Measure, yes, but mobilize on gangs

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 02:20 PM

Anything that helps focus our attention on how to curb gang activity and violence in Durham is a good thing, so in that sense, we’re glad the city is going to add a few questions to an upcoming scientific survey.

The agreement to add gang-related questions to a biennial city survey to gauge residents’ satisfaction with the community and government services sprang from criticism of a well-intentioned but not terribly useful more casual survey.

Jim Stuit, a city administrator charged with coordinating anti-gang strategy, essentially posted a survey on the web and handed out printed questionnaires in some places. That’s the kind of survey that tells you what the people who filled it out think, but in no way can you extrapolate those findings to the population at large.

A plus from Stuit’s survey, though, is that it helped again to generate community discussion around gang activity – and it did indicate that several hundred people were concerned enough about gangs to say so.

But there is a “what else is new?” aspect to that finding.

We’ve known for years that Durham has a gang problem and that citizens are concerned about it.  Past surveys have turned up concrete data. And the last Community Health Assessment in 2011 found that 45 percent of residents felt that gang violence was among “community-wide issues that have the largest impact on the overall quality of life in Durham County.” That was half again as many respondents who noted the second-most-cited issue, homelessness.

Measuring this is important. It helps to define the issue and helps us measure our progress.

But even more important is remaining focused on the many initiatives that are trying to grapple with the issue.

Young people are drawn to gangs for many reasons. They often feel disconnected from family and community. They may be lured by the chance to make more money than is conceivable otherwise, especially when surrounded by poverty and hopelessness.

To their credit, Durham Public Schools are tackling disconnection with a move toward smaller high schools, often as a school within a school, to foster closer connections between young people and teachers and administrators. Efforts like the East Durham Children’s Initiative aim to provide “wraparound” services and after-school engagement to keep kids from turning to gangs out of boredom or neglect.

Durham is far from alone in wrestling with the challenges of too-widespread drug dependency, and the pathologies it breeds – not least, the market for drugs that, because they are illegal, are almost by definition expensive and lucrative for those who deal in them.

Signs are that we are making progress against a gang culture, but we have far to go.

Seeking more and better data is important, as is continually evaluating the effectiveness of the tools we’re using in the fight. 

But we need not just to measure, but to mobilize a continued community resolve to discuss the issue openly, acknowledge it and to not let fatigue or parsimoniousness deflect us from the task.