In an unmarked police car, Sgt. Carl Handy was tooling up Ventura Avenue--the area he calls “the neighborhood.”
“Hey, Handyman!” yelled one youth as he spotted the white sedan, waving at the head of the Ventura Police Department’s gang unit as if he were a homeboy.
As the car turned down a different street, another teen-ager shouted: “What’s up, Handyman?” Each time, Handy pulled over to talk briefly with the youth. How is school going? What’s happening at home? What was that fight about the other day?
The small talk varies, but it always ends the same way. “Stay out of trouble, OK?” Handy says.
As the person with primary responsibility for keeping the lid on gang violence in the city of Ventura, Handy repeats this routine several times a week. His goal is to learn as much as possible about the city’s 1,500 gang members, associates and wanna-bes.
Handy said he has no hard evidence to show his seven-man unit has been effective at suppressing gang crime. But when violence breaks out, he can usually find out quickly who did the crime, why, and where they can be found.
And maybe, Handy hopes, his influence will keep some would-be criminals out of trouble.
“Carl is one of those guys who understands there is more to police work than just good guys and bad guys,” said Lt. Mike Tracy, Handy’s supervisor. “He sees the shades of gray out there.”
Handy’s role on the streets is one he relishes. After 21 years on the Ventura police force, he remains a street cop at heart. But the brass at the Ventura Police Department also recognized that in Handy they had a good supervisor, an officer who led by example.
So Handy, 43, has been promoted several times, most recently to the gang unit, which was formed in 1990. Colleagues say Handy is an excellent but reluctant supervisor who would rather be at the center of the action.
When he does get out to the neighborhoods, he is effective at gaining the trust of gangbangers because he never uses his authority to intimidate, friends and colleagues say. Instead, he gets what he wants by forming personal relationships with people on the streets and winning their respect.
Sometimes it works, as with the teen-agers who drop out of gangs after a few years. But other times it fails spectacularly. Two years ago, Handy stopped to talk to Jesse Conchas just hours before the Ventura youth fatally stabbed an Oxnard boy in a gang-related dispute.
While Handy has gained the respect of many of his colleagues for his non-adversarial approach on the street, he said his methods have also led to criticism because of his relationship with the local Hells Angels, which call themselves a motorcycle club.
There are some people who believe that about 1980, Handy helped orchestrate a truce between the Police Department and the Hells Angels, under which any criminal activity by the group would be conducted outside the city, according to one law enforcement official. The official, who asked not be named, said he had no evidence of a truce but said the subject occasionally comes up in discussions about Handy.
Handy acknowledged that such talk has dogged him for more than a decade. He attributed it to jealousy and misunderstanding of his close contacts with the Hells Angels.
“It’s people not understanding or liking the relationship that (the Ventura Police Department) shared with that group,” he said.
Lt. Tracy, said Handy has nothing to apologize for. “His approach with the Hells Angels is the same as it is with the gangs. He communicates directly with them and openly. And if that’s a fault, so be it.”
Nevertheless, Handy ended his official role as police liaison with the group in 1986 because “my integrity is real important to me,” he said. He said he still touches base at the Angels’ club on Fix Way on an unofficial basis when he makes his rounds into the Avenue neighborhood.
The major focus of his duties by far is monitoring gang activity, Handy said. The six officers under his supervision in the Special Enforcement Division help him keep tabs on the kids, who range in age from 12 to 18.
The unit is called whenever there is a drive-by shooting, assault or slaying that is gang-related, Handy said. It is a challenge keeping up with the players because the faces are always changing, he said.
Ventura has 12 gangs spread throughout the city, but the largest hangs out in the Avenue area. Local gangs generally do not stay active beyond one generation, he said.
“It’s not like the L.A. gangs,” where a father, son and grandson can belong to the same gang, Handy said.
“They don’t have that hard-core mentality all the time,” he said. “They will be active for a while and then go dormant for a while.”
Controlling gangs by getting to know members personally is standard police practice in gang units across the country, Handy said. But it is a viewpoint that melds well with Handy’s personal philosophy.
As a boy growing up in Compton, next to South-Central Los Angeles, Handy had church-going parents who stressed the importance of showing respect for all people, he said. His father, a sportswriter, encouraged Handy and his two brothers to join the Boy Scouts, and he insisted that they stay busy by taking up sports, he said.
While still a young boy, Handy decided to be a cop because it was a profession that “people looked up to,” he said.
“It’s like being a Boy Scout,” he said. “You’re doing the right thing for the right reason.”
He attended Cal State Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in public administration. After college, he applied to several police agencies in Southern California. Ventura was the only one that called back, and Handy started as a beat cop in July, 1972.
After five years, he was promoted to detective, working on burglaries. A year later, he joined a narcotics team and was named a field sergeant in 1979. In 1985, he took over supervision of a newly formed traffic division that dealt with drunk drivers and traffic accidents.
It would be five more years before he landed the job he really wanted--supervisor of the department’s Special Enforcement Division, a position that would let him gain skills as a supervisor while remaining on the street. It had been a catchall unit that was called in whenever an unusual police situation came up that required specialized work.
The Ventura Police Department decided to focus the unit on gangs in 1990, months after a 15-year-old Ventura High School student was sprayed by gunfire during a drive-by shooting near the campus. Anthony Ortega survived but was seriously injured, Handy said.
“That was a turning point in the community,” he said. “People knew gangs were here, but they had never dealt with the phenomenon before.”
Since then, his unit has been tracking gangs and investigating the crimes they cause, with mixed success. Several homicides have been solved because Handy and his men fanned out to the neighborhoods right after a crime to collect statements from witnesses, Deputy Dist. Atty. Kim G. Gibbons said.
But the murder last year of 17-year-old Jesse Strobel--a crime that particularly inflamed the community because the Ventura High football player apparently had no direct ties to a gang--remains unsolved. Police believe gang members were involved, but they don’t have enough evidence to arrest anyone, Handy said.
“We’re waiting for the right person to come forward with the right piece of information,” he said.
Aside from murder investigations, Gibbons said he would like to see Handy’s unit go after evidence as diligently for less serious crimes committed by gang members.
“Stabbings, shooting, drive-bys without injuries or with minor injuries often don’t get investigated right away and then the trail is cold,” Gibbons said. “Everyone is scared to testify. If you don’t get statements right away, you’ll never get them.”
Overall, Handy’s unit does a good job, Gibbons said.
“I think they know the people they are dealing with in their city very well,” he said.
Handy is the department’s representative on several panels dealing with gang activity, and he often gives talks on gangs to community groups. As the department’s resident “quote-meister,” Handy is often interviewed by the local media, especially in stories dealing with gangs.
“He gets a lot of publicity and I think it almost embarrasses him,” Lt. Tracy said .
Tracy, who has known Handy for 18 years, said the sergeant tries to balance his work and home life. He works mostly at night, so he has plenty of free time during the day to spend with his wife of nearly 20 years, Claudia, and their daughter, Amy, at their Ventura home.
Handy said he and Amy, 13, often go to the Santa Paula stables where she boards her horse. He bought her the horse six years ago so she would have responsibility for something--a tactic that he often suggests to parents who want to keep their children out of gangs.
“I tell them to keep their kids as busy as they can,” Handy said.
He goes camping with his family for two weeks every summer, where he finds time to read action-adventure novels, he said. He likes fiction, Handy said, because “it’s a jump away from reality for a while.”
Handy has another daughter, Sarah, 19, from an earlier marriage, but does not see her very much, he said. She spent most of her growing-up years in Alaska, he explained.
He credits his wife with helping him succeed at his job. She is an emergency-room nurse at Ventura County Medical Center and “is very tolerant of what I do,” Handy said. Because he is on call, he often puts in more than 40 hours a week, he said.
Handy said it is difficult to predict whether Ventura’s gangs will grow or dwindle in the future.
“Gangs are real trendy right now in California,” he said. “It’s a power thing for the kids.”
Despite the frustrations, Handy is happy in his work. “I’ve got the best job in the department,” he said.
Greg Totten, who supervises all gang cases for the district attorney’s office except murders, said he thinks Handy’s gang unit is paying for itself by preventing crimes. And as its chief, Handy is doing a very competent job, he said.
“He’s one of these guys who like people and relate very well to them,” Totten said. “He’s a good, honorable cop.”