Police in this gradually developing coastal city say they know it. Carlsbad isn’t bad at all.
The North County community doesn’t have much graffiti. Nor is it a hot spot for drive-by shootings, nor turf wars, nor slayings over drug deals gone awry, nor the mayhem and grit that accompany urban street gangster life.
What the firmly middle-class city does have is a new police unit devoted to “gang suppression.”
According to squad leader Lt. Jim Hawks, the Carlsbad Police Department is perhaps the last North County law enforcement agency to form a gang unit. And there is good reason.
Sixty-five thousand people call Carlsbad home, and only 12 have been identified as gang members, Hawks said Thursday as he announced the formation of the six-officer Gang Detail.
“In the past, we’ve been pretty much reactive when it comes to policing gangs,” Hawks said. “It’s not so much that we’ve seen a lot of recent violence, but we know there are problems in cities around us. We’re trying early to discourage the gang mentality from growing in Carlsbad.”
Strictly speaking, Carlsbad has one gang, with 12 members, maybe a few dozen wanna-bes on the periphery, Hawks said.
That comes to two certifiable gang members for each officer--good odds, if police were only interested in tailing gang members. But Hawks said the motivation for forming the unit is not limited to the paltry dozen troublemakers he has on file.
Like the city’s carefully planned retail zones, business parks and housing tracts, gangs in Carlsbad are now on the list of growth-management categories. As there is a planning board for unwanted development, there is now a civic agency that aims to keep gang violence from getting out of hand.
A primary task of the squad will be to organize information on known area gang members and to coordinate with the gang units of other North County law enforcement agencies.
The formation of the Carlsbad unit comes during a time of police department restructuring, Hawks said. More emphasis is being placed on old-fashioned beat patrols, in which officers spend more time walking or bicycling in the areas they are assigned--the goal being a better rapport with residents, Hawks said.
The gang unit follows along those lines, with emphasis on areas where youth gather, such as schools, playing fields and malls, he said. Officers in the gang unit will speak at community block club meetings, introduce themselves to parents of youths who have had run-ins with the police, and regularly attend youth sports matches, in addition to normal patrol duties, Hawks said.
“We want to talk with the kids before they get caught up,” Hawks said. “In elementary school and junior high they notice the graffiti tagging and the older youths who dress in gang style. We try to get to the young ones, before they find it too interesting.”
The new unit will work with several youth counseling and education programs that are run by the department and the county court system.
Among some of the programs the unit will be working with are Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, which starts at the kindergarten level, and the Juvenile Justice Panel, which places young offenders with little or no prior criminal history in public service programs, said Linda Ledesma, coordinator of the county’s juvenile diversion program.
Some say gang suppression is not a pressing issue for Carlsbad.
Eighteen-year-old Maricela Rivera, a senior at La Palma High School, said the worst problem facing Carlsbad youth is drug abuse, the vast majority of which is not connected to the city’s solitary gang.
“I don’t see a problem with gangs,” Rivera said. “The problem is with drugs. All the kids know who uses drugs around here--everyone does. But it’s easy to blame everything on gangs.”
Julio Gaytan, a 17-year-old transplant from 61st Street and Central Avenue in the heart of South Los Angeles, said he left a life of gang-banging behind when he came to Carlsbad a year ago.
“When I first came, I’d get the hard looks from the gang types,” Gaytan said. “I’d hear that they were going to jump me, but I didn’t act bad or try to fight, so I didn’t have any problems. I get along OK with them now.”
Dressed in a black Los Angeles Kings cap, a crisp, white T-shirt with creases running down sleeves and front, brown corduroy trousers sagging from his hips and black sneakers with laces loosely tied, Gaytan sat talking with his cousin on a bench in La Palma High School’s courtyard Thursday afternoon. Unlike before, he said, he can wear standard gang regalia without worry in Carlsbad.
“I don’t really see it as a gang scene here,” Gaytan said. “There’s no one to fight for turf, and everyone in the gang knows each other.
“When I was in L.A., all you heard about was fighting, drive-bys, shootings. Around here all you hear about is drugs.”