To the average gang member, his car is his life.
Often purchased with profits from drug sales, a gang member's car serves as a party-mobile and assault vehicle for incursions into enemy territory, as well as an emblem of wealth and status.
Officers of the Inglewood Police Department gang unit say the distinctive vehicles favored by gang members are easy to spot: Suzuki Samurais, customized pickup trucks with blaring speakers mounted in back and vintage, low-rider Chevrolets.
So, taking advantage of the fact that many gang members drive without licenses or registration and commit other infractions, Inglewood police have stepped up efforts to pull the wheels out from under them.
Police say a three-month offensive teaming motorcycle officers and gang officers has helped reduce gang activity in the city, which has experienced an 8% drop in crime in the first nine months of 1987. Nationwide, crime was down 1% in the first half of the year.
Fewer Drive-By Shootings
A drop in drive-by shootings is one indicator. Lt. Les Friesen, head of the gang unit, said "three or four" such shootings have been reported since August, compared to one or two a week previously.
"We're almost worried," Friesen said. "It's too quiet out there. We never realized how effective this could be."
Armed with tougher laws--such as one that permits seizure of a vehicle with an expired registration of a year or longer--police have focused their efforts on Crenshaw Boulevard and the streets near Morningside and Inglewood high schools.
Since August, more than 1,000 citations have been issued for such violations as driving without a license, loud radios and driving without wearing a seat belt. More than 90 vehicles have been impounded. Eleven stolen cars have been recovered, along with drugs, guns, beepers and other paraphernalia used by drug dealers and gangs.
"We pulled over a 17-year-old kid outside of Morningside in an $18,000 Aerostar van," Friesen said. "Five electronic pagers. Two cellular phones. Compact discs everywhere. Wearing a Fila sweat suit. He didn't have a license. The main thing he was upset about was that we were taking the phones and the pagers along with the van, because that was his livelihood."
Many of the young people who have been pulled over were not gang members, Friesen said. And of the about 40% who did have a gang affiliation, many were not from Inglewood, he said.
"We've had Hoover Crips and Rolling 60s from L.A.," Friesen said. "We had a Mexican gang from San Pedro. The outside gangs are the ones most likely to cause trouble. They're also scared to death if we tow the car, because they're in hostile territory and they have to run the gauntlet."
The high schools that several years ago were prime cruising spots and flash points for after-school violence have become relatively peaceful, police and administrators said. Part of the credit goes to Project HOPE, an anti-truancy program instituted three years ago by the city and school district.
On one recent weekday afternoon, the effects of the traffic crackdown were evident.
"Smitty's got one," Friesen said as a call from another officer near Morningside came over the car radio. Friesen accelerated into the parking lot of a market at 107th Street and Doty Avenue, where Officer Lloyd Smith had stopped an old Cadillac without brake lights. A squad car and a school district security car also converged on the scene.
The driver, a tall youth with an earring, turned out to be someone that Smith, from the youth's several narcotics arrests, knew to be a "lieutenant" in a local drug ring. His car registration was long expired and he had no driver's license.
"I have no sympathy for you," Officer John Winters told the protesting youth after summoning a tow truck. "You're driving around selling drugs and causing trouble. Next time I catch you, you're going directly to jail. Walk safely, now."
Traffic officers in cars and on motorcycles provide a show of force. The fast and maneuverable motorcycles also discourage drive-by shootings, said Sgt. Elton Burkette of the traffic division.
The traffic officers play the heavy by "arresting cars," as the gang members call it, Burkette said. Meanwhile, the gang officers play "good cop," talking with drivers who get stopped, determining whether the youths belong to gangs and photographing them. Those officers' job is to collect information by establishing rapport.
For example, after a conversation with Smith, the driver of the Cadillac was cited and allowed to go home rather than to the station.
Stalking along a line of cars and dejected young drivers pulled over in front of Morningside, Officer Rod Ramos explained the value of focusing on traffic violations:
"A shooting at midnight might develop from an incident that happens here at 3 in the afternoon, somebody yelling from a car, flying gang colors. It's had a dramatic impact."
Ramos greeted T-Rock, a 15-year-old who identified himself as a member of a local Bloods gang known as Center Park. Scrawled on the inside of a textbook he carried was "Crip killer."
Gang War and Casualties
"We keep Crabs out of our 'hood," he said, referring to area Crip gang members. "We're at war with the Watergate Crips right now." T-Rock, who was on foot, conceded that the crackdown around Morningside has claimed the cars of several associates.
"But some of them just go get it out the impound," T-Rock said. "Ain't no big deal."
A gang member's life, he said, "depends on his car. All his money goes into the car, not into getting registration and licenses at the DMV. They have a hard time getting it back."
Police are also aided by the fact that many gang members sell their cars to other members and fail to update registration and ownership information. A new state law requiring drivers to show proof of insurance will be an another weapon when citations are issued starting in January, Friesen said.