Recently, the LAPD and FBI discovered images of children posing with firearms and flashing gang signs on the cell phones and social media sites of known gang members. 

One photo showed a child of about 10, dressed in pink pajamas, holding a Kalashnikov rifle at the camera. In another, a child of about four or five points a pistol at the camera. In a third, a child with a blue bandana over his mouth, gangster style, throws the gang’s hand sign.

The gang has been identified as the “Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips” of South L.A.  After an 18- month investigation, the LAPD and the FBI staged an August 30th raid and arrested over 30 gang members. The raid was code-named ‘Operation Thumbs Down”, in reference to the gang’s sign, which is two “thumbs up” signs in the shape of the letter “H”.  Since the investigation began, 60 gang members have been arrested, 32 firearms and over 10 kilograms of crack have been seized.

Authorities described them as a “multigenerational gang” consisting of approximately 1,000 members. The group is believed to be responsible for a string of criminal acts in South L.A., including crack dealing, illegal gun running, and thousands of assaults, burglaries, and home invasions.  They are believed to be associated with 29 homicides committed over the past 5 years.

Laura Eimiller, FBI spokesperson, stated that the photos of the children were obtained from the cell phones and social media pages of the gang members who were arrested in the raid, many of whom are “captains’ or shot-callers” in the gang’s three main crews.

“It’s a culture of violence,” said LAPD Commander Bill Scott. ‘When you grow up in a culture like that, violence becomes second nature. And that is the cycle we are trying to disrupt.”

Anyone who works in law enforcement can testify to the accuracy of the expression “a culture of violence”. This has been a nationwide problem for years, but it does not make the headlines. It is often ignored, because the powers that be either don’t know how to deal with it, or they do not WANT to deal with it. Perhaps they feel helpless.

The Department of Children and Families should remove the children from the environment, but there has to be proof of physical or emotional abuse. There are certain qualifications for a child to be removed from the home. The problem is so prevalent that there aren’t enough foster homes available. In 2011, there were over 350,000 children in foster care.

Growing up around violence in both the home and the community affects a child’s brain both physically and emotionally.  An estimated 3 million children in the United States live in a violent environment.  It has been proven that children who grow up in violent, abusive households have significantly smaller brains.

Children as young as 2 years old will emulate violent behavior and may perceive it as normal; every developmental process that the child experiences in his or her formative years are affected. Psychologists have equated the damage to a child’s brain caused by exposure to violence to the damage caused to the brain by combat stress, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Witnessing violence affects a child’s ability to learn, and they may have difficulty concentrating at school. It affects a child’s ability to forge nurturing relationships and inhibits the natural curiosity and drive to explore the world.

A study at Boston Medical Center indicated that 1 in 10 children have witnessed a stabbing or a shooting by the age of six.  Half the violence occurred in the community and half the violence occurred in the home. In Los Angeles, 10-20% of homicides were witnessed by children.  A study in New Orleans revealed that 90% of school children had witnessed some form of violence; over half had been victims of violence; and 40% had seen a dead body. They are at greater risk of becoming violent themselves, and they may have trouble adjusting to young adulthood.

I am reminded of the 1972 poem, “Children Learn What They Live”. How true it is! Children learn negative traits when they are surrounded by violence, drugs, and crime. In my hometown, we have third and fourth generation criminals. Like the children in the photos, they grow up believing the prevalence of drugs, guns, gangs, and criminal activity is normal.

I witnessed this when I worked with the Department of Juvenile Justice.  Some of the kids on our caseloads were from families with a criminal background.  Some were being raised by other family members, because their parents were incarcerated. Sadly, a lot of these kids became repeat offenders and “graduated” to the adult system.

This is not an excuse for criminal behavior; it is an illustration of how a culture of crime affects our children. A child is not destined to become involved in crime just because he or she grows up in a violent home or community; but it is difficult to turn way from the criminal lifestyle without a strong support network, especially from one’s family. It isn’t easy to stand alone.

It isn’t just the parents and caregivers who model bad behavior. There are famous people, like musicians and sports figures, who engage in violent criminal behavior and are hailed as heroes by the media.  There is music with explicit lyrics, glorifying criminal behavior. There are violent television shows and graphic video games. There are musicians that beat their wives/girlfriends and then brag about the fact that they are not in jail.  Michael Vick was arrested for operating a dog fighting ring, but is still allowed to play football. There are sports players and coaches who fight and have temper tantrums during games. The list is endless.

The worst part is that these people have such a tremendous influence on the younger generation. These are the people who our kids admire and wish to emulate.  By not making them accountable for their behavior, society is condoning the bad behavior. It is teaching our kids that violence, criminal behavior, and acts of rage or uncontrollable anger are acceptable behaviors; and that there are no consequences for such outrageous behavior.

There was a time that in order to play sports, it was mandatory to be a responsible citizen and a positive role model. Drugs, violence, criminal behavior, and bad sportsmanship would disqualify people from participating in sports. Perhaps if that requirement were reinstated, it would teach our children that good citizenship has its rewards, and that that are consequences for unacceptable, criminal behavior.

There ARE famous, influential people who are good role models, but they do not receive the recognition for it.  In fact, professional football player Tim Teebow is ridiculed for it.  Perhaps it is because they are humble about the good things they do, or maybe they just don’t make as good a news story because their behavior is not controversial. The media should focus more on people who are fine, upstanding citizens as good role models for our kids.

It has been said, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Although a child’s learning begins at home, we all share the responsibility of helping to mold a child’s life. All of us, particularly teachers, coaches, police officers, and other authority figures, play a significant role, whether realize it or not.

Unlike the famous people who model bad behavior, we should strive be positive role models. NEVER underestimate the influence one small gesture of kindness can have on kids.  Officers serve and protect our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, and there is a special connection between cops and kids. Most of us selected this career because we were inspired by the police officers we knew when we were kids.  To us, they were larger than life, real heroes. We can pass the torch, by modeling the core values that we would like to instill in our own lives: character, compassion, integrity, honesty, kindness, and justice, and most of all, love.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children learn with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition, they learn that it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those around them.

If children live friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

-Dorothy Laws Nolte

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