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Police Bag the Baggy Pants Crowd in an Effort to Rid Mall of Gangs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may be the season for goodwill to all, but shoppers and merchants at the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance aren’t feeling much goodwill toward young people in gang attire. They’re happy that police are giving suspected gang members the bum’s rush.

During the past two weeks, Torrance police and security officers at the state’s largest mall have conducted a series of “gang sweeps,” breaking up large groups of youths wearing gang attire and in many cases ordering them off mall property.

Police regularly patrol the mall, but the sweeps represent the broadest effort to remove gang members, officials say.

Police say the sweeps are in response to complaints about growing numbers of youths in gang-style clothes hanging out at the mall during the holiday season.

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“It (the gang sweep program) will be continuing throughout the school holidays,” Torrance Police Sgt. Dexter Nelms said. “We’ll be monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and whenever the need for it arises, we’ll do it.”

Civil libertarians decry the tactic as an intrusion on individual rights, but police and merchants say it has been successful in making some shoppers comfortable.

Nelms said last week that an average of about 50 suspected gang members per day were asked to leave the mall and not to return for at least one day. All complied, he said, and no arrests have been made.

Although many of those caught up in the sweeps were not necessarily hard-core gang members, Nelms said, shoppers often cannot tell the difference and are intimidated by the sight of a large group of gang “wanna-bes,” or young people who may not be in gangs but wear their styles of clothing.

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The sweeps, conducted by two six-officer teams that include a mall security officer, target youths wearing baggy pants or shorts, loose sweat shirts, baseball caps and other garb associated with gangs. Not all people wearing such clothing are ejected; the police rely on their experience to determine whom to expel.

“There are two kinds of problems they (suspected gang members) create,” Nelms said. “One is the effect they have on the public, the intimidation effect. A lot of times they’ll be walking along, eight abreast, and facing people down, making them get out of their way. The other problem is the effect they have on other gangs--that is, they often can attract members of other gangs to the mall, with potentially violent results. So we decided to nip it in the bud.”

Nelms said one gang-related altercation occurred at the mall last week, in which one suspected gang member received a minor stab wound. But, he said, the mall generally has had few problems this season, which Nelms attributed at least in part to the gang sweeps.

“It’s been an extremely safe place to shop this year,” Nelms said.

Gang members and wanna-bes apparently have gotten the message; no one in what the police call gang attire was around for an interview Thursday afternoon.

But civil libertarians had reservations about the sweeps.

“To expel someone from a public place based simply on their appearance is certainly a violation of that individual’s rights,” said Mark Silverstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It is especially dangerous for the police to be in charge of determining what clothing suggests criminal activity.”

The ACLU, he said, has received a large number of complaints from people around the state complaining that they have been confronted by police simply because of their clothing. He said the group has several suits pending against law enforcement agencies to seek an end to the practice.

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“Clothing fashion changes so quickly that often the police are excluding people who are wearing fashionable clothing,” he said. “Baggy pants are not accurate indicators of drug use, criminal activity or other undesirable behavior.”

Nevertheless, several shoppers and merchants were supportive of the sweeps, often enthusiastically so.

“If you’re not a gang member, why do you want to look like one?” asked shopper John Deeb, 32, of Santa Monica. “Why do you want to go out with 20 of your friends and hang out at a mall? Sure, they’ve got a right to dress the way they want. It’s a free country. But other people have a right to go shopping without being harassed. I think (the sweeps) are a really good idea.”

“I didn’t even know (the police) were doing it, but I think it’s a good idea,” said Lydia Cawagas, a sales clerk at Amy’s Hallmark Shop. “When those kids get in large groups, they have a tendency to act up.”

“It’s good the cops are kicking them out,” said Carlos Lopez, owner of the Shoe Doctor. “What do you need them (gang members) here for?”

“It (the sweeps) makes it easier for people to shop here,” said Gersh Lemberger, who was selling china at the Table Charm sales booth. “I personally haven’t had any problems, but it inhibits a lot of people.”

Times staff writer Christina Lima contributed to this story.


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