The three teen-agers were brusquely escorted into the small police substation last weekend. They had been picked up just minutes before by officers who spotted them walking down a busy commercial street. Carried nonchalantly in the hand of one 14-year-old had been a 3-foot-long machete.
With the kids sitting handcuffed to a wooden bench, an officer flipped through a ring binder until he found what he wanted--a photograph of one boy, complete with moniker and gang affiliation.
“You told me before you were Southside,” said the plainclothes officer, suspecting that the youth had lied about the gang to which he belonged. “Now you’re with Townsend. Are you sure you’re with Townsend?”
The officer, one of 10 full-time investigators assigned to the Santa Ana police gang unit, was using a powerful tool introduced last April to keep track of reputed gang members, some of whom are as young as 13.
The Police Department’s “186" photo books, named for the state Penal Code section that makes it a crime to knowingly participate in criminal street gangs, make up a veritable rogue’s gallery of teen-agers and young adults who have acknowledged associations with gangs.
For the past nine months, the unit has catalogued more than 5,000 people as an aid to their investigations and suppression of ongoing gang violence that continues to plague this city of 237,000.
Indeed, gang-related drive-by shootings are becoming commonplace, happening at least once a week, police officials said.
The latest act of violence occurred the afternoon of Jan. 11 when a 16-year-old youth was shot in the leg by an occupant of a passing car. Five suspects, including three juveniles, were later arrested. It was the fifth reported gang-related shooting in the city since New Year’s Day.
Faced with those figures, gang unit investigators spread out one recent night to patrol the city, stopping when they noticed knots of youths and young adults congregating on dark street corners and taking into custody those who were wanted on warrants or were accused of offenses.
By the end of the patrol, the unit had picked up 29 teen-agers and young adults, Lt. Bob Helton said. Many of them had freely admitted an affiliation with one of the city’s 30 to 35 street gangs and were added to the “186" books.
Investigators admit that their job of identifying and keeping tabs on gang members in the city is Herculean. They estimate that about 7,500 youths are in the city’s various street gangs. About 2,000 of them are hard-core members, responsible for most of the gang-related crime.
But police say they have come a long way in their fight against gang activity since they started the “186" book program.
Once photographed and entered into the binder, gang members are given “notice-of-service” papers that inform them that one to three years of jail time can be added to a sentence of anyone convicted of a gang-related crime.
The notice-of-service papers are also used to alert parents to their child’s alleged gang activity, said Sgt. Bill Scheer, supervisor of the gang unit. The gang member, if a juvenile, must be picked up at the station by parents, who are handed the notice.
“It wakes some of them up,” Scheer said.
With gang violence on the rise throughout Orange County, Scheer said the real challenge is no longer identifying suspects, but gathering enough evidence to make arrests that will result in convictions.
“I don’t know of any whodunits,” Scheer said as he cruised down the darkened streets of Santa Ana, pointing out homes of yet-to-be arrested suspects. “We know who they are. The problem is proving it.”
The main stumbling block is non-cooperation by some witnesses, who, for a variety of reasons, acquire a short-term case of amnesia when approached by investigators.
“You can ask 10 people (at a shooting,),” Scheer said. “They’ll all tell you, ‘I don’t know nothing.’ ”
Helton said that apart from strengthening intelligence-gathering and enforcement capabilities, the unit is looking to an educational anti-gang program similar to the anti-drug programs that have been credited with a drop in drug use among minors.
“They have to be taught that it (gang affiliation) is not cool,” Helton said. “They have to be shown that that type of behavior is not tolerated by society.”
Helton then shook his head slowly as officers walked by him, escorting three baby-faced teen-agers, some of whom sported tattoos and wore black Los Angeles Raiders jackets.
“It’s frustrating for these guys (officers) to deal with such young kids,” Helton said. “They talk to them (on the street), go one-on-one with them, and then see them at a homicide.”