Violence, Arrests Put Barrio Residents at Odds : * Simi Valley: Authorities and some neighbors say they want to head off a growing gang problem. But youths contend that police are harassing them.
Simi Valley resident Ernest Diaz says his son and his friends are not gang members. They’re a bunch of bored kids who sometimes get in trouble for such things as drinking in public, he says.
But neighbors and police say the 20 to 30 youths who hang out in Diaz’s west side neighborhood are first-generation gang members, and residents want their activities stopped before someone gets hurt. Those who have called police to report disturbances say they have been harassed and even threatened.
Longtime residents refer to the four-block area around California Avenue and 4th Street as the barrio because of the high concentration of Latinos who live there.
But to the kids it is the “varrio” and is the turf of V.S.V., which stands for Varrio Simi Valley. The street term “varrio” is used “because it sounds better,” said Diaz’s son, Ernest Jr., who said V.S.V. is just a nickname for the neighborhood, not a gang.
Police said gang activity in the area has steadily increased over the past two years. Most of the complaints involve vandalism, graffiti, loud music, drinking in public and urinating on people’s lawns.
But they said there have been more serious incidents, including stabbings, drive-by shootings and a full-fledged gang fight with members of the Moorpark Locals, longtime rivals of the V.S.V.
Diaz said police are exaggerating the problem. He said the youths, particularly his son Ernest Jr., are being labeled and picked on by police because they are Latino. As a result, he said, his son and his friends are constantly being kicked out of shopping centers, bowling alleys and other business establishments.
“They’re not gang members,” Diaz said. “They’re just a bunch of kids who hang out together. They’ve got nowhere to go. They’re not perfect. But they’re not getting caught with drugs or concealed weapons.”
However, at least one resident, who asked not to be identified, said, “The potential for real danger is there.
“It is real. It is very volatile,” said the man, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years.
In an effort to stem the violence, police have stepped up enforcement in the neighborhood.
“We’re dealing with first-generation” gang members, said Lt. Jon Ainsworth, who heads the department’s gang detail. “Simi Valley doesn’t have gangs like in Los Angeles. But we do have a problem that can’t be ignored.”
Ainsworth said that of the three or four gangs that police have identified in Simi Valley, V.S.V. is the No. 1 subject of complaints.
Officer Bo Stephenson, a member of the gang unit, said police “are trying to be aggressive but fair” in dealing with gang members and their parents.
Stephenson denied using excessive force or picking on Ernest Diaz Jr., who police regard as a member of V.S.V.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Stephenson said. “If they are causing trouble, they’re going to get our attention.”
Stephenson said that although gang activities in the neighborhood have escalated, police still have a chance to keep the situation from worsening by keeping pressure on the V.S.V. So far, the gang has not gotten involved in dealing drugs, and police want to keep it that way, he said.
To this end, police said they will continue to aggressively enforce the law against gang members, whether it be monitoring the city’s 10 p.m. curfew for those under 18 or conducting routine pat-downs of individuals suspected of carrying firearms.
Mayor Greg Stratton said he fully supports the Police Department’s efforts.
“We read the reports,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it’s a problem area. The real key is, if people want to keep crime out of their neighborhoods, they have to support the police.”
But Diaz said that police are being overly aggressive in their enforcement of the law and have singled out his son for harassment. A week ago, when police tried to arrest 20-year-old Ernest Diaz Jr. for drinking wine in his front yard, three other people intervened and also were arrested on misdemeanor charges of battery or resisting arrest.
Among them was the youth’s mother, Rebecca Diaz, 38, who said she tried to pull her son away from officers because they had him in a chokehold and “because his mouth was bleeding and his eyes were bulging out.”
Police said they did not mistreat anyone. They said they arrested Ernest Diaz Jr. because they knew he wasn’t old enough to drink. Ernest Diaz Jr. had been arrested twice before on charges of drinking in public.
“I’m upset because my son is the only one getting hassled,” said the elder Diaz. “They have no right to attack us like that. They made us ashamed in our neighborhood.”
Diaz said he and his wife plan to file a formal complaint with the city because they feel their son was abused by police.
The claims underscore the growing tension in the neighborhood. Many of the residents in the area are either related or have known their neighbors since childhood. They said they fear that some of those relationships are being strained by a growing gang problem.
“We don’t want to make this neighbor against neighbor,” said Joe Chavez, a 54-year resident. “But there is a problem.”
Another longtime resident, Armand Patino, said he has been warned by one of his neighbors to stop calling the police or he is going to get hurt.
Patino said he did not believe police were harassing the youths simply because they are Latino.
Some of the residents are “trying to make this a racial thing,” he said. “It’s not.”
Frank Rocha, another resident, said he feels that some of his neighbors, like the police, are overreacting to the problem. Rocha, who lived in the area as a child, said he moved back to Simi Valley four years ago after living in Watts for 38 years. Part of the reason he moved was to get his family away from gangs, he said.
“We came back to Simi Valley because it was nice, peaceful and quiet,” he said. “Where I come from makes these guys seem like a joke.”
Rocha said his 16-year-old son, Frankie Jr., also has been harassed by police for hanging around Ernest Diaz Jr.
Rocha, 46, was stabbed last month when he tried to prevent a group of young men from attacking his son with a machete. The attack, which police said was not gang-related, left Rocha’s right leg paralyzed.
Rocha’s home also was the site of a gang fight about six months ago between V.S.V. members and the Moorpark Locals. Rocha freely admits that he advised his son and his friends to stand up to the Locals, who had been coming around more than usual and harassing them.
“Ever since, they stopped coming around,” Rocha said. Police disagree.
Last Wednesday, Rocha and his wife, Lucy, were served an eviction notice by their landlord.
Skip Davis, who owns the property where the Rochas live, refused to comment on his reasons for evicting the family. Ainsworth denied that police pressured him into it.
Still, Ainsworth said he has considered using such pressure.
“I haven’t ruled out any options,” he said. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”