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Fragile Balance Shaken in Anaheim Barrio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is Friday in the barrio. The stage is set for this night’s heat between police and Latinos when a black-and-white unit pulls up and a suspected gang member bolts into a shadowy apartment.

“I’m going in there after you,” a police officer calls to the youth. Neighbors cluster to watch. Soon, people are shouting in Spanish and broken English that the officer has no right to enter their homes.

Minutes later, the youth emerges on his own. Police ask him whether he’s on probation and why he was drinking beer on the street, and let him go. They leave the scene, pleased that, if nothing else, they broke up a gathering of what they say is a neighborhood gang.

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Threatening to chase the youth into the apartment, said Officer Scott McManus, “was just kind of like a bluff” to flush him into the open.

But to relatives, friends and neighbors looking on from the balconies of crammed apartments, the danger was not from the teenager who lives among them. They fear the police.

“They come in with attitude, hey, we’re gonna give them attitude too,” said Jose Valadez, 22, who watched in anger as police confronted the suspect, his brother. “They should handle things differently. My brother, he works, he’s got a good job. I know they’re on the defensive, I know they’re just trying to protect themselves, but, man, they could have handled it differently.”

Friction between police and Latinos is nothing new in Anaheim. It reached a frightening height in 1978, when police wielding Mace and batons clashed in a city park with some Latinos armed with stones. In what was later termed a riot by an Orange County grand jury, 50 people were injured and 12 were arrested.

Now, trouble has erupted again. And, ironically, the latest animosity between Anaheim police and Latinos comes at a time when the police force is doing more than ever to close the cultural breach between officers and the city’s minorities.

“The gulf between them is pretty large,” said Rusty Kennedy, director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “It’s a problem of a tough history to overcome, and a problem of the balancing act between how the police can be tough on crime while changing their ways of dealing with people to account for the changing city.”

Anaheim’s Latino population has soared from 37,000 in 1980 to more than 84,000 today.

The latest dispute was sparked last month, when a Santa Ana jury awarded $340,000 to a former Anaheim police officer, finding he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged police brutality against Latinos.

The jury did not rule on whether the incidents occurred as the officer, Steve Nolan, reported them. The U.S. Department of Justice closed its investigation into the allegations in February, saying it did not find sufficient evidence to support Nolan’s claims.

But while the 1991 and 1992 beatings alleged by Nolan have never been substantiated, the verdict galvanized a group of Latinos in the city who believe the reported incidents prove a pattern of racism and abuse by Anaheim police.

The group, which calls itself United Neighborhoods, maintains that use of excessive force has been tolerated or covered up by Anaheim police for years.

“The police chief needs to be accountable for his officers and this shows that he does not hold his officers accountable for what they do,” Josie Montoya, a leader of the group, said of the Nolan verdict.

On the same day as the verdict, a citizens committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced it will hold hearings in May into Nolan’s allegations. The committee will also hear United Neighborhoods’ complaints.

The combined weight of the Nolan verdict and the civil rights commission inquiry has left the 390 men and women of the police force feeling beleaguered and defensive.

“I guarantee you we’re looking over our shoulders,” said Capt. Marc Hedgpeth, who oversees the department’s gang enforcement unit. “We anticipate there will be a lot of fallout from this, and we are frustrated, downright frustrated that decades of improving our relations with the community have been foiled.”

Montoya says her supporters have similar feelings.

“There is a growing anger, a frustration, it’s close to the point of explosion,” she said. “I pray every day that some changes are made before an officer or a youth is seriously hurt.”

For the past two weeks, United Neighborhoods has been calling for the resignation of Police Chief Randall Gaston, who has been in office three years, blaming him for what they say is constant police harassment in the barrios. The group is also demanding that the city form a civilian police review board. No Orange County city and only two cities in Los Angeles County have such oversight.

“There are a lot of good policemen on the force, don’t get me wrong, but you can always have a few rotten apples,” said Narciso Balderama, a retired machine operator and Anaheim resident who is president of United Neighborhoods. “I think things can be resolved if we get some outside people in to oversee the police.”

Police oppose the idea, saying the charges against the department are baseless. They say their methods are tough when needed and that their record speaks for itself.

“What keeps gang crime from getting out of control again are exactly the firm tactics we’ve been using,” said Anaheim Police Lt. David Severson. “And yes, it’s probably going to irritate the gang members a little bit, and it’s probably going to irritate their family members and their friends. But I think our actions speak for themselves. We don’t trample all over civil rights.”

Under Gaston the department has done more community outreach than at any time in its history.

And under Gaston the department is enjoying crime-fighting success. Even as the number of gang members in the city has exploded from 180 in 1984 to 5,019 in 1996, gang-related homicides dropped from 17 in 1983 to 1 last year, according to Police Department statistics. Department figures show a drop of crime on school campuses of 49% since 1993.

In the past two weeks, police have marshaled the backing of hundreds of middle-class Anaheim residents who have traditionally stood behind the department. More than 80 of the residents, many of them members of neighborhood watch groups, crowded a City Council meeting last week in support of Gaston.

“If all the voting citizens of Anaheim want civilian review, fine, but I think you have to look at it and say, you already have a civilian police review board in the city, and it’s the City Council,” Gaston said. “If any group in the city feels the Police Department is doing something wrong, we are already accountable to city leaders.”

The department is battling more than its present troubles. It also lives with the lasting memory of its past.

Many critics of the department first became incensed at police after the 1978 riot in Little People’s Park. The melee in downtown Anaheim was touched off when police, responding to reports of gunshots, confronted an angry crowd pelting them with stones. Police allegedly beat youths and sprayed picnickers with tear gas.

The department was shaken for years by the investigations that grew out of the disturbance, and by findings by an Orange County grand jury that police used excessive force in two cases during that incident.

The department, Anaheim officers contend, is a different institution today than it was two decades ago. Few on the force now were involved in quelling the melee in Little People’s Park. The police chief in office then is long gone.

Today’s police reach out to low-income neighborhoods with community gatherings, deliver Easter baskets to the poor and have assigned officers to city schools.

Meanwhile, the department’s gang enforcement unit, created in 1990, has grown from two officers to 14. Of the department’s 214 sworn patrol officers today, 47 speak a language other than English fluently. Four of the 12 officers on the department’s gang detail are Latino.

Among other advances over the past three years, Anaheim has placed officers in substations and on bicycles in the city’s high-crime areas as a way of building a closer relationship between cops and neighborhoods.

Meetings between police officers and community members are held almost nightly somewhere in the city. The number of neighborhood watch groups in Anaheim has mushroomed to more than a dozen in the past six years.

One Anaheim community policing program that pairs a police officer with a schoolteacher to patrol the city’s campuses has been recognized by the U.S. General Accounting Office as a top effort of its kind in the country.

For the past three years, officers have been required to take sensitivity training courses, and the department has offered free classes in Spanish and other languages spoken in the city. Some officers who deal with the gang problem regularly have developed an easy rapport with gang members, and have become known in neighborhoods plagued by gangs.

In the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, police and the city have worked together over the past three years installing powerful lights in streets and alleys.

But those advances have yet to pay off in better relations on the streets.

“They’re still scared of us, they will run from us, it’s still tough out here,” said Paul Gallagher, driving his patrol car slowly around a rough neighborhood.

“But I just wish they could have driven in a car down this street the way it was the first time I saw it. . . . It was just drug dealers everywhere. Now I see kids playing here safely when I drive down the street.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Gang Assaults Down

Gang membership in Anaheim has increased since 1993-94, when the city beefed up its gang unit. But gang-related homicides and assaults have declined as have gang homicides as a factor in the city’s overall murder picture:

Gang Membership

1996: 5,019

****

Homicides

*--*

City Gang- total related 1996 21 1

*--*

****

Gang Assaults

1996: 111

****

Campus Crime

Although incidents have leveled off, school-campus crime remains far below 1993 levels--the year the Anaheim Police Department and the Anaheim Union High School District instituted an innovative school safety program:

Year: Crimes

1996: 150

Source: Anaheim Police Department

Researched by ESTHER SCHRADER / Los Angeles Times


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