practitioners and policymakers should look beyond the traditional role of police officers as “crime fighters” through suppression of criminal activities, the email said. “Suppression alone is only a Band-Aid; it has no lasting effect on gang membership.”

Racine, Wis., Mayor John Dickert said five police jurisdictions in his area worked together and nearly eliminated gangs, but Congress then cut funding for the program.

Mason said the Justice Department offers competitive grants for gang prevention efforts, but not all cities will win the funding.