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Gang-Related Killings in O.C. Hit 5-Year Low

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gang-related killings in Orange County last year plummeted by 40% to a five-year low, but drug offenses and gang membership continued to climb, according to an annual report released Tuesday by the Orange County district attorney’s office.

The 28-page document outlines an overall drop in violent gang crimes throughout the county--gang-involved slayings decreased from 70 in 1995 to 42 last year. But with 33 new gangs emerging in Orange County in 1996 alone and a 50% rise in gang-related drug offenses, authorities concede their fight is far from over.

“Gang violence unfortunately continues as a major threat to public safety in Orange County,” Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said.

Orange County prosecutors and police are sometimes accused of being too quick to brand certain suspects as gang members, or to attribute certain crimes to gang-related activity. But officials said the incidents outlined in Tuesday’s report were cases in which some type of gang affiliation was confirmed by direct evidence or reliable informants.

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Authorities attribute the drop in homicides and violent gang-related crimes to law enforcement’s efforts to crack down on gangs and a new high-tech data system that keeps close tabs on gang members. But officials admit that it’s difficult to pinpoint reasons for the downward trend.

“It’s not attributed to any one thing. Rather, it’s a little bit of everything,” Anaheim Police Lt. Dave Severson said. “We began focusing on gang suppression several years back, and we’re now beginning to see the results of that. Everything is finally coming together.”

The document, compiled through police reports and charges filed by prosecutors, charts the work of TARGET, the Tri-Agency Resource Gang Enforcement Team, which began in 1992 to counter gang crimes.

Made up of gang detectives, probation officers and prosecutors, the team works closely to take harsh action against suspected gang members before their activities turn violent or deadly and tracks gang activity throughout the county, officials said. First begun in Westminster, the coordinated response has since expanded to 11 cities across the county.

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Team members also provide tighter probation supervision and help schools and neighborhoods with community-based policing efforts.

Law enforcement officials defend their approach as the best way to turn the tide against gang crimes.

“TARGET and other programs have been successful in removing the most violent gang members,” Assistant Dist. Atty. John D. Conley said. “The gangs may be getting extra members, but there are fewer of the more serious and violent crimes.”

TARGET teams last year executed 137% more search warrants than in 1995, resulting in a 44% increase in firearms being seized from suspects, according to the report.

Prosecutors touted statistics that show a more than 90% conviction rate among the 157 gang-related cases that went to trial as proof their effort is working. Prosecutors also pushed to have more juveniles tried as adults, resulting in a 7% increase in such cases, according to the report.

Conley said he believes the approach to fighting gangs also contributed to a 9% decrease in charges filed by prosecutors in 1996.

“It’s a slight decline, and nothing to pat yourself on the back about,” Conley said. “But it’s significant.”

Still, gang membership is multiplying in Orange County, officials said. Roughly 3,000 new recruits brought the total number of gang members in Orange County in 1996 to 24,100, the report shows. Officials also reported that 33 new gangs cropped up last year, bringing the number of Orange County gangs to 374.

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“It’s fair to say that gang membership is still attractive to our youth, and it’s not dying out,” Conley said.

Some local residents were skeptical of the report’s findings. Gang-related activities have been tame in recent years but still plague some of Orange County’s roughest streets, they said. In some corners of the county, gang activity flourishes but gets little attention because of fear of reprisals.

“A lot of things happen here, but the police and press don’t hear about them,” said Larry Mireles, program director of the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, where gang activity is a persistent problem. “They go unreported because people fear retaliation.”

Mireles said he was pleased with the report’s findings, but added that gang-related crimes can be unpredictable.

“We have to be cautious, because the gangs can flare up any time,” Mireles said. “The gang borders are always changing. Some of the gang leaders may be locked up now, but many will get out soon.”

Orange County’s declining numbers remain consistent with state and national figures. According to the state attorney general’s office, the statewide homicide rate fell by 5.2% in 1996.

Authorities link this trend to stiffer penalties and tougher new laws that make it easier to try children as adults.

The district attorney’s report, for instance, indicated that 8.7% of gang-related crimes resulted in state prison terms--an all-time high. Conley could not specify how many of these sentences involved juveniles.

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Much of the information used in analyzing the prosecuting agency’s gang report came from a databank run by UC Irvine and information provided by a network of about 30 local law enforcement agencies.

UC Irvine assistant professor Bryan Vila, who oversees the gang statistics, said the data system has compiled enough information to show evidence of a lull in violent crimes. However, he cautioned that a more accurate analysis can be reached with additional data in the coming years.

“The thing with homicides is that they do vary a great deal,” Vila said. “We can’t really call this a downward trend and base it on one year’s worth of data. . . . We really need another year to get a good clear picture.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Gang Picture, 1996

Prosecutors say gang activity in Orange County continues to be a source of concern and a threat to public safety. The district attorney’s annual report presents a mixed picture. Some high points:

* 42 gang-related homicides are a five-year county low

* 33 new gangs and an additional 2,863 members were identified, for a total of 374 gangs and 24,100 gang members reported in Orange County

* About 9% of gang offenders were sentenced to state prison, a five-year high

* 98% of adult and 88% of juvenile trials ended in guilty verdicts

Source: Orange County district attorney’s office


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