The streets of South Los Angeles suddenly filled with police cars at dusk Friday. “The hammer,” as Police Chief Daryl F. Gates proudly calls it, was coming down. Any young man who flaunted red or blue rags around his head or waist or wrist, or who flashed certain hand signs to passing traffic, or who stood in a distinct slouching posture was fair game.
On four weekend nights since Feb. 26, a specially formed 200-officer task force has conducted sweeps against suspected street gang members, arresting or citing more than 1,600 people, impounding 28 guns and seizing 263 cars. A similar sweep was in progress Saturday night.
The aggressive nature of the sweep is intended to “make life miserable” for anyone who identifies himself as a gang member, Gates said. Its rationale, the chief said, is the belief that “visible identification of gang membership is often the primary cause of violence and bloodshed.”
“If they expose themselves on the street, particularly if they show their colors,” particularly the red of the Blood gangs and the blue of the Crips, they will be stopped and questioned, he said.
The technique is imperfect--not everyone who police stop turns out to be a gang member, and many of the arrests are for small-change offenses. On the first four nights that officers fanned out, less than 20% of the arrests made on the street or through the serving of warrants involved felonies. The majority of those stopped by police wound up being cited for traffic violations.
The only number that sticks out was the one that counts the most: Since the night the first sweep was made there has not been a gang-related killing in South Los Angeles and only one in the entire city. Gates, who has had little to brag about when it comes to suppressing gangs, was able to boast to a news conference last week that, by contrast, there had been nine such murders in the city in the nine days before the sweeps began.
Tactics or Coincidence
With gang-related fatalities throughout Los Angeles County running substantially ahead of 1987 during the first two months of the year, that is unquestionably good news. Whether it is attributable to the police tactics or to coincidence is another question. How frequently the sweeps will continue is yet another.
For the moment, however, the technique has put the department in a favorable light with a public that has long doubted law enforcement’s ability to make a dent in the rising number of killings blamed on gang rivalries.
“You hear it in casual conversation, people are saying the streets are quieter, that it’s about time they got out there and arrested these punks,” said Karon Gordon, the head of a job-training program whose office is in South-Central Los Angeles.
‘It’s a Plus’
“The people they’re arresting are people they would not even have ordinarily contacted, so it’s a plus,” said City Councilman Nate Holden, who represents an inner-city district.
Jitahadi Imara, vice chairman of Us, which operates an Afro-American cultural center in Los Angeles, acknowledged the popularity of the sweeps but said his organization believes that they are “too broad and not coordinated with the community.”
“To indiscriminately sweep the community and give young black youths records and put them in the law enforcement network when they don’t deserve so, that is wrong,” he said.
Lt. Willie Pannell of the LAPD South Bureau’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums program said his officers, who typically saturate as many as 20 targeted neighborhoods during each sweep, “make every effort to ensure that they distinguish” between young men who are gang members and those who are not.
In some cases, in an effort to build intelligence files, members of the sweep task force will compile a “field identification card” on suspected gang members even when they have no cause to arrest or cite them. But “we don’t collect information on kids who can show us they’re not involved with gangs,” Pannell said.
Police have run sweeps against suspected gang members before but, as Gates noted last week, the news media was paying far less attention. Since a feud between two Southside gangs erupted in Westwood and a young Long Beach woman was killed in cross-fire on Jan. 30, the issue has become far more prominent.
The intense public focus on the Westwood killing subjected the Police Department to a backlash of criticism from inner-city residents, who complained about having to live with gang shootings as an everyday occurrence. Those complaints, coupled with an ongoing debate over police deployment, make the LAPD sweeps as important for their public relations muscle as their effect on crime, according to one member of a countywide law enforcement task force on gangs.
Operation Safe Streets
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols many unincorporated pockets of South Los Angeles County that are rife with gangs, has not used the sweep tactic. The sheriff’s Operation Safe Streets program attempts to focus on older, so-called “hard-core” gang members and believes that the sweep is inefficient.
The LAPD sweeps are more important for the kinds of gang members they keep off the streets than the kind of gang members that are arrested, said longtime Los Angeles gang counselor V.G. Guinses, founder of the Crenshaw-based Sey Yes Inc.
“The hard-core kids know what the cops are doing,” Guinses said. “They can’t afford to get picked up--they’ll go to jail for a probation violation. So they just sit back, they’re not the ones on the corner. The kids who are getting picked up on the sweep are the younger ones. It’s new to them, some of them brag about going to jail.”
Involved in Drug Sales
Police routinely say virtually every street gang is involved in drug sales, particularly cocaine, but the 563 arrests made during the first four sweeps found relatively little. Police seized about three ounces of cocaine, two pounds of marijuana and about $9,000.
“Would you go out your door if there was a mad dog on your lawn?” asked Carl Kendrick, one of Guinses’ staff members. “Gang members tell us, ‘We saw that (sweep) on TV, you think we’re going out?’ ”
Kendrick said he believes that the sweeps will be helpful if they are maintained for a prolonged period of time--say, each weekend for the rest of the year. If they are stopped, it will be like taking the lid off an ongoing problem, he said.
Gates last week declined to say how often or for how long he plans to continue the sweeps, which eat up substantial overtime pay.
“We are going to continue to do it over and over and over,” he said. “I won’t give any signals on when . . . we will hit them when they least expect it.”
Roger Magnuson, a South Bureau CRASH detective, said he is convinced that the total number of arrests, regardless of their nature, makes the sweeps valuable. With each interrogation, police compile more information about gang members, even if no arrest is made, he said.
“Even if it’s just for a traffic warrant, even if we’re only sending them to jail for a few days (until they are released on bail), I’m sure the citizens feel relieved,” he said.
Police also emphasize the impoundment of vehicles as a means of making suspected gang members less mobile and possibly curtailing drive-by shootings. While the vehicle can be routinely recovered once the suspect is free on bail, he must show a driver’s license and proof of ownership--something that police say many gang members do not have.
Asked by reporters last week how the sudden arrests of hundreds of extra suspects would affect the county’s overcrowded Central Jail, Gates answered: “I don’t care if there’s enough room in the jail. . . . I’m sure my good friend the sheriff will squeeze them a little tighter.”
Sheriff Sherman Block has warned for the last year that he will have to begin releasing prisoners early if the jail population exceeds 23,000. It is within weeks of reaching that figure.