OnCentral | Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

After-hours park program aimed at helping reduce gang violence begins in LA

Summer Night Lights youth squad members serve up food at South Park.
Summer Night Lights youth squad members serve up food at South Park.
Juan Posada

Wednesday kicks off the latest season of Summer Night Lights, an anti-gang initiative meant to curb violence by keeping L.A. parks open after-hours.

Now in its sixth season, the program takes place at 32 public parks throughout the city, which are chosen based on their proximity to areas with high rates of gang-related crime. In South L.A., there are multiple parks participating, including South Park and Ross Snyder Recreation Center.

Run through the Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, Summer Night Lights takes place Wednesday through Saturday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at each park. According to the mayor's office, evening hours are the peak time for gang activity. Through GRYD, residents are offered alternative activities such as sports, fitness and arts and crafts.

“One of the most direct ways that Summer Night Lights impacts neighborhoods is through the employment of local at-risk youth," said GRYD Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes in a statement. "The lessons learned through training and program implementation will stay with them long after the summer is over."

These teens and young adults are employed through the Youth Squad, a group of individuals that are trained on how to run the summer lights program and then paid a stipend to do so. They help manage the hundreds of residents that turn up to each park on a daily basis. Cespedes said last year that turnout size depends on the individual park, but can range from 250 people to more than 1,000.

"The continued partnership with our youth organizations and our community members has undoubtedly helped bring about positive change in youth culture," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck in a statement. "This program has been extremely effective, and we are excited about making this summer’s program another success.”

Last year, sites that participated in Summer Night Lights saw a 47 percent reduction in gang-related homicides, according to the LAPD. Many think the program has been effective in providing alternatives for teens tempted by the gang lifestyle.

But the program has not been without issue.

In 2011, the L.A. Weekly reported that two teenagers were shot in Wilmington after a summer lights event. In 2012, the Daily News reported that two young men working at an event in Sun Valley were also shot, one in the hand and another in the jaw. And there has been at least one other shooting connected to the program. 

Summer Night Lights will continue through August 9. The program is an initiative of outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and is in the budget for next year as well, according to his office.