Think of gang activity in Orange County and a picture might come to mind of a carload of Santa Ana youths opening fire at a rival gang member’s house.
But a recent report by Irvine police found that, although this planned community of mostly upper-middle-class residents is no mecca for street gangs, the city has gang-related problems.
During the past two years, police have encountered a growing number of Irvine teen-agers involved in fights, stabbings and beatings. Police also estimate that gang members from surrounding cities are responsible for half of the city’s burglaries and vehicle thefts.
This rise in gang activity prompted police investigators to spend two months last summer examining gang-related crimes and taking a hard look at Irvine’s fledgling gangs. The resulting 32-page report and recommendations show that while gang problems are small, they are growing noticeably.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Sgt. Philip F. Povey of the Irvine Police Department. “It’s time for us to formulate some policy on (gangs). This will affect what Irvine looks like five, 10 years from now.”
Irvine police are recommending a coordinated anti-gang approach that would add seven new officers to handle anti-gang activities and involve the school district and community groups. The effort is aimed at preventing Irvine from becoming a home to permanent gangs, Povey said.
The city does not now have any officers assigned to gang crimes. The extra officers would concentrate on keeping track of outside gangs and watching the growth of the city’s ganglike youth groups, Povey said. They would also be available for stakeouts and other specialized crime work.
Other police recommendations include:
* Adding a Drug Awareness Resistance Education officer to teach anti-drug and anti-gang classes at Irvine’s four high schools. The district now offers the courses only for sixth graders.
* Notifying parents when police believe their children are involved in gangs, and establishing a gang-diversion and counseling program for gang members and their families.
* Working with schools to develop a peer counseling program for teen-agers and training teachers and administrators to identify actual and potential gang members.
* Encouraging Irvine service clubs to sponsor youth programs that would give teen-agers more constructive after-school activities.
Police would not reveal the cost of their anti-gang plan, but based on current police department costs, the increased staff and programs would total at least $500,000 a year. Due to uncertain economic times ahead for the city, the Police Department might not immediately ask for money from the City Council, said Lt. Vic Thies.
“With the recession coming, it doesn’t look too bright,” Thies said. “If the money’s not there, we’ll come up with alternative recommendations and start the ones that don’t require as much money.”
Despite the far-reaching recommendations, Povey said Irvine’s gang problem should not be seen as major.
“Our problem is very, very small, and we’re not trying to say the sky is falling, because it’s not,” he said. “I’m sure other Southern California cities would trade with us in a heartbeat, their gang situation to ours.”
Lt. Robert Sayne, head of the Santa Ana Police Department’s gang unit, said Irvine might have troubles with delinquent teen-agers but he doubted it would ever have a true gang problem because it lacks the poverty and the long history of gangs facing cities such as Santa Ana.
“It’s more of a trendy thing to do,” Sayne said of Irvine’s problems. “These kids are bored to death in a community where every home has 2.5 kids and a BMW. I don’t feel gangs will establish themselves in Irvine and continue to thrive.”
While police say none of the 16 potential gangs identified in Irvine has reached a “hard core” stage, several of the groups have engaged in violent or criminal behavior--the key definition of a gang.
“As far as them being highly organized like gangs in Santa Ana or some of the Asian gangs, no, they’re not even close to that,” Thies said. “And hopefully they never will be.”
Still, groups resembling gangs are emerging among Irvine teens, often spurred by a student who has moved into the city from an area where gangs are a way of life, the report said. Most prominent among these formative gangs is the 2-year-old Los Suicycos Locos, a multiracial group of 20 to 60 Irvine and Tustin-area teen-agers whose members have been linked to several recent, violent confrontations, police said.
Los Suicycos came to the Police Department’s attention in March, 1989, after members got into a fight with athletes from Woodbridge High School at a Del Taco restaurant. Three youths were arrested after two students were hit by a car and two others suffered cuts and stab wounds.
At first, police dismissed it as a fight between students from rival high schools.
But later that year, an 18-year-old Los Suicycos member was arrested as a suspect in the shooting of a 19-year-old alleged rival gang member in a Tustin park, and another member was arrested in Newport Beach after allegedly beating up a student with a baseball bat during a high school basketball game. And early this year, police suspected a Los Suicycos member of stabbing a teen-ager at a Costa Mesa dance club.
“They went from drinking and occasional graffiti to the big time . . . with guns and weapons,” said Tustin Police Sgt. Steve Lewis, who helped investigate the Tustin shooting.
Even more ganglike, police said, were the attitudes of two victims of a July fight between a splinter group of older Los Suicycos members and a group of Mission Viejo youths. The two injured youths refused to cooperate with police, saying they would take care of their assailants themselves, a response more like those of hard-core gang members, police said.
“They’re acting like, they’re talking like, and they want to be like (a gang),” said Thies, who called Los Suicycos “our in-house gang.”
In addition, recent overtures from two outside street gangs have Irvine police worried that the Suicycos might form an alliance with a bigger, tougher gang.
The Rolling 60s Crips in Pomona and the Lopers in Santa Ana have offered to link with the Suicycos for drug sales, promising the protection and reputation of a bigger gang, Povey said. So far, Los Suicycos have rejected the alliance offers, but the deal might seem attractive because they have been on the losing end of several fights with other non-gang youths, such as student athletes, Povey said.
Because of occasional intrusions by gang members from other cities onto Irvine high school campuses, Irvine Unified School District officials have been working with police on the potential growth of gangs, said Paul Mills, director of alternative and adult education and chairman of the district’s Operation Safe Campus Committee.
On Tuesday, the district’s board of trustees adopted a formal policy stating that the district will not tolerate gang activity on campus. The policy says that schools should work with police and community organizations to prevent gang activity.