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No single leader can stop gangs

Our Opinion

Portland Mayor Sam Adams is correct: Escalating gang violence in the city requires a robust response from community leaders. We don't believe, however, that Adams - despite his role as Portland's police commissioner - is the only, or even the primary, person who should provide such leadership in the battle against gangs.

That's not a knock against the mayor. Rather, it is a recognition that the gang problem isn't confined to Portland. This a regionwide issue that requires a response on many levels. It's also true that mayors, whatever their leadership abilities, aren't on the front lines of fighting gang activity.

Gang violence is a rising concern in the Portland area following a series of gang-related incidents during the summer culminating with multiple shootings last week. Adams has responded with a list of ideas for reducing the illegal use of guns - and some of his proposals deserve consideration.

Involving the right people

But while new laws and tools are important in fighting gangs, the most effective action Adams can take has nothing to do with legislation. The mayor should use his bully pulpit not solely to push new laws, but to encourage other leaders and community members to work intently to keep young people from entering or remaining part of the gang lifestyle.

Who should those other leaders be? Mayors, police chiefs and city councilors for other cities that share a gang problem with Portland - including Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Canby and Oregon City.

The list of potential gang preventers also should include religious leaders, the directors of nonprofit organizations, educators and parents. Many of these leaders or their organizations already are participants or partners with Portland's Gang Violence Task Force, which was created by former Mayor Vera Katz. And yes, we agree with those critics who say Adams ought to be physically present at the meetings of a task force that had its origins in the mayor's office.

The leadership that will stem the tide of gang violence can come only partly from politicians or even police officials.

Parents, ministers, teachers, counselors, social workers and community members are the ones who can do the most to steer young people in the right direction by watching out for gang activity, reporting to police what they see and spreading the word that people who get involved in gangs are likely to end up damaged, dead or in prison. It's a sad fact that some parents and community members - even those with the best of intentions - aren't always successful in delivering this vital message.

As Portland neighborhoods have gentrified, new residents have discovered the trendy coffee shops and restaurants, but they may not yet be venturing into schools or youth programs, where their volunteer talents are needed. As anti-gang activists have said,'Everyone needs to take care of a child who's not their own.' People must be concerned about gang activity even if it's not their home that was fired upon - and even if the problem seems far removed from their particular street.

New laws only go so far

The real gang crisis could be that the typical Portlander often sees no crisis, and therefore will not get involved to work toward a safer community.

We aren't ruling out anti-gang legislation or measures suggested by Adams and others. Among ideas worth exploring are curfews, injunctions prohibiting known gang members from associating with each other or tougher jail sentences for those caught using guns illegally.

But harsh laws can go only so far to deter gangs when the larger challenge is to convince young people that they can find hope, success and a sense of belonging in the mainstream of society, rather than on its criminal fringes.