Four months after a drive-by gang shooting in front of Ventura High School shocked community leaders, Ventura Police Chief Richard Thomas said this week that a police crackdown has stopped most gang activity in the city.
Thomas credited a policy of total enforcement of all local laws, including traffic and curfew violations, with putting all five of the city's gangs "just about out of business" since the shooting of Anthony Ortega, 14.
The Police Department's response to what was perceived as a growing gang problem in the wake of the March 29 shooting succeeded in large part because of support from the Ventura City Council and city officials, Thomas said.
Thomas said he consulted immediately after the shooting with city officials and council members who approved creation of a special gang task force and gave him full authorization for the crackdown, which resulted in nearly 100 arrests in its first three weeks.
The City Council also provided $145,000 for an emergency graffiti removal program, hiring an Ojai painter to paint over hundreds of gang slogans scrawled throughout the city and establishing a 24-hour hot line over which people can report graffiti on sidewalks and buildings.
"The City Council's response was, 'Go get 'em,' " Thomas said. "That was my approach as well. When there's a problem emerging, my philosophy is get on it and get on it big, even if you overkill it a bit."
Ortega, a Ventura High School freshman, was walking along Main Street when he was shot from a passing car, allegedly by members of a Santa Paula youth gang. Four Santa Paula youths were subsequently arrested.
At the time of the shooting, Ventura police officials said, the city had only two officers assigned part time to the local gang detail. In subsequent weeks, the detail was expanded to eight officers working full and part time.
Ventura Police Sgt. Bob Anderson, who had been assigned to the gang unit for two years, said the city's graffiti eradication program and the expansion of the gang task force has effectively stopped gang activity throughout the city.
"The drive-by shooting wasn't the first in Ventura, but it was the first where somebody was shot," Anderson said. "It raised a lot of eyebrows. Our mandate was to take back the streets. In just three weeks in April, we made 96 arrests and stopped over 100 other suspected gang members.
"The pace has slowed since then, but we still have twice as many people working gangs as we did before the shooting. I would say the situation is under control now. The effort we made sent a pretty clear message."
The 96 arrests in April were more than double the total gang arrests in Ventura for the entire previous year, Anderson said. While the number of arrests has declined since then, he said, the police are still stopping more gang members for major and minor violations of the law than in the past.
Among those arrested since April have been gang members accused of crimes ranging from attempted murder to violating the city's 10 p.m. curfew for youths under the age of 18, Anderson said. The police seized 15 weapons, including two shotguns and several handguns, he added.
Anderson said citizens have filed no official complaints alleging civil liberties violations during the crackdown. He said police received only a few unofficial complaints that the crackdown has been overly broad in its targeting of suspected gang members.
"Remarkably few complaints," he said. "We had one mother come in and tell us to leave her son alone, but even she didn't file a formal complaint. Overall, we have received a lot of positive feedback from the community about what we are trying to do."
The crackdown focused on five Ventura gangs totaling about 50 to 80 members, Anderson said. He identified them as the Ventura Avenue Gangsters, a Latino gang encompassing a smaller group called Da Boys; the Pierpont Rats, the East End Ventura Locals and Ventura Skinheads, three white groups; and the K. C. Hawgs, a black group claiming affiliation with the Los Angeles Crips.
"Keep in mind that the gang member here is nowhere like the gang member in South-Central Los Angeles," Anderson said. "We're dealing with kids who want to be like the gang members in L.A. If we do see an increase in activity, it will be when school starts. If that happens, we will start our sweeps of the city again. Meanwhile, they are under cover and far less visible.
"It's not as popular to be a gang member here any more. Frankly, I'm surprised we haven't had agencies from all over the state come here. I think we are a model for other cities. We have really pioneered something here."
Agreeing with that assessment was Ventura City Councilwoman Nan Drake. She was one of three members of a special public events committee initially approached by Thomas after the shooting of Ortega, who is slowly recovering from his wounds.
"Basically, everything is quiet," Drake said. "We've really just about taken care of the problem. What happened here is that the police came to us, and we basically told them to feel free to do total enforcement, everything from spitting on the sidewalk to curfew violations. The results have proven that to be an effective approach."
Close to Extinction
While there is less graffiti and other visible traces of gang activity, city officials expressed doubt that any of the Ventura gangs are close to extinction.
Mike Solomon, the Ventura budget director who is in charge of graffiti eradication, said the city is still paying an average of about $1,000 a week to the Ojai painter hired to remove new graffiti.
"It was just everywhere when we started the program in April," Solomon said. "Buildings were completely covered, sidewalks. Since we started, it's not returning as fast. But it still pops up. We have control of the situation, but we still have some gang members out there."
By allocating $145,000 to the graffiti removal program, Solomon said, the city is committed to maintaining the program through next June and beyond then if necessary. The city so far has spent $18,000, he said.
In addition, Solomon said, the city arranged to have better street lighting put up in the areas along Ventura Avenue where the graffiti problem was most severe.
"The lighting alone has discouraged gang members from sneaking out at night with their paintbrushes, because it's easier to see them now," Solomon said.