Awash in blinking emergency beacons, police flashlights and the glare of television lights, a Paramount thoroughfare Friday night became the sight of a new experiment aimed at controlling street gangs.
Cars lined up for three blocks at times as Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies ran them through a gauntlet of orange cones. At the front of the line, officials handed out flyers asking for residents' help in stemming crime.
"The city of Paramount and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are concerned about violent crime and illegal gang activity. So we are asking the community for help," read the bold, black printing on yellow sheets of paper. "If you have information that will help, please call the telephone number on the postcard or mail it in."
Most drivers who were stopped for brief chats with deputies appeared dazed by the camera flashes and television strobes, but said they liked being asked to help in the war against gangs. "The kids get afraid (of gang members) and they ask their parents what they can do," one man said in Spanish after deputies handed him a flyer. "This is something we all can do."
Friday night's "informational checkpoint" marked the first time in Los Angeles County--and possibly the state--that a traffic barricade has been used against gangs, officials said.
Similar set-ups are used by police in many parts of California to arrest drunk drivers on weekend and holiday nights. But the Paramount operation was not intended to find anyone to arrest, Lt. Robert J. Briggs said.
"Our stops are intended to be a very brief encounter," Briggs said. "We just hand (the drivers) some information and wave them on their way . . . If there's an obvious violation, like an obviously drunk driver or something like that, we will, of course, take further action . . . but this is not intended to be a fishing expedition."
Although the operation was referred to as a gang checkpoint, deputies did not expect to see many gang members passing through.
Signs posted a block before the checkpoint warned drivers about the impending stop in time for them to take alternate routes. No patrol cars were posted to follow any vehicles that avoided the stop and no drivers were forced to stay at the checkpoint any longer than they wanted to.
"The purpose of this is not to contact gang members," Briggs said. "We can do that any day of the week just by walking or driving down their streets . . . The purpose is to send a message to them and their parents and anyone around that gang activity will not be tolerated here and that we welcome information about how to stop it."
Nevertheless, at least one carload of gang members passed through the checkpoint, flashing gang hand signals and laughing. Because only every fourth car was being stopped to receive information, deputies did not question the group.
The checkpoint was ordered after the small city in southeast Los Angeles was rocked by 22 gang-related shootings in July alone, including one murder and three attempted murders. Authorities said three gangs were responsible for most of the attacks.
In response, deputies met with local residents--60% of whom are Latino--to seek new ways to stem the growing tide of violence. The idea of a checkpoint grew from that meeting.
Jose Ulloa, a Neighborhood Watch captain from Long Beach, watched Friday night's activities and said he plans to ask police in his city to start a similar program.
"This gang situation is getting out of control everywhere," he said. "Something like this gets the idea across to gang members that they won't be tolerated anymore."
The jury was still out for a small group of youths who gathered to watch the checkpoint. "All the 'cholos' are going down Paramount (Boulevard) instead, so I don't know if it's doing any good," said Julio Beltran, 18, who was stopped at the checkpoint then stayed to view the spectacle.
"If they stop enough people, and maybe arrest a few people, I think it's a good idea," Beltran said. "But if they're just here wasting our time, I think they should go into the barrios and make sure people aren't doing bad things there."
He had been driving with James Guillen, 17, a nephew of the mayor of Paramount. Guillen said he at first though they were being stopped because they were young and Latino, but was surprised when police asked "if we had any ideas."