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Ends-Based Model of Multi-Dimensional Policing

Suppression, Intervention and Prevention is a three-pronged model often cited as a comprehensive, responsible, and effective approach to combating gang violence in urban areas throughout the United States. This model, also known as the Spergel Model or the Comprehensive, Communitywide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression Program, forms the cornerstone of anti-gang strategies for many of the largest law enforcement agencies.

This approach has been adopted by the county of Los Angeles on an experimental basis. The city of Los Angeles is in the midst of an evaluation of intervention and prevention initiatives, aimed to parallel suppression efforts already undertaken by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Analyzing the Spergel Model

Rather than blindly accepting the Spergel Model as conventional wisdom, it is time to examine the underlying premises and potential fault zones that ultimately may render this model ineffective at changing the culture of violence prevalent in some sections of America.

First and foremost among these potential hazards is the political orientation of the players involved. Suppression is the domain of law enforcement agencies, which have been considered overwhelmingly conservative in philosophy and approach. Crime control efforts centered around rational choice theory dominate the suppression aspect of the Spergel Model.

Get-tough-on-crime strategies are favorites among politicians vying for electoral support and law enforcement leaders, some who have made careers out of picking the “low hanging fruit” while policing socio-economically distressed communities. While there have been many law enforcement leaders who have acknowledged that there is no plausible way to arrest oneself out of intractable crime problems, it remains the only solution in play.

Perhaps this is because of the unwillingness to pursue alternative strategies or perceptions of alternative strategies as being out of synch with conservative political philosophy, i.e. “soft on crime,” or “all bark and no bite.” Community policing, problem-oriented policing, and similar strategies suffer this reputation routinely.

Intervention, another element of the Spergel Model, is something of a hybrid philosophy in that there are very few programs in place of any significance, and their viability remains in question due to budgetary constraints. There are many newsworthy stories of abuse within intervention programs, and for lack of consistent, long-term success, their future is still up in the air.

One of the major setbacks of intervention is that many consider it folly to attempt to modify adult behavior and that money spent on this endeavor is money wasted that could be better used in suppressive or preventative efforts.

On the other end of the political spectrum lies the prevention element of the Spergel Model. There are many brick-and-mortar bureaucracies built around theories of prevention, and chief among them are the social service agencies of county and municipal governments.

In a parallel fashion, these agencies tend to attract individuals who are decidedly liberal in nature, armed with the belief that there is a program for every problem afflicting individuals and communities as a whole. Some of the programs touted by the SIP model and funded by social service agencies are after school daycare programs, literacy and employment initiatives, and Boys and Girls Clubs, to name a few.
Both the extreme right of the Spergel Model, suppression, and the extreme left of the model, prevention, have philosophical core beliefs that are not only politically incompatible, but they also ignore the underpinnings of gang violence in our communities.

The suppression model, ensconced in the criminal justice system, ignores modern integrated theories of criminality while in pursuit of a utilitarian model that has proved to be woefully inadequate at curbing crime, while at the same time extraordinarily successful at filling prison systems beyond capacity.

The prevention side also suffers from a disconnect with reality in that sophisticated criminal enterprises use and abuse social services to subsidize gang activity as a viable way of life. Suppression advocates also point to the dangers of creating a culture of dependency among recipients of social services.

While one side rationalizes criminal behavior, the other rationalizes the response to illicit behavior as being an acceptable price for modern society. Is there a viable solution to the intractable stalemate of the Spergel Model? In affirming a response, we must first reframe our concept of gang violence and the presence of multi-generational gangs within our communities.

A Holistic View of Gang Violence

One way to look at our current situation is to acknowledge that gang problems tend to arise from multi-generational criminal enterprises embedded within otherwise law-abiding communities. These host communities then have residents who fall into one of two categories: those who abide by the social contract, attempting to pursue “the American Dream,” and those who have rejected the social contract, living a parasitic life.

From a sociological perspective, the host community then supports the criminal enterprise in the form of willing and unwilling subsidies, much like a parasite feeding off of a larger organism.

What does this parasite look like? Evidence abounds of their presence, usually in numbers that exceed the livable area of the properties they occupy, either by lease or as homeowners. Their unwelcome presence in neighborhoods usually serves as a platform for the presence of other gang members from the same gang.

Host residents subsidize their presence directly through the devaluation of property values, loss of personal security and freedoms, and increased expenses for crime prevention efforts and actual losses from criminal activity. These can all be considered unwilling subsidies that benefit the ongoing presence of criminal enterprises.

Going back to rational choice practitioners in the Spergel Model, individual gang members do fall into the waiting hands of suppression agents, however, this activity can best be viewed as the treatment of a symptom, not a cure for a disease. The disease is that multi-generational criminal enterprise in the form of dysfunctional families residing within disorganized communities.

The closest approach to a comprehensive effort from the Spergel Model is the gang injunction, an area still dominated by the rational choice model, which does not address the underlying existence of criminal enterprises. These multi-generational gangs have shown resilience to increased police presence, and it is not difficult to believe that criminal elements adapt to police tactics just as police departments react to crime trends.

As crimes rise and become concentrated in certain areas, a predictable pattern that emerges from most law enforcement agencies is the “task force commando.” These efforts, while receiving considerable media attention, tend to be temporary in nature, and as soon as statistics return to some predetermined level of tolerability, they are abandoned without much fanfare.

The only long-term success stories of note tend to focus on community policing models that are permanently incorporated within the operational and philosophical practices of local law enforcement agencies. The two most promising aspects of these efforts are the development and continuity of local knowledge and the very unglamorous acts of evictions and nuisance abatements.

A Multi-Dimensional Approach

Given the philosophical balkanization inherent within the Spergel Model, suppression advocates have little involvement in prevention efforts, just as prevention advocates share little of the burden of suppression. What is needed is a model built around an entirely different frame of reference, one that places the top priority in establishing and preserving the peaceful coexistence of members of a community over the pursuit of law enforcement as an end unto itself.

This model is referred to as the Multi-dimensional or 3D Model, which is an acronym for Disrupt, Dismantle, and Discourage. Note these three words are verbs, as opposed to nouns, and the difference from the nouns of the Spergel Model is intentional.

The 3D model offers an inherent advantage over the Spergel Model from the onset, in that organizations and individuals across the political spectrum, regardless of agency affiliation, including the public, non-profit, and other non-governmental organizations, can play a role in each element of the model.

While maintaining a focus on the product of dysfunctional families in disorganized communities, all stakeholders can take a part in the first element, disrupt, by disrupting the activities of criminal enterprises that arise out of these conditions.

Traditional policing can address criminal activity, municipal leaders can address code enforcement issues for homeowners, business owners, and absentee landlords. Community groups and concerned parents can assert their influence over wayward youths and the locations they tend to congregate within their neighborhoods.

A healthy campaign of disrupting criminal enterprises’ routine activities leads us to the second element of the model, dismantle. Again, the activity of dismantling criminal enterprises can be shared across organizational boundaries. While law enforcement and city attorneys can enforce gang injunctions, landlords can evict tenants involved in or supporting local gang activities. Parents, teachers, and school administrators can monitor campuses for violent activities and gang recruitment efforts.

The third element, discourage, results from the coordinated efforts of all stakeholders in the community in preventing criminal enterprises from regrouping and gaining a foothold in a new location. On an individual basis people can provide the environment for at-risk youths to toe a much-needed line of law abideness.

One of the primary strengths of this model is that all three elements can be exercised by all stakeholders involved, be it the criminal justice system, representative government at the municipal level, social service agencies, non-profit agencies, church groups, community organizations, and by community members at large.

The Network: A Post-Bureaucratic Model

From a strategic perspective, one of the inherent weaknesses of multi-generational gang families and local gangs is their reliance on the control of identifiable real estate within a given community. When their activities overstep the intended, lawful use of property under their control, robust code enforcement, nuisance abatement, and proactive policing efforts can be quantified and tracked based on geocoded data.

Geographic information system (GIS) applications can provide the necessary accountability of the model as a whole by matching targeted locations with a multi-pronged abatement effort that seeks a permanent change in the socio-dynamics of the affected community.

The 3D model is, in essence, a transition in philosophy from a rigid, hierarchical brick-and-mortar bureaucratic model that provides political cover and budgetary turfs into an entirely different approach—one that creates a network of affiliated organizations working in collaboration toward common goals, a network that shares resources, responsibilities, and the results of their efforts.

The Spergel Model provides reams of operationally useless but politically prized organizational outputs, whereas the 3D model focuses on the outcome for the community. The Spergel Model can be viewed as treating the symptoms of an illness, whereas the 3D model emphasizes the cure of the underlying disease as the ultimate goal.

Granted there will be an expected resistance from certain quarters within a given community, and they will typically be the extended families and associates of criminal enterprises, which may include prominent members of the community. Debating this model in the light of day, with the inclusion of all stakeholders, can render the conflicts of interest of these individuals visible for all to see and addressed in a public forum.

One can also expect a degree of resistance from those who wish to prolong the status quo due to their positions of authority and their psychological investment in a system that has provided for their individual success—hardly the hotbed of demand for change.

One can view current policing efforts in Southern California as a collection of public relations policing and political policing, models that are long on maximizing the political windfall for the proponents of policies and programs with a political context, but tragically short on sustainability and long-term results for the community. There are many examples of this, such as superficial community policing strategies, service-oriented policing, “public trust” policing, and the ubiquitous task force for just about anything.

The primary advantage of the 3D model is its flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances, something reactionary bureaucracies by definition are ill-equipped to handle. The skill sets involved in working in a collaborative relationship across agency boundaries are relatively new to law enforcement and will require the commitment of dynamic leaders working across networks.

Introducing structure to disorganized communities and accountability to dysfunctional families is the direction we need to embark on in order to create a viable solution to our current state of affairs. Facing an anticipated decrease in public resources, we cannot expect a utopian society to emerge from within our communities. We can, however, leverage the resources at our disposal in innovative ways in order to maximize our ability to address one of the most vexing challenges to our community: gang violence.

Ultimately, the debate needs to center on matters of substance over style, which has dominated the law enforcement landscape for far too long, at the expense of actual change. In light of the ongoing carnage in the streets of our cities, it is time to pursue real change over business as usual. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice made an important observation in her evaluation of Los Angeles’ anti-gang efforts to date, in that the potential of our solutions needs to equal or exceed the magnitude of our problems.

A word of caution is in order, however, with the ubiquitous use of the term “comprehensive” for the Citywide Gang Activity Reduction Strategy or similar strategies adopted across the country. Its use usually translates into a lot of money spent, a lengthy time in development, and a product that may ultimately be too unwieldy once delivered.

The post-bureaucratic public sector needs to embrace the concept of networks, and organizations need to adapt to the changing environment. Ultimately, whatever anti-gang strategies the city and county of Los Angeles pursue will be nothing more than political theater, designed mostly for constituent consumption, unless there is an honest effort at fundamental change across the socio-political spectrum. The multi-dimensional policing model is a good road map with which to start.

Dr. Alexandro Villanueva is an adjunct professor in the Criminal Justice Department of California State University-Long Beach. He can be reached at

Photos by Mark C. Ide

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2009

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