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L.A. police aggressively target hard-core gangs

The gang cop rolls through the Jungle, a warren of apartment buildings in Southwest Los Angeles notorious for violence.

"Wassup, Spidey," he calls out, cruising past a man he identifies as a crack dealer.

"Yo, White Man," Spidey replies.

Then the Los Angeles Police Department officer, Ryan Whiteman, turns down an alley where a gray-haired man in a maroon velour tracksuit is standing in a carport.

"Rudy, I know you don't live here," he says. "Why are you over here?"

Whiteman opens his door and hears the clink-clink of glass on asphalt. He drops his head. "Rudy, I know the sound of a crack pipe dropping. Give me that pipe!"

Rudy sheepishly walks it over. Whiteman shakes his head. "I just wanted to talk to you," the officer says.

He scribbles out a citation as he wheedles information out of the man.

Whiteman is in the vanguard of a push to target hard-core gangs, not with sweeping paramilitary force but with aggressive, targeted enforcement by officers who know the players in the hood.

The mayor's office and the LAPD are promising to consolidate thinly scattered anti-gang resources and pour them into 12 beleaguered neighborhoods -- gang reduction zones -- where intense suppression would be coupled with gang intervention and prevention programs.

That coupling reflects an epiphany of sorts, with law enforcement now voicing a refrain that has long been the lonely cry of civil libertarians and community activists: Street gangs are a social phenomenon that cannot simply be bludgeoned out of existence.

"What we've really had in the past is a mass incarceration strategy," said Jeff Carr, L.A.'s deputy mayor for gang reduction and youth development. "We've locked a lot of people up and we still have this epidemic problem."

In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that gang reduction zones would be the linchpin of his plan to overhaul the city's anti-gang efforts. The goal is to build a network of agencies and nonprofits to lock up hard-core gangbangers, break cycles of retaliatory violence and keep troubled kids off the precipice.

So far eight of the zones are running, with only the law enforcement part in place. The prevention and intervention side of the equation has been in disarray for years, with programs dispersed through different departments and never evaluated to see if they worked.

The mayor is vowing to change that. His staff hopes to have prevention programs rolling in July at six of the gang reduction zones and intervention workers under contract after that. Each zone will receive $1 million for prevention, enough to target about 200 kids, and $500,000 for intervention. Full evaluation of the programs will not be feasible until 2010 at the earliest, Carr said.

The Jungle, roughly between La Brea Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, south of Rodeo Road and north of Santo Tomas Drive in Southwest Los Angeles, was named a gang reduction zone in November.

The area's name came from the lush plantings of the pool apartments but has come to signify the gang warfare that emerged from the tropical facades. Although city officials re-christened it Baldwin Village years ago, many residents still call it the Jungle -- P. Stone Jungle, as it has been ruled by the Black P. Stones, a sect of the Bloods, for more than three decades.

The gated courtyards and carports of some 560 apartment buildings present a maze into which gangbangers can slip, and the area has some of the highest crime in the city. For years, the P. Stones have been at war with the Latino 18th Street gang to the north.

As casualties mounted, LAPD assigned Whiteman and two other gang-detail officers to the area in 2004. The next year, the FBI and LAPD swept through the area with federal drug indictments for 16 P. Stone leaders. And the year after that, the city attorney filed a gang injunction against the P. Stones, prohibiting them from congregating in public.

Police said the P. Stones had been involved in 1,500 aggravated assaults and 28 murders between 2000 and 2005.

Now eight gang officers focus solely on the nearly mile-square turf, rolling down the same streets over and over, using the injunction to conduct more searches and arrests, working directly with gang prosecutors.

With this level of contact in the neighborhood, they get to know the spectrum of faces, from upstanding residents to hard-core gang members.

Whiteman, 33, never stops working the crowd -- joking, chatting people up for tips, running names for warrants, searching pockets. "What's up, brother? Can I talk to you? I'm not going to arrest you."

On a recent Monday afternoon, he spots a young man retreating into an apartment complex on Coco Avenue. He lays on the gas and roars up.

"Gregory! Come here!"

Gregory is a 19-year-old Black P. Stone on probation for selling rock cocaine. Whiteman has arrested him at least twice. The young man tries to get in the wrought iron gate but doesn't have the keys. He glances back at Whiteman.

"I got the key, Gregory! I got the key!" Whiteman yells, dashing after him.

Gregory scrambles over the fence. Whiteman throws open the gate, but Gregory is gone. Whiteman could search all the apartments. But he knows he'll see him again.

He catches him the next day hanging on the sidewalk with another gang member and arrests him on suspicion of violating the gang injunction.

At times, arresting the same people over and over, Whiteman seems like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill. He hopes the promised gang intervention and prevention programs will gradually change that, cutting off the endless flow of new gang recruits.

With nonprofit groups in place, Whiteman could refer troubled kids he comes across to counselors and hope not to see them again.

He stops a clean-cut 13-year-old boy he busted two weeks before holding rock cocaine. Whiteman suspects the kid is just a runner for older boys.

"Staying out of trouble? You going to school?"

"Not really," the boy mumbles. "Trying to get enrolled."

He says he hasn't been in school for two months.

"What'd I tell you?" Whiteman says. "The judge is not going to be happy. That's too long for a young person to be out of school. What do you do all day, just standing out chillin'?"

"I stay inside until it's time to come out."

"I'm gonna check next week," Whiteman says. "If you're not enrolled, I'm gonna talk to your mom."

But he suspects the mom knows. He shrugs and gets into his patrol car.

The comprehensive approach to cleaning up a specific area has been implemented in the city only once so far, in Boyle Heights. Crime trended downward for two years after it began in 2003, but climbed back up in 2005.

So far, crime statistics in Baldwin Village show positive results. Serious crime has dropped 37% since the targeted enforcement began in 2004. The number of aggravated assaults has dropped 70%, although homicides have bounced from four in 2003 to nine last year.

In the eight gang reduction zones in operation, serious crime is down 4% from last year, and gang-related crime is down 14%, according to the LAPD. But some key gang crimes are up -- homicide by 33%, assault with deadly weapon on a police officer by 25%.

Police are hoping the third prong of the strategy -- gang intervention -- will have a dramatic effect in lowering the stats numbers.

Intervention mostly involves ex-gang members who still have pull with their former homeboys. Police have worked with many of them over the years to stop retaliatory violence, but the efforts have been sporadic and informal.

Now the command staff is trying reach out to them like never before.

"We're really good at solving shootings," said Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who jump-started an intervention initiative in South Bureau last year. "But the important thing with gang homicides is to stop the next one. We're not as good at that."

Yet many cops are dubious about the interventionists. They suspect some are just gaming the system for grant money and that others are still loyal to their gangs.

But the suspicions cut both ways. Intervention workers claim that police use the gang injunction to harass residents and put innocent people on the list. And they complain that cops try to use them as informants.

"They say: What's your value if you can't tell me who shot Ray Ray," said Skipp Townsend, a former Rollin' 20s Blood who runs the group 2nd Call. "Well, if I tell you who shot Ray Ray, I'll never work again in this community."

Whiteman says he hasn't seen enough intervention to make a significant difference in Baldwin Village. "There should be interventionists out walking the streets every day like police," he said.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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