Policing Gangs: Case of Contrasting Styles : Strides Made by Sheriff’s Dept. Cast a Pall on Methods Used by the L.A. Police Dept.
Friday night. A darkened street in Boyle Heights. Sgt. Faryl Fletcher, a Los Angeles police gang expert, cruises by in an unmarked car as 10 Latino gang members lean against a truck.
The faces of the gang members are frozen in Fletcher’s spotlight, their eyes defiant. “Damn, I’d like to jam those guys,” Fletcher says.
To “jam” is Los Angeles police jargon. It means to randomly stop, frisk and question. With so large a group, Fletcher needs backup, and he radios for assistance.
But other anti-gang officers are too busy to respond. “Damn,” Fletcher sighs, “I wish we could jam ‘em.”
Friday night. A darkened street in Lynwood. Sgt. Curtis Jackson, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s gang expert, cruises by in an unmarked car as a dozen black gang members shoot dice.
“Hey, homeys, wuz happenin’?” Jackson asks the “home boys” (gang members) on the sidewalk, who wave and continue gambling. Their leader promises to finish the game “in a minute.” Smiling, the sergeant takes him at his word but says he’ll be back in two minutes.
“These people aren’t dumb,” he says, pulling away. “They’re street soldiers. You gotta approach ‘em like that. They got thinking minds, just like policemen.”
The two encounters speak volumes about the sharply contrasting philosophies, tactics and effectiveness of Los Angeles County’s two largest law enforcement agencies in their struggles against the epidemic of street gang violence.
For the Los Angeles Police Department, the war on gangs is led by the 145 officers of CRASH--Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.
Its counterpart in the Sheriff’s Department is the 52-member Operation Safe Streets (OSS).
But except for common adversaries--gangs and gang violence--the two elite units share little else. In their missions, their manner, their training and turnover--and their apparent success in curbing gang violence--they are vastly different.
Gang crime statistics provided by both the police and sheriff’s departments show that OSS--battling twice as many gang members with only a third as many officers--has done a more effective job in fighting gang violence than its more widely known counterpart, CRASH.
The CRASH mission is “total suppression” of Los Angeles’ 160 street gangs and their 12,500 members.
In pairs and in strike forces, CRASH officers, two-thirds of whom work in uniform, handle virtually every gang crime in the city. They also “jam,” or harass, gang members wherever they find them, at the same time collecting intelligence on gang activities.
The OSS mission is “target suppression” of the 239 gangs and 25,000 gang members in the contract cities and unincorporated areas that are in the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction.
OSS deputies, all of whom work in plainclothes, “jam” gangs as well, but only those they target as the most criminally active. Deputies say they do not ignore non-targeted gangs, but they usually do not make a point of arresting those gang members for minor transgressions, such as curfew violations.
“We just get on the case of the bad gangs until they knock off whatever they’ve been doing,” OSS Sgt. Curtis Jackson said.
When gangs are targeted, OSS makes arrests for significant as well as minor crimes, including loitering and even swearing in public. The strategy, sheriff’s officials believe, forces otherwise violent youths to police themselves.
Gangs remain targeted until they behave themselves and are no longer a major crime problem. Then, the deputies move on to other gangs but keep an eye on those already suppressed. There are currently 92 gangs on the OSS target list.
“It’s like eating a big block of ice,” Jackson explained. “You can’t eat the entire block at once, but you can chip off pieces of it and eat the whole thing eventually. That’s what we’re trying to do with gangs.”
The strategy may be working.
In 1979, OSS’ first year of operation, the Sheriff’s Department recorded 92 gang-related homicides. The Police Department had 115.
By 1985, the Sheriff’s Department reported that its gang-related homicides had plummeted to 57--a drop of 38%--even though its jurisdiction had grown to include several additional contract cities where gangs are found. During the same period, the number of gang killings in the city of Los Angeles climbed slightly to 120.
A similar trend was seen in other categories of gang violence, particularly felony assaults. In 1979, there were 1,608 such assaults in the sheriff’s jurisdiction, compared to 1,070 in the city. But by 1984, the sheriff’s gang felony assaults had fallen 13% to 1,402; the Police Department’s had climbed 44%, to 1,548.
Both sheriff’s and police officials acknowledge that the criteria used by each agency to define and report gang crime are virtually the same.
Overall gang violence has increased in both sheriff’s and police jurisdictions over the last five years, but the comparative growth has been much slower under OSS.
In 1979, the Sheriff’s Department logged 2,781 major, gang-related crimes, far exceeding the Police Department’s 2,088, but in 1984 the OSS tally was 3,872 such crimes compared to CRASH’s 3,985.
“That’s not to say that their program doesn’t work and ours does,” observed Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Chancellor, who heads OSS. “I just think that ours works a little better.”
Police officials defend CRASH as having “held the line” against gang crime but conceded that major changes are being considered. Chief Daryl F. Gates is expected to take under review this month a long-range study on how to combat gangs.
“We’ve seen a 25% growth in the number of gang members and street gangs in the last five years, but we really haven’t appreciably changed our deployment,” said the Police Department’s top anti-gang officer, Cmdr. Lorne C. (Larry) Kramer.
One proposal included in the study is to base CRASH officers at 12 station houses, rather than at three large bureaus in South, West and Central Los Angeles, as they are now, Kramer said.
The decentralization proposal would force regular patrol officers to become more involved in the fight against gangs, a responsibility that many street cops have “abdicated” since CRASH emerged in the late 1970s, Kramer said.
Further, Kramer acknowledged that last year CRASH adopted the OSS tactic of targeting particularly violent gangs. The Police Department, he said, also began sending patrol officers to an eight-hour gang awareness school at the Police Academy to remind them that policing gangs should not be left exclusively to CRASH.
“We don’t have the resources for CRASH units to handle all gang crimes,” Kramer said. “. . . Until we have the resolve of everybody, including the community, we’re just going to continue to flounder.”
Asked why the Sheriff’s Department has statistically outperformed the Police Department in slowing the rise of gang violence, Kramer replied:
“I don’t know, but if there is an answer, it may be because the sheriff doesn’t have the challenge of a highly concentrated, demographic urban area. The gang members we’re talking about are confined to a much smaller space, which gives rise to more hostilities and more rivals between opposing gangs.”
But police supervisors closer to the street and sheriff’s deputies say that demographic differences between the two agencies’ jurisdictions and the gangs themselves are not significant enough to explain so wide a statistical disparity.
‘Same Kinds of Gangs’
“Basically, we’re still talking the same kinds of street gangs . . . in the city and the county,” said Lt. Robert P. Ruchhoft of the Police Department’s 26-officer Gang Activities Section, which monitors CRASH and gangs throughout the city from police headquarters downtown.
“Maybe (OSS) is doing something we’re not,” he said.
Besides the contrasting gang-suppression tactics, OSS deputies say another difference may be OSS’ emphasis on developing rapport with street sources--from gang members themselves to their mothers. Those sources, they say, frequently provide intelligence that can be used to help thwart violence before it occurs.
“A regular officer wearing his uniform and driving around in a black and white (patrol car) looks pretty formidable and is not really all that approachable,” OSS’ Sgt. Jackson said.
“We drive unmarked cars and wear (green-colored sheriff’s) jackets. The ‘gangbangers’ know us, and we know them. They’ll talk to us while they might not talk to a uniformed guy,” he said.
During a recent ride-along in Lynwood, Jackson stopped regularly to talk and joke with gang members as well as other street sources. Some came out of their houses to lean into his car window and visit.
At one point, the deputy drove to the home of a teen-ager at the request of the youth’s mother and spent 15 minutes counseling him about the dangers of gang involvement.
In contrast, on two nighttime patrols in Central and South Los Angeles, CRASH sergeants did not stop once to talk to gang members or others on the street, except at crime scenes, a Times reporter observed.
When CRASH officers did meet gang members, the atmosphere was confrontational, the dialogue hostile. Their contact with the gangs is rarely positive, officers say.
“We’ve found that being friendly with these guys just doesn’t work,” said Sgt. Thomas C. Jones, a three-year CRASH veteran who patrols in Watts.
Few gang members are deterred by anything but direct confrontation, he said, and that requires “jamming” gangs to remind them that “they don’t rule the streets.”
Difference in Treatment
While CRASH officers may not be hostile to each youth they stop, Los Angeles gang members say there is often a definite difference in the way they are treated by police and sheriff’s gang specialists.
“The sheriff understands where you’re coming from; he’ll treat you like a man,” said one gang leader from South Los Angeles. “They don’t call you ‘little punk’ this and ‘little punk’ that, like the cops do. The sheriff’ll kick your ass, but you gotta provoke him.”
Gang leaders complain that they have seen CRASH patrol cars cruise through their neighborhoods flying ribbons or pennants in the colors of rival gangs to taunt them.
What’s more, gang leaders say, members have been picked up by CRASH officers and deposited dangerously deep inside rival gang territory.
“That’s nonsense,” CRASH Sgt. Jones said. “We’re too busy to play games.”
Others familiar with CRASH believe that officers often prejudge all gang members--or those they believe to be gang members. Consequently, many CRASH officers have alienated themselves from street sources whose information could help prevent violence, critics charge.
“The impression you’re left with when you see (CRASH officers) out there is that they look at every kid as problematic,” said Ruben R. Rodriguez, a Latino activist in the San Fernando Valley who has counseled gang members. “Under the police’s system, it’s impossible to build rapport between the two sides.”
Still, CRASH supporters say that the unit is as effective as it can be given its resources.
Heavy Workload Noted
“They’re not a juvenile division; they’re not out there to improve the quality of life,” said Councilman Robert Farrell, whose district in South Los Angeles is considered a gang hot spot. “The workload is so high, unfortunately, that they have to spend all of their time knocking down crap.”
Until the late 1970s, the Police Department had no formal gang unit, although a handful of officers had educated themselves on the gangs that have existed in Latino neighborhoods since the 1940s.
In 1977, with black gangs emerging as a formidable criminal element and Latino gangs continuing to pose problems, department administrators received a one-year federal grant for a special, 44-man unit to concentrate on neighborhoods where gang crime was heaviest.
Based at the Hollenbeck Division in East Los Angeles, the unit was dubbed Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums (TRASH), but civic leaders thought the acronym disparaging. The word “community” was substituted, CRASH was judged a success and the city took over funding in 1979.
As gang violence escalated in Los Angeles--major crimes more than doubled from 2,088 in 1979 to 5,158 in 1981--CRASH evolved as the department’s primary gang enforcement unit.
“The initial purpose and intention of CRASH was to target specific hard-core gangs,” Kramer noted. “I think that over a period of time, because of the mushrooming of gangs and gang members, CRASH was put in a position of having to deal with the much larger, overall problem.”
Concept Emerges in 1976
The concept behind the sheriff’s OSS unit emerged in 1976, when Sgt. Jackson, then assigned to the Firestone station in South-Central Los Angeles, proposed that deputies there focus all of their attention on one particularly violent gang. The result was impressive, according to sheriff’s officials: gang-related crime statistics dropped 50% in six months in Firestone’s patrol area.
After a one-year federal grant, OSS received county funding in 1979, and teams of deputies were assigned to sheriff’s stations in East Los Angeles, Firestone, Lennox, Lynwood and Pico Rivera. OSS teams now are based at four additional stations--Carson, Industry, Lakewood and Norwalk--as well as the county’s Central Jail.
“By conserving our resources and directing them to the most highly active, most violent gangs, we can have a direct impact,” OSS’ Chancellor said. “If we took our same resources and directed them at all 239 gangs, we would be largely ineffectual. Massive uniform suppression is not a panacea to the problem; it is only a stopgap solution.”
Yet that, essentially, is what CRASH has been forced to do because of the growth of gang violence, Kramer said. As a result, the unit has been spread thin, he and others believe.
A year ago, after Gates named him the department’s top anti-gang officer, Kramer wrote to the Chicago Police Department for suggestions on how to best handle gangs. Chicago, whose 345-officer gang unit is the largest in the country, utilizes both uniform and plainclothes “gang crime specialists” to gather intelligence on that city’s 10,000 gang members. The unit also relies on uniformed “tactical officers,” who patrol in marked cars and are assigned “directed missions”--covering specific areas of Chicago where gang members are known to congregate,
But despite its size and strategies, Chicago’s gang unit could offer little help, according to Chicago’s anti-gang commander, Edward C. Pleines, who responded to Kramer’s letter.
In 1984, Chicago recorded 3,839 gang-related crimes, including 72 murders.
‘Not Going Anywhere’
“We’re not going anywhere,” Pleines lamented in a recent telephone interview. “. . . There’s no one button you can push that’s going to eliminate (gang violence).”
In other cities, particularly New York and Philadelphia, gang membership and crime statistics have declined in recent years--but not by employing specialized police units to crush gang activity.
Instead, after studying the effectiveness of high-profile, CRASH-type enforcement, officials in those cities have put their emphasis on counseling programs.
“We spend a lot of time talking to the kids, and it has a big deterrent (effect) here,” said Sgt. John Galea, who heads the New York City Police Department’s gang intelligence unit and has compared notes with Los Angeles police gang specialists.
“In L.A., I don’t think there’s a dialogue. The kids out there don’t have anyone to talk to,” he said.
When there is dialogue between CRASH officers and gang members, it is most likely after the gang members have been stopped and frisked. It is rarely a situation conducive to building rapport. Gang members are questioned about their gangs or others. Their answers are carefully noted, and their pictures are often taken.
The information gleaned in such field interviews finds its way into files so extensive that gang members can later be identified by their nicknames and their cars. Even photographs of their tattoos are filed, cross-referenced by body parts.
OSS also maintains thousands of mug shots of gang members taken, not in the field, but in jail bookings. Deputies say they rely less on the photographs than on their street acumen.
‘Don’t Need Pictures’
“We don’t need pictures to know who the gang members are,” OSS’ Chancellor said.
Others would agree.
“The sheriff’s people seemed better organized with a better grasp of the overall situation,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Horn, who spent five years heading the district attorney’s Hard Core Gang Division.
“(CRASH) did have some pretty good guys with a good understanding of the gangs and where to find them,” he said. “But unfortunately, they usually got promoted and transferred; then they’d bring in a new guy with no real gang experience.”
While CRASH officers receive no formal gang training after being chosen for the unit, a new OSS deputy will spend 40 hours in class studying gangs. He later attends another 40-hour seminar on techniques of investigating juvenile crimes.
OSS has little turnover.
“Our people usually stay several years because they like it and because it takes that long to develop expertise,” Jackson said. “We don’t have very many vacancies.”
In comparison, tours of duty in CRASH lasting less than two years are not uncommon. It is an assignment from which talented officers are often promoted and transferred swiftly.
Ruchhoft of the Police Department’s Gang Activities Section said he believes that new officers bring to CRASH “fresh blood and fresh ideas.” Familiarity with the streets, he said, is not sacrificed nor are street sources developed by CRASH officers who transfer from the unit.
“Any officer who can develop informants can pass them on to new guys,” Ruchhoft said. Nonetheless, many residents who live in gang areas say they are hesitant to trust officers whom they’ve never seen before.
‘Good Thing Going’
“We had a good thing going for a while with two CRASHers a couple of years ago,” said Leon Watkins, who runs an inner-city mission on South Vermont Avenue. “Those two officers got close with the gang members. Both sides knew each other. They got the gangs to paint buildings, and the officers came down on their off-duty time and helped. It showed what could be done with the proper people. . . .
“Then they got transferred. I don’t even know the officers out there now.”
Ruchhoft said CRASH officers should be routinely transferred every three years because “there’s a tendency after a while for a guy to sit back and rest on his expertise.”
“You’re gonna get all the (gang) expertise you need in six months anyway; anything else is gravy,” Ruchhoft said.
OSS deputies scoff at that assertion.
“When it comes to gangs, knowing the players is everything,” Jackson said. “You have to be out there talking to them, building your network of snitches. Six months isn’t enough.”
LOS ANGELES CITY AND COUNTY, 1978-1984
Attempted Felony Armed Homicides Homicides Assaults Robberies (LAPD/Sheriff) (LAPD/Sheriff) (LAPD/Sheriff) LAPD/ 1984 119 60 236 93 1,548 1,402 1,836 1983 123 57 253 72 1,438 1,431 2,343 1982 103 54 326 45 1,697 1,372 2,655 1981 167 64 353 63 1,982 1,607 2,243 1980 192 90 420 NA 1,825 1,865 1,145 1979 115 92 293 NA 1,070 1,608 354 1978 92 60 281 NA 849 1,245 255
Total Armed Gang-Related Robberies Major Crimes* /Sheriff (LAPD/Sheriff) 1984 1,772 3,985 3,872 1983 1,858 4,481 3,988 1982 1,513 5,175 3,526 1981 1,408 5,158 3,894 1980 1,006 3,952 3,398 1979 676 2,088 2,781 1978 452 1,682 2,068
* Includes homicides, attempted homicides, felony assaults, battery on a police officer, rape, kidnap, robbery, arson and shooting at inhabited dwellings .
Included under category “felony assaults” for years 1978, 1979, 1980 .
POLICE AGENCIES WITH ANTI-GANG UNITS
Officers Size of No. of Gang No. of Gangs in Anti-Gang Police Members in in Respective Activities Dept. Dept.’s Area Area Chicago 345 12,000 10,000 110 LAPD 201 7,000 12,500 160 New York City 75 25,000 2,202 66 LA Sheriff 50 6,200 25,000 239 San Jose 11 1,000 125 5 San Diego 10 1,400 1,200 24 Phoenix 7 1,748 2,700 28 San Francisco 6 1,991 750 5
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