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Criminal Justice

Using Pickup Basketball To Counter Gang Violence

Some of the action at the three-on-three tournament at Robinson Park.
(Emily Elena Dugdale
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Lose two games and you’re out.

Using Basketball To Counter Gang Violence In Pasadena

That was one of the few rules at the three-on-three basketball tournament held last weekend at Robinson Park in northwest Pasadena.

The vibe was more cookout than competition; a DJ blasted Nipsey Hussle courtside and the smell of hot dogs grilling cut through the scorching summer air.

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“We playing for $500, so that’s why I came out,” said Russell Thrailkill II, who put together a team of friends.

But there was a lot more going on than just a hoops tournament. With his service dog at his side, gang interventionist Mark Sutton surveyed the agile young players, mainly teenagers and twentysomethings.

“The vision of this event is exactly what you see,” he said. “You see community members playing ball with gang members.”

Sutton said the day was meant to be casual.

“Even the gang members don't know. They think they're just here to play,” he said, gesturing at the court filled with players.

To protect their privacy, I’m not sharing who’s who.

A man in a striped shirt and sunglasses has a whistle around his neck. He walks around a basketball court as several young men stand nearby.
Gang interventionist Mark Sutton pitched this event earler this year and is planning another basketball tournament for August.
(Emily Elena Dugdale

Pasadena has leaned on gang interventionists to mediate conflicts between gangs and try to curb gun violence.

There have been a handful of fatal shootings in the area around Robinson Park — including the killing of 13-year-old Iran Moreno Balvaneda right before Thanksgiving last year. He died from a stray bullet while playing video games in his room.

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Pasadena hired gang interventionists in Dec. 2020. Violent crime dipped the following spring, but the downturn didn’t last. The police department recorded 73 shootings in 2021, compared with 60 in 2020 — a 22% increase. Six people were killed by gun violence last year.

Pasadena also now uses ShotSpotter, a controversial gun detection system that drew praise from some city officials and ire from critics who argue it stigmatizes neighborhoods of color and can lead to biased stops and searches.

Sutton doesn’t believe the technology can do what community violence prevention can do on the ground. “At the end of the day, gangs is here,” he told LAist earlier this year.

The vision of this event is exactly what you see. You see community members playing ball with gang members.
— Mark Sutton, Pasadena gang interventionist

So part of the interventionists’ job is getting creative in their efforts to stop the cycle of violence.

At the beginning of this year, Sutton and two other interventionists pitched the idea of a three-on-three tournament to a room full of Pasadena parks staff. One thing they asked for was minimal to no police presence, and they got it — I didn’t see any uniformed police officers at the park.

Sutton said their approach is succeeding — it’s been a quiet summer so far.

“This is the time when violence is at its height. It’s not a coincidence that it’s not at its height right now,” he said. “It's the work that we're doing.”

Two men stand around a rectangular table with a small electronic scoreboard on top of it.
Gang interventionists Mark Sutton, left, and Flavio Andrade, right, check out the scoreboard.
( Emily Elena Dugdale

Some interventionists think the city needs to do more to promote their work and support events like the basketball tourney. Standing at the hot dog grill, interventionist Flavio Andrade pulled out a city flyer announcing the event in small print.

“A normal gang member, my friend, is not going to see this,” said Andrade, who had put on a handball tournament earlier in the day with the same goal as the basketball competition.

Speaking of the hoops tournament, he said, “I paid for the food. So where’s the city in this?”

A group of men stand in a huddle on a basketball court, heads down. One man, back to the camera, has a basketball in his left hand.
Two teams circle up to review a play that a bystander recorded.
(Emily Elena Dugdale

As the sun beat down on the players, some didn't make it to the end of the day.

Player Kevin Whitaker came over to Sutton and announced, “Two dudes on my team quit!” Sutton told him to grab some guys from the sidelines.

At the end, the winning and losing teams bounded off the court with big smiles.

Sutton doled out $100 in cash to each member of the winning team. The runner-ups didn’t leave empty handed — they got gift cards.

“Cheesecake Factory! Hello. That’s a meal for you and a lady,” one player teased another as they rifled through the prizes.

“We need to do more stuff like this for the city,” said Russell Thrailkill. “Cuz we got hella hoopers!”

They said they’d come back when Sutton puts on another tournament in a few weeks.

“I’m gonna bring all the homies out here,” his friend interjected excitedly.

Sutton said he couldn’t have asked for a better day.

“We’re in the heart of gang culture, gang community — and nothing, right? And that’s important,” he said.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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