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The Gang Problem: Difficult to Define and Even More Difficult to Solve (Part 1 of 3)

Author: Ron Eggers

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-05-15
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Gang Violence and Public Safety - Part 1 of 3 - West Coast

Originally published in our Aug/Sep/Oct 2009 issue 

Photos by the Author


“Once found principally in large cities, violent street gangs now affect public safety, community image, and quality of life in communities of all sizes in urban, suburban, and rural areas. No region of the United States is untouched by gangs.  Gangs affect society at all levels, causing heightened fears for safety, violence, and economic costs” - 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations.

As the Gang Threat Assessment indicates, gangs are a part of life of virtually every urban center and many suburban and rural areas in the country. According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), in 2006, the most recent year that there are figures for, there were some 785,000 gang members in the United States. They belonged to 26,500 gangs that are active in 3,400 jurisdictions across the country.

While the government has confidence in those figures, sources working with gangs say quantifying gang support is more complex than simply counting active members.  At the same time, the Department of Justice concedes that gang crime is under reported on a national basis.

As far as the membership count, in most gangs, there is the core group of active participants.  These are the killers, leaders, and violent criminals that can be tracked pretty closely.  There’s also the broader membership of less active followers.  They get involved in gang crimes, but are more petty criminals.  They can be more difficult to identify, but can still be tracked. These two categories comprise the gang members counted by the OJJDP.

But there are also gang supporters, the wannabes, and hangers-on who, for one reason or another haven’t achieved membership, but support the gangs’ efforts, are called on to act on behalf of the gang and get involved in drug distribution.  In total, loose gang affiliations and sympathizers could equal several times the actual membership.  It could easily be that 2 million or more youngsters across the country identify with gangs, actively support gang activities or associate regularly with gang members in anything from vandalism, to tagging, to illegal drug activities.

Most new gang members join between the ages of 12 and 15.  Young associates are the pool that the gangs recruit from.  Unless an active community-oriented intervention effort is made to keep these youngsters from joining gangs, many of them follow that lifestyle and eventually become full-fledged members.

The vast majority of gang members are male, but many females associate with gang members.  Some gangs admit female as full-fledged members, and there are all-female gangs.  Female gang members can actually be more violent than their male counterparts because they feel they have more to prove.  For the most part, though, the emphasis on enforcement and tracking is on males.

There are Latino gangs, African American gangs, Asian gangs, and white supremacist gangs. Many, like the Bloods and the Crips, MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), and the Aryan Brotherhood, are based on race. There are also biker gangs like the Hells Angels and the Mongols that have a racial component.  The Mongols, who are primarily Latino, started about 10 years ago when they were barred from joining the Hells Angels because of their race.  Now the rivalry between the two is deadly.  That’s the case between many long-time rival gangs.

The one thing all these have in common is that they derive their funding and status by illegal activities, with the primary source of funding being the distribution and sale of illicit drugs.  There are also some organizations, such as the influx of Russian gangs, which are somewhat of a hybrid between urban street gangs and traditional mobsters.  They have members on the streets and get involved in drug sales, but, they’re not as territorial, and they’re more heavily involved in traditional organized crime activities like prostitution and gambling.

As far as crime statistics, it’s hard to track gang crimes accurate. According to the OJJDP and the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, gang crime reporting is sporadic, at best. Jurisdictions frequently don’t report crimes that have been committed by gang members as “gang” crimes.  That has the potential to result in a significant under-reporting of gang activity on a national basis.  At the same time, jurisdictions that haven’t had gang problems in the past are reluctant to categorize street crime as gang crime, because that would mean they would have to admit that they now have a gang problem.  Usually it takes multiple major crimes, such as repeated drive by shootings, before some jurisdictions admit to their gang problem.  A better way of judging the effectiveness of gang crime interdiction is to track statistics of known gang areas in jurisdictions that have a proven record of reporting data accurately, such as the LAPD.

Gang Violence in L. A.

In Southern California, gangs have been around for almost a century. They’ve been a major problem in Los Angeles since the 1940s. When it comes to raw crime statistics, the peak of gang activity was from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s when there was an epidemic of traditional gang crime and killings.  Gang crimes have continued to fall since the beginning of the decade, but they are still a hot-topic political issues, to the point that LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently appointed Deputy Mayor Jeff Carr to be the city’s so-called “gang czar,” to coordinate programs within the city that deal with gang issues.

In some respect, things are getting better, in some they’re getting worse.  On the plus side, like major crime in general, gang crime is dropping. That’s the case throughout the country and in Los Angeles.  According to the LAPD, “Our gang crime is down: year to date over last we’re down 11%. Homicides are down 26%, aggravated assaults are down nearly 17%,” Lt. Charles Hearn, the officer in charge of the LAPD’s Gang Support Section, said.

Precise figures as to the number of gangs in LA are difficult to come by, ranging anywhere from 250 to 400.  According to the best guesses, there are more than 200 Hispanic gangs in LA, 100 or so Crips, 80 Bloods, and an assortment of other gangs. There were 394 gang murders in 2007. That’s down from 641 in 2002.

A good part of that success is because of the GIT program, which is changing the way the department approaches gang crime.  “We’ve done a tremendous job with our new GIT model, or Gang Intervention Team.  We’ve finally understood under Chief (William) Bratton, that we’ve got to merge the narcotics (enforcement efforts) with our gang (enforcement).”  One of the primary activities of gang members is drug dealing.  Drug dealing fuels many of the other crimes and is at the bottom of a large number of the murders.  The department has gone as far as putting some narcotics and gang officers under one command.  The pairing of on-the-street uniformed officer in the gang enforcement details with narcotics detectives has been synergistic.”

Besides GIT, the LAPD is also taking the lead in the CLEAR (Community Law Enforcement and Recovery) program, which was set up to facilitate the recovery of gang-infested communities through an infusion of coordinated resources into targeted areas of high gang crime.  It’s a suppression component that combines suppression of gang crime with traditional enforcement efforts, in addition to intervention and prevention.

According to the program’s administrative director, Detective Jorge Luis Martinez, “We have strong support from the Chief.”  The program also includes the LA mayor’s office and the city attorney; the LA County DA, sheriff’s department, and the probation department; and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

Funded through various grants, CLEAR started 12 years ago, but it is being reinvigorated.  Martinez explained that the CLEAR program focus the department’s efforts on those neighborhoods with the biggest problems.  There are 10 CLEAR sites throughout the city.  At each side, local management, operations and community engagement are handled by the Operations Team, which works closely with a Community Impact Team (CIT), composed of CLEAR personnel and community stakeholders.

“We’re doing a lot of prevention measures, we’re educating a lot of kids, all the way down to the elementary school level.  That’s where we need to start, that young.  We’re also educating the parents.  We’ve been doing a lot of (officer) training, and hosting conferences.  The whole thing is aimed at prevention and intervention.”

Armed LAPD officers clear a storage room after breaking up a gang party in a vacant office suite. 

Martinez said the program is working.  “I don’t want to say we’ve been successful, but it’s going in the right direction.  We’ve been able to suppress crime.  We’re getting better at what we do.  We’re being a little more creative.  We’re utilizing more federal resources.”  He admits, though, while there are certain neighborhoods that have benefited from the CLEAR program, there are also some where it hasn’t made a significant difference.

According to Hearn, each of the LAPD’s 19 separate precincts (with two more scheduled to be operational shortly) coordinates gang enforcement within their geographic area.  His unit provides support.  Each precinct has anywhere from eight to 40 officers assigned to gang interdiction.  All together, including Hearn’s unit, there are about 400 LAPD gang officers, with another 200 or so other officers of the departments 9000 sworn personnel also involved in gang suppression efforts.

Intervention and prevention is a key strategy for the department. “Although difficult to quantify it, we believe it is having a real impact (on the city’s gang problem),”  Hearn said. One of the components of intervention and prevention is outreach, and one of the things that seem to be working is the use of former gang members to help steer youngsters away from the gang lifestyle.  They play an instrumental role, particularly during crisis periods when there is an escalation of gang violence.

There are also things getting worse. “I think the biggest thing is that gang membership is becoming popular, in movies, in videos.  They’re making it seem like gang membership is cool.  We have to make the kids understand that it isn’t,” Detective Wayne Caffey, one of the department’s leading gang experts and its representative on the Los Angeles Regional Gang Information Network, said.  Going against and overcoming popular culture in the mass media can be a real challenge.  “Our department is trying to address those issues with the intervention and prevention programs, showing that (gang membership) isn’t something that you want to get into, all the negatives that come with it.”

Hearn agreed.  “Pop culture is everywhere.  It’s in MTV; it’s in video games.  Small kids want to emulate gang members ... they don’t understand that people get hurt.”  There are so many vulnerable kids in blighted neighborhoods, kids who might be lost or misdirected, that there’s always a new crop of recruits available.  “The hardest part is keeping these guys from recruiting youngsters.  Keeping the gangs for recruiting is a difficult thing. It’s not just a law enforcement problem, it’s society’s problem.  That’s why the LAPD is working with all sorts of people to solve the problem.”

If you live in a neighborhood, it’s automatically assumed that you’re a gang member.  That isn’t the case. According to various studies, less than 10% of kids in a neighborhood are gang members.  That leaves 90% potential members who are at risk, but might be savable.  These kids often seek the protection of the gangs because they live in rough neighborhoods and are frequently accosted by rival gangs.  But, with effective programs, they can be turned away from membership.  “It’s a tough choice for a young man, particularly in Los Angeles, in making a decision on how to survive,” Caffey said.

<Above: LAPD officers hog-tie and hobble a gang member who attacked an officer. 

Things like setting up midnight basketball leagues, keeping the neighborhood parks open longer, establishing recreational programs, offering mentoring programs and providing positive peer influence, are all being used to keep kids going into the gangs.  One very effective program is using officers who have grown up in the same neighborhoods as examples of what is possible.  “It shows them that there is a different way to go,” Hearn said.

In many neighborhoods, gangs have become generational. Grandfathers and fathers ran with the gangs that the sons are now in.  In some cases, the fathers want better for their sons than what they had, and make an earnest effort to keep them out of the gangs.  But often times, the older generation just takes a step backwards from day to day operations, but still gets involved in planning and supporting illegal activities.

Many families in gang neighborhoods have at least one member incarcerated.  Incarceration frequently doesn’t remove members from the gang hierarchy.  Senior gang members doing time in institutions like Pelican Bay who are part of groups like the Mexican Mafia direct their street underlings and run their illicit operations, distribute drugs, and mete out justice for out of line gang members or gangs that don’t kick in their share of the drug sales proceeds.  They stay in touch with their members through cell phones that are smuggled in.  For about $300, a prison inmate can easily get his hands on a cell phone to continue his illegal activities, even in solitary confinement.

Gangs aren’t just a ghetto neighborhood problem.  They are very prevalent in middle class America, particularly as more and more families have both parents working with latchkey children being left to fend for themselves.  As the old saying goes, “If you don’t raise your kids right, the streets will.”


Gangs in the OC

While the TV program The OC presented an idealized version of life in Orange County, California, the county is one of the most affluent areas in the country. It is the home of Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, and hockey’s Anaheim Ducks.  There are gated communities throughout the county. But not all areas are as affluent as Newport Beach or Laguna.

The largest city in the county, Santa Ana, has a major gang problem.  Santa Ana has 94 documented gangs with more 5,336 documented primary, secondary and associate gang members. That sounds bad, but that’s actually down from 10 years ago, when Santa Ana had more 8,000 gang members and associates.

The Santa Ana PD is considerably smaller than the LAPD, only some 365 sworn officers. But it does have very active Gang Suppression Unit, under the direction of Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo, and an aggressive Gang Investigation Unit, headed by Sgt. Jon Centanni.  These units primarily deal with the 300 or so hardcore gang members that are the shooters and leaders of the gangs.

One of the things that makes the Gang Suppression Unit as successful as it is the strong backing and support of Chief Paul Walters. It includes 13 officers assigned to suppression, four gang homicide detectives and two assault detectives.  There are also four graffiti task force detectives that frequently work with the gang unit.  The Gang Suppression Unit works as part of three Target (Tri Agency Resource Gang Enforcement) Teams that include police officers, probation/parole officers and prosecutors.  Offenders are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated and monitored after release in what’s sometimes called vertical gang containment or vertical prosecution.  That’s been very effective.

Many of the gang members have been in prison, and many of them have been on parole.  Probationers and parolees have considerably less rights than the average citizen.  Police can stop and search them and, in some cases, their vehicles and living quarters, without the need of a warrant.  They also have to be more careful not to get involved in questionable activities.  Some, for example, can be violated and sent back to prison simply for drinking an alcoholic beverage.  Working closely with the parole department, the SAPD’s Gang Suppression Unit aggressively goes after violators.  Pulling in violators gets guns and drugs off of the streets.

Gangs have changed over the last two decades.  They’ve become much more dangerous.  For the first 50 years of the growth in gangs, members carried knives and sometimes chains.  Now, guns are the weapons of choice.  Drive-bys and party blasting are increasingly common.  There are the cheaply made illegal handguns that are flooding the streets that just about any gangbanger can get his hands on.  And then there are the high-powered, high-priced semi- automatic and automatic weapons that are used by the hard-core criminals.  They are more expensive, but available. Gang firepower, at times, can exceed Police arsenals.

In previous generations, if there was violence, it was primarily directed at other gang members or targeted victims.  Certainly, there were times when innocent bystanders got hurt, but there wasn’t the random violence that’s seen on the streets today.  Today’s gang members will shoot into a crowd with wanton disregard for life, as if they’re playing a video game like Grand Theft Auto.  There’s a general consensus that kids have been desensitized by violent television shows and video games.  The accidental shooting of bystanders, which once was a rare occurrence, has, unfortunately, become commonplace.  In LA, numerous people, including youngsters, even some infants, have been killed by random drive-bys.

Like the wildfires that start from discarded cigarettes or smoldering campfires that devastate Southern California virtually every fall when the Santa Ana winds kick up, gang violence can easily be enflamed by any ember.  As one officer said, all it takes is one spark.  That spark could be something as dangerous as selling drugs on another gang’s street corner, or something as minor as a cold stare, a hard look, or a walk on the wrong block.  Anything like that can get a gang member killed.

If the stare is the spark, the killing of a gang member is the fuel that can easily result in gang-on-gang violence, which quickly spreads through neighborhoods like an uncontrollable wildfire.  That’s particularly the case of the edges of gang territories, where the frictions of one gang rubbing against another are the sparks that set the neighborhood ablaze.  It’s Bloods against Crips, blacks against Latinos, and white supremacists against anyone that they think doesn’t meet their paranoid definition of acceptability.  There are street corners in LA that are notorious as the intersection of multiple gang territories.


Organized Gangs

Making things even more difficult for the police, gangs are much more organized on a wide-scale basis than they’ve ever been.  Gangs like the Bloods and the Crips have always had a loose affiliation with their “bro’s” in other neighborhoods, but gang members generally stayed on their own turf, and their loyalty was primarily to their own homeboys.  Now gang members are much more mobile, frequently traveling to other neighborhoods, suburbs, cities and even other parts of the country.  Basically, they go to wherever the drug trade and other illegal activities take them, in the process either exporting the gang mentality to cities and regions where gangs hadn’t been a problem before, or coming in conflict with local gangs, that frequently results in turf wars and territorial battles.

There’s the real problem of LA gang members going out and getting involved in activities in different areas.  The need to move large amounts of drugs is prompting members to become closely associated with others in different geographic regions.  At one point, black and Hispanic gangs didn’t interact, unless adversely.  That’s changing. “Our black gang members know that that’s who they have to go to (to get their drugs to sell).  There are all sorts of animosity there as far as controlling neighborhoods.  There are a lot of groups that might not like each but when it comes to making money, but they’ll do business with the enemy in a heartbeat,” Caffey said.

The influx of LA gang members is increasingly causing problems in other parts of the country.  “They know that they can make more money outside of California than they can in California,” Caffey explained.  Then there’s also the problem of local gang members emulating what they see in Los Angeles.

The dispersion of the Hispanic population from the Southwest throughout the United States has brought the Latino gang problem, particularly MS-13, to urban centers in the north, increasing confrontations with established African American gangs.  The FBI estimates that MS-13 now has 10,000 members in 33 states.  That may also be a low estimate, considering that there are some 2,200 MS-13 members in LA alone.  More and more gangs are going national.  For example, the 18th Street gang is operational in 36 states.  Webs of affiliated gangs have been woven into the urban fabric of America.

SAPD officers break up a Halloween Party after shots were fired.

Gang activity can get expensive for communities.  Communities pay a heavy price in fear, as citizens of gang-infested neighborhoods are virtually held hostage by the violence.  Gangs destroy the quality of life in any areas that they are active.

Communities also have to pay for the added law enforcement manpower to fight gang activity.  Between salary, insurance, overtime, and other benefits, each additional officer that has to be devoted to gang crime can cost a department anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000.  Staffing costs can mount up fast.  And they have to pay to put gang members away, which is much more expensive than might be expected.  According to the Los Angeles Times, the County of Los Angeles spent $400 million in 2007 to prosecute 268 gang murders.  That works out to about $1.67 million per case.

Gangs have also gone international.  The deportation of convicted felon gang members to their countries of citizenship, whether they ever lived there or not, has exported the American gang culture to countries in Central and South America.  Some of these countries are now facing major gang problems that have been imported from the United States.  Many of the diaspora of gang members continue to be affiliated with their stateside core gangs, elevating the status and income of these gangs.

International organized crime has had an impact on domestic gangs. Drug violence is plaguing cities along the Mexican border.  Senior police officials and their families have been gunned down by feuding drug cartels in Mexican cities like Cuidad Juarez and Tijuana.  Beheadings and torture of rival cartel members are common.  That level of violence hasn’t come into the United States, but some of cartel-ordered murders stateside have been getting increasingly gruesome.

“Ninety percent of the drugs that come into the United States come in through Mexico now,” Caffey said.  “You’ve heard about the bodies that keep turning up down there.  We have Spanish language gang members who are tied into the cartels.  Hispanic gang members are being hired as hit men and distribution experts.  They’re doing all sorts of things for the cartels.”  That’s going to increase. According to a recent FBI report, the Mexican Gulf Cartel is stockpiling high-powered weapons and recruiting local gang members on both sides of the Texas border to prepare for possible confrontations with U.S. law enforcement.

Other international connections include the Russian gangs, which keep close ties with the motherland, and often remit U.S. income back to Russia. Earlier generations in the traditional Asian gangs, such as the Chinese Triads and Japanese Yakuza, had strong ties to their homeland. But for the younger generation of Asian gang members, those ties aren’t that important anymore.


Gangs Go High Tech

At the same time that gangs are becoming more mobile, they are also becoming more sophisticated.  There’s a greater use of computers, the Internet, PDAs, cell phones, and other technological devices to communicate with other gang members, coordinate activities and generate illegal revenue through things like identity theft and check forging.  They’re increasingly using social networking sites such as MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube to organize and publicize their activities.

There are gangs that are actively recruiting on the Internet.  Monitoring the Internet is one way of tracking gang member activity and associations.  Greater gang mobility, a larger potential membership base, more sophisticated communication techniques and the increase in wide-scale Internet crime have elevated illegal gang activity to level of organized crime under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statues.

Santa Ana PD Gang Detail officers locate and search a parolee at the corner market. 

Sgt. Centanni said that part of the sophistication is that many gang members are more subtle about their membership.  Centanni, who was a gang detective from 1995 to 2001, returned to the unit last year as its sergeant.  “The level of sophistication, across the board, the crooks, the cops, the technology, has increased.  When I started as a gang cop in ‘95, finding out who the gang members were was very easy. You went down to a corner, and he was standing there with five other guys, they had bandanas on, their shirts said which gangs they belonged to.  When you went to court, it was a straightforward process.  “In court, these guys are gang members because I said they were gang members.”

“Now that I’ve returned, things have become a lot more sophisticated. (Often) they don’t wear the colors, the tattoos.  In court, your word isn’t taken at value any more.  You have to prove that they are gang members.”  But the development of gang member databases, more sophisticated tracking technology, a better understanding of gang laws and a pooling of resources are all making a difference, Centanni said.

Local, state, and federal agencies are working together to counter what the FBI calls the “growing scourge.”  Since 2001, the bureau has been focusing on reducing violent gang crime.  By the end of 2006, it had established 170 Safe Street Task Forces, of which 130 are specifically targeting gangs.  More than 2,300 local, state, and federal investigators from 500 different agencies are participating in these task forces.  They’ve made almost 26,000 arrests and have gotten more than 11,000 convictions.  There have been more than 800 RICO and other racketeering indictments against the gangs.

Det. Caffey noted: “One thing that our department has done, that would probably help any other department, is networking with other agencies.  You want to network with the department of corrections, parole, probation, the sheriff’s department - anybody else who might have custody (of gang members).  You have to get every agency that’s affected by (gang activity) involved, working together.  Those partnerships really help us out. The only ones who have boundaries is law enforcement.  Gangs don’t have boundaries.  They have their territories, but not boundaries.  Dealing with gangs is really much more of a problem than any one agency can handle themselves.”  That’s what the LAPD is doing.  “We work closely with the FBI, the sheriff’s department, other agencies.”  That’s becoming increasingly more common as gangs become more mobile.

Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are cooperating like never before. A recent multi-agency coordinated raid against the Mongol motorcycle gang, for example, put most of the senior members of the organization behind bars.

Sgt. Brian Gallagher, one of four supervisors of the LAPD’s 77th Street Precinct Gang Enforcement Detail, advised anybody who’s in a position to set priorities or allocate funding for gang interdiction in their jurisdiction to ride along with their local police departments.  Most departments will accommodate such requests.  “It’s important that decision makers understand how things are at the streets and how officers work.  It can make a lot of difference.”

While there are a number of precincts in the city with major gang problems, the LAPD’s 77th Street Precinct, which covers 11 square miles of what used to be called South Central (a name that has been abandoned because of its association with gang activities and blighted neighborhoods) is at the forefront of gang interdiction.  Last year, there were some 2,400 gang shootings in the precinct, including 50 fatalities.  While that’s a lot, according to Gallagher, “That’s a big improvement.” It’s a return to more of the 1970s level (of activity).

The precinct has 40 officers assigned to gang details, the most of all the precincts, as well as eight gang detectives, four sergeants and one lieutenant.  Another 14 officers in the narcotics unit work closely with the gang detail under the GIT program.

Ride-alongs are helpful.  A few days on the streets doesn’t make one an expert, but, going out several days with the Los Angeles and Santa Ana gang details proved to be extremely beneficial in getting, at least, a somewhat better understanding of the gang problems in those jurisdictions.  I rode with Sgts. Gallagher and Carrillo, as well as the Santa Ana PD’s Det. Mauricio Estrada, president of the Orange County Gang Investigators Association.  While each approached the job somewhat differently, the one thing they had in common was an intense dedication to their jobs and the men and women they work with.  As Estrada said, “You couldn’t get a better job than this.”

Both Sgts. Gallagher and Lorenzo stressed the need to have dedicated officers working for them.  As Sgt. Carrillo said, “In order for everything to work right, you have to have people with passion.  It’s more than just a job.” Both commended the teams they supervised.

It was also surprising how open and straightforward these officers were about the gang problems on their streets, what is being done to combat it and what still needs to be done to do better.

One of the things that the Santa Ana police have been doing is increasing training for patrol officers in gang interdiction.  Officers who volunteer for the program, which is added duty to their regular assignments, become gang recognition specialists (GRS).

“Jon was part of developing the program where officers become certified as gang experts,” Sgt. Carrillo said.  That makes them more aware of the problems on the street and how to deal with them, and it gives them more credibility when testifying in court.”

Sgt. Centanni added, “We actually had been doing it here for years, as cross training.”  Now it’s more formal.  “It’s a yearlong process that involves a street officer who has shown an interest in the gang unit.”

That takes some of the pressure off of the officers in the gang unit. And develops future gang detectives.  “It helps you do search warrants, arrest warrants, all the investigative techniques that you might miss if you’re just doing patrol, all the things that you might need when you work with a gang unit.” There’s nothing extra in it for the officer, there’s no extra pay or additional benefits.  But it does help for landing assignments in the gang detail.  “That way you can hit the streets running, you can get to work right away.”

One approach that is time consuming, costly and manpower intensive, but seems to be working to reduce gang crime, is the gang injunction.  Gang injunctions are court orders that regulate public nuisances within specific safety zones.   Each gang member has to personally be read the terms of the injunction before it can go into effect.  But once served, the terms of the injunction are extremely tight.

They make it illegal for gang members to associate with other gang members, wear gang colors or markings, and, in some cases, even have tools for drug sales, such as cell phones and pagers.  Those members don’t have to do anything illegal to be rounded up.  All they have to do is break the terms of the injunction.  There are a number of them in LA that have been enforced for three or four years now.  Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is strongly behind them.  “We’ve found them to be very effective,” Sgt. Gallagher, said.

In Santa Ana, there’s only one such injunction in place.  It’s against the 134 members of the Santa Nita gang.  It’s working.  “Crime is down 50% in that 3/4 square mile area since we served that injunction, in July of ‘06,” Sgt. Centanni said.  Santa Nita is a third generation gang that evolved from a car club, years ago, into a criminal organization.  “It has worked wonders for us.  We’ve had 84 arrests, to date.”  There have been gang members who have moved out of the area because they can’t handle the injunction.  “It makes it easier for us to enforce gang laws.”

Another successful approach is gang sentencing enhancement provisions, which were first enacted in 1988.  They’ve been very effective.  If there is a gang component involved in a crime, additional punishment, separate from the punishment for the specific crime, is added on to the sentence.  “It took a few years before it had an impact, but once gang members began to realize what they were up against, it started to make a difference,” Sgt. Centanni, Said.

For example, there’s a three-year gang enhancement sentence for a robbery.  There’s a firearm enhancement if a gun was involved, and there are other enhancements.  “Gang members started thinking that they might never get out of jail, just for one robbery.” Sgt. Carrillo added.

Gang enhancements can stop even smaller crimes.  Graffiti is a good example.  Taggers spray gang monikers throughout their territories.  In most cases, spraying graffiti is a misdemeanor.  Much of it is done by tagging crews, which generally aren’t considered to be gangs.  “They’re doing vandalism, but they’re not doing murders, grand theft autos, robberies, and other illegal activities.  But, if gangs are involved, the crime can be elevated to a felony,” Sgt. Carrillo said. That can stop them before they move on to bigger crimes.  Not always, but often enough, tagging crews morph into or become associated with gangs in neighborhoods that are referred to as tag-bangers.  Stopping them early can be beneficial to a neighborhood.  Similarly, other minor crimes can be bumped up to felonies if it’s proven that gang activity is involved.

Community outreach programs aren’t going to take the place of parents, but they do help.  Some programs are working.  “They have real credibility with gang members,” Det. Caffey said.  Groups like Homeboy Industries, a Boyle Heights organization that helps Latino gang members and ex-convicts get back on the right track by offering them jobs in one of its various enterprises, has made a real difference in their communities.

The SAPD has set up the Early Prevention and Intervention Commission (EPIC) to address gang crime and gang-related violence using a public and private partnership.  The commission meets monthly to address pressing gang-related problems in the community.

But officers on the street don’t have quite as much confidence in the persuasion activities of former gang members.  There are times when they wind up arresting the so-called reformed gang members who are spearheading community involvement, for the same crimes they were initially apprehended for.  And there have been cases were large community gang outreach grants have been given organizations that have continued in their illegal activities.

Getting out of gangs is extremely difficult.  Members are frequently “jumped in” and have to be “jumped out.”  In other words, gang members beat up new members and again, more severely, if they are allowed to leave at all.  Interestingly enough, the one thing that still holds some weight with gang members, who are frequently religiously superstitious and have the Virgin Mary and other church symbols (along with anything from Darth Vader to pictures of their girlfriends to gang signs) tattooed on their bodies, is when a gang member is returning to the church.

“Gang members don’t respect the church as they once did,” SAPD Det. Estrada said, “but that’s still a way to get out.”  However, it requires convincing gang members that that’s not just a ploy, which can be difficult.  Still, that’s one reason why faith-based organizations have been successful where other community groups might have come up short. 

Hopefully, the current trend towards reduced gang crime will continue.  The one thing that just about everybody interviewed for this article agreed on that would be helpful is added resources, in other words, additional manpower and additional money.  But that’s the case in almost all law enforcement situations. The more resources available, the more effective the fight.

Ron Eggers is a Senior Editor with Newswatch Feature Service specializing in covering police, fire, public safety, communications, and technology, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.

Read Part 2: The Gang Problem: East Coast, by John C. Fine

Read Part 3: Gang Migration: Midwest by Mikael Karlsson (includes sidebar: Europe & Gangs)



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