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Frenchman in Right Place to Study Gangs

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They mimic the walk, the talk--the at- tee- tude--of their gangster-rapping idols, shuffling in their baggies under the Art Nouveau arches of the Paris Metro stations, the in-yo’- visage lyrics of Dr Dre and Public Enemy thumping in their ears.

The Parisian versions of L.A.’s homeboys travel in what they proudly call sectes --in French a double-play on the word for “sect” and an acronym that includes the phrase “exporting culture in enemy territory,” according to University of Paris law and criminology professor Francois Haut, who has spent the past week in Los Angeles, studying its gangs.

Haut said West Coast gang culture is sweeping the poorer northern suburbs of Paris, and with it has come an upswing in violence--including against police. Mobile suburban gangs are fighting for “territory and recognition” in the prime areas of Paris, according to Haut.

“The same problem is rising in my country,” Haut said. “I have decided to come to the source.”

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And so, at a time when officers are doubling up in their patrol cars in the wake of three shootings involving police and gang members, Haut has been riding shotgun with members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s gang unit, known within the LAPD and on the street by the acronym CRASH, which has been around so long no one seemed able to remember what words the letters stand for. (For the record, it’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.)

He’s also been talking with past and current gang members.

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Los Angeles gangs appear less menacing than their French counterparts, Haut said, but he acknowledges that appearances can be deceptive.

“Ours are more aggressive. They stone police cars and attack police stations. The appearance here is greater respect for the police. (Los Angeles) gangs don’t seem so aggressive,” he said.

He was amazed that police officers here actually talk to gang members.

The big difference, he said, was the guns, the killings, in Los Angeles.

And, Haut added, “the dead people are what’s important.”

On Thursday, Haut toured the San Fernando Valley, home to about 40 gangs, checking out graffiti and clothes worn by corner-hanging homeboys from Pacoima to Van Nuys--where there was a gang-related drive-by shooting about 9:30 that night, after Haut had left.

On Friday, he rode along for a few hours with officers in the LAPD’s Newton Division.

The gang investigators opened up their files to him, showering Haut with tips about gang psychology, dress patterns, common nicknames and how to read graffiti.

Haut now believes he has seen the future of France. The writing’s on the wall.

“I know what’s going to happen,” Haut said. “We have no task forces. I’m sure (Paris) is going to be like this if nothing is done right now. When things go too far, you can’t stop them.”

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In a way, Haut’s trip is nothing out of the ordinary. France has always kept an eye on the United States and its pop culture--after all, comedian Jerry Lewis is a revered icon there. After last year’s Los Angeles riots, France’s urban ministers looked inward and came up with a host of new programs designed to prevent similar outbreaks of violence in suburbs densely populated by Arab and North African immigrants.

But when it comes to gangs, Haut and the officers he met agree, France is firmly stuck in the denial stage.

“The general opinion in France is that gangs don’t exist,” Haut said. “The people don’t call them gangsters. They call them youngsters. The politicians don’t want to admit they exist. You could say it’s an ostrich policy.”

He said French media portrayals of gangs have been friendly for the most part, focusing on the hip-hop dance style, known in France as “the Move.” When graffiti first started appearing about three years ago, a former cultural minister embraced it as art, Haut said.

But the gangs have turned to drug dealing--heroin and marijuana, mostly--and the level of violence is increasing, Haut said. So is hostility toward police.

During the summer of 1993, gang members burned one police car, stoned others and incited mobs to trash two police stations where gang members were being held. Even more telling, he said, was the country’s first official appearance of crack cocaine, which was seized by police in August.

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“Well, it’s all over then . . . you’ve got problems,” Detective William Humprhy told Haut, wearily shaking his head. “Do they have guns yet? They will.”

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Such mainstays of Los Angeles gangs as machine guns, hand signs and drive-by shootings are still rare in Paris, Haut said. But French gang members have been known to drop washing machines at police from 10th-story windows of housing projects.

Haut’s visit also gave LAPD gang investigators a chance to learn about a potential gang problem while it’s still evolving.

“What I find amazing are the parallels and the evolution,” Haut was told by Officer Richard E. Stocks, who heads a pilot gang-intervention program in the Valley. “We can tell you where you’re going.”

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