They shop at the Galleria at South Bay. They take their dates to movies at the Old Towne Mall. And they play video games at the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in Del Amo Fashion Center.
Police say these three large South Bay shopping malls in Torrance and Redondo Beach--cities with few local gangs--are increasingly attracting gang members.
Authorities and some merchants are watchful of the new arrivals from elsewhere in the county, but they say business has continued undiminished so far, and there have been few incidents to alarm shoppers.
Rivalries Left at Home
Merchants and police agree that all three malls are safe and friendly places to shop, though gang members have been linked to a sprinkling of petty thefts, car burglaries and disturbances of the peace. Police officers said they are pleased that, so far, a wide array of gangs have left their bloody rivalries on their home turf.
The malls appear to be neutral zones to gang members who come from all over Los Angeles County and represent a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, said police.
In Torrance, the Police Department is concerned enough about them that it has stepped up the training of officers for its gang detail. Last winter, police began periodic sweeps through Del Amo Fashion Center and Old Towne Mall to make “field contacts” with suspected gang members, getting to know the young men and warning them not to provoke other gangs.
In Redondo Beach, police say regular patrols at the Galleria at South Bay have kept gang members in check. “I see (police) incident reports on a daily basis,” said Galleria general manager Duane Bishop. “I have yet to see a gang-related incident at the Galleria. Our sales and merchandise and tenants don’t . . . attract the gangs.”
Officers deliver a simple message to gang members at the Del Amo and Old Towne malls, said Torrance police Capt. Bruce Randall.
“We want them to understand that Torrance isn’t anybody’s turf, except for the people who live here and the people who come to do legitimate business,” Randall said. “It’s our turf.”
Gang members who might wear blue or red in their own neighborhoods and who mark their turf with graffiti usually are content to drop their colors and aggressive behavior when they come to the malls, police said.
A Place to Get Away
“They come here to get away from the ‘hood or the barrio,” said Redondo Beach Police Officer Jim Acquarelli, a gang specialist, who sometimes patrols the Galleria at South Bay. “Some want to legitimately spend the money they got selling drugs. (The malls) are a nice place to get away and walk around freely and not worry about getting shot.”
Sgt. Scott Margolin, head of Torrance’s gang unit, said: “From what we can gather from talking to gang members, this is a neutral area. It’s pretty much safe.” But Lt. Wally Murker said police keep a close watch on gang members to make sure that doesn’t change.
Police said they are not sure what happened in the last year to bring large groups of gang members to the Galleria in Redondo Beach and the Old Towne and Del Amo malls in Torrance. They offer several possible explanations:
Perhaps a fire last May that destroyed much of the Redondo Beach Pier, a popular youth hangout, led them to other diversions. Or pressure from police in Hawthorne could have pushed them south on Hawthorne Boulevard to the Galleria and Del Amo malls. Others suggest that the drive-by shootings and police sweeps in South-Central Los Angeles may have sent some young people in search of more hospitable surroundings.
Gang Members Pick Fights
Although police said there is no way to quantify the increase, the arrival of the gang members at the malls is apparent.
Torrance police said they felt the problem in earnest for the first time in January, when Harbor City gang members came to Del Amo Fashion Center. The gang members picked fights with a variety of other gang members almost every day for a week, once even brawling in front of the Torrance police substation at the mall, Margolin said.
“They were here to cut their teeth. They were just trying to make a name for themselves,” Margolin said.
The gang has not caused trouble since Torrance police made it clear that fistfights will not be tolerated, Margolin said. He said the brawlers were told: “If you get in a fight in the mall, you will go to jail.”
In response to the new arrivals, Torrance sent six more officers last year to special anti-gang sessions at the sheriff’s training academy, bringing the size of the city’s gang unit to 10 members of the 234-person force.
Three times in the last seven months, police have conducted sweeps through Del Amo to break up large concentrations of gang members, some of whom were bumping into shoppers and intimidating them, Murker said.
Several merchants said that shouting and rough-housing gang members have sometimes intimidated shoppers, but have not hurt business.
“We’re concerned with it,” said James Jones, president of the Torrance Co., which owns Del Amo. “There has been more of a presence of people who appear to be gang members. It’s eye contact and the appearance that they create that is intimidating.”
But Jones said he is satisfied that the Torrance police have kept the gang members under control.
John Northmore, a social worker who regularly meets with gang members at the Harbor City Teen Post, said Harbor City youths go to Del Amo because they can’t find free recreation elsewhere.
“There is nothing for a teen-ager to do anymore at the local parks or churches,” Northmore said. “There are no more programs. The mall is the place to go for boys to meet girls and girls to meet boys.
“If they meet an enemy (gang) over there” he said, “naturally they are going to fight.”
Danny Saraceno, who works at a the Karate Store at Del Amo, said Torrance police have helped stave off problems. “They have kept a good, high profile,” Saraceno said.
“They are keeping a really good lid on it,” said Frank Toney of the B. Dalton bookstore, who said he worked at another mall frequented by gang members. “That was crazy. There was fighting in the stores, in the aisles. It was like an indoor Lebanon.”
At the Galleria in Redondo Beach, management signed a contract last year to have extra police officers patrol the mall. The city and the mall share the cost of the three officers who work the mall to handle all aspects of security, said Alex Varas, the Galleria’s chief of security.
‘Make a Lot of Noise’
“They do make a lot of noise sometimes,” said Ernest Davenport, who works at the Kinney Shoes outlet at the Galleria. “It bothers the customers.”
It is a common refrain: “They come in and throw gang signs and make a lot of noise,” said Justin Griffith of Cutlery World at the Galleria. “In the last two or three months, I’ve seen more gang members here at the mall.”
Galleria merchants say the disturbances have not hurt business.
Police officials say, however, that they must remain vigilant.
“The question remains: How long is this going to remain neutral territory?” Murker said. “I don’t have the answer to that and neither does anybody else.”