The stretch of Third Street near downtown Santa Ana was under siege. By day, dealers brazenly sold drugs at the local parks and gang members controlled the streets. By night, residents slept on the floor to avoid being struck by the gunfire that rang out in the distance.
That was five years ago, before Operation Roundup, a massive police and FBI raid aimed at breaking the grip of local gangs by arresting more than 100 people. Today, crime along Third Street has plummeted, a gang once considered the most violent in the county is crippled and residents say they feel liberated to stroll along the street and take their children to the playground.
The transformation, experts said, demonstrates the powerful effect aggressive police tactics can have on gang-filled neighborhoods and provides a dramatic example of how such efforts have helped cut crime over the last decade. It also highlights the trade-off residents in those neighborhoods face: accepting greater police scrutiny in exchange for safer streets.
Officials said the Third Street sweep offers hope--and lessons--to residents of a crime-plagued west Santa Ana, where an army of law enforcement agents moved in last week in a sweep inspired by Operation Roundup.
“The idea is to replicate our earlier success,” said police Sgt. Raul Luna. “We wouldn’t have been able to put this second raid together if we couldn’t show that this type of operation can make a difference. With Third Street, we can make that case.”
Police statistics show a major turnaround along Third Street:
* Serious crimes in the area dropped by 75% in the first year after the raid, according to police. By contrast, those crimes dropped about 12% countywide and 15% in Santa Ana.
* In the 10 months before the sweep, police received 500 calls for service. During the same period in 1999, officers received 46. Moreover, most of the complaints now are for loud music.
* The crackdown, authorities said, played a major role in the city’s plummeting gang murder rate, which has dropped from 46 in 1995 to seven in 1999. The area, which saw five homicides in the fouryears before the raid, has experienced only one in the five years.
“It’s completely different than before. Back then you couldn’t be outside, even in broad daylight. Everyone was scared,” said 20-year-old George Gonzalez, who grew up in the area of modest homes and apartment complexes a few blocks from police headquarters.
“Now the park is clean. Kids can play around and have fun. The neighborhood got together.”
The Sixth Street gang, which for years terrorized Gonzalez’s neighborhood, was decimated by the raid, which sent dozens of its members to state prison on primarily drug and weapons charges.
Members began returning to Third Street over the last year as their prison sentences ended, but authorities said the array of community efforts and aggressive enforcement has prevented the gang from reemerging as a force.
It’s all a far cry from the early 1990s, when the area was known as a drug-dealing mecca where rock cocaine addicts blockaded streets and gang members brazenly robbed car occupants.
Families now picnic in a park once the sight of drive-by shootings. And people move in to homes and apartments long abandoned.
The change began with the late 1994 pre-dawn raid that netted 117 drug dealers, most of them members of the Sixth Street Gang. Almost all the suspects were charged, and the majority eventually served time behind bars.
Believing that arrests alone would not change the neighborhood, police launched their first-ever effort to remake a community, and sought help from residents and local businesses.
“It’s an evolutionary linkage between visible disorder and crime,” said Santa Ana Police Lt. Bill Tegeler, who supervised the operation. “If you don’t take care of those small things, they will turn into big things.”
The park at the corner of Flower Street, a one-time thug hangout, was spiffed up after the California Angels and other businesses donated $120,000 for playground equipment and bathroom improvements. Dozens of abandoned units at a condominium complex once used as flophouses by drug addicts were rehabilitated by a non-profit group provided with $2 million in city funding.
Police and city officials also encouraged owners to take better care of their properties. As a result, police and residents say pride of ownership returned to the area. Abandoned cars were towed away, garbage was hauled off, and graffiti painted over.
“Once you start cleaning up a property, the gang people scurry away like cockroaches,” said Bob Bell, a Newport Beach real estate investor who had to repair bullet holes in some of the 80 apartment units he bought in the area before the sweep.
“The minute things are cleaned up and there’s pride of ownership, the gang members realize that the activity they want to do is not welcome anymore.”
But among some people who saw family members arrested during Operation Roundup, feelings are more mixed. While many admit that crime is down and the street feels safer, some complain they get too much scrutiny from officers.
‘We’ve been thinking of moving to Tustin because the police harass us so much,” said Ana Lopez, whose brother and sister were arrested in the 1994 raid. “They shine the spotlights on the house in the middle of the night. They come inside whenever they want. It’s tiring. I wish they would leave us alone.”
Tegeler said he was not aware of complaints, and most Third Street residents interviewed over the last few months express strong support for the police actions and hope it continues.
“We feel we can do just about anything now,” said Virginia Avila, who has lived in the area for 50 years. “We can go on the bus. We can go to the store. Or go visit someone on 4th Street. There’s no crime really happening right now. We are very grateful for the police.”
Experts say the mixed reactions are typical of residents in areas targeted for intense police involvement. Complaints of police excesses are inevitable, and residents must weigh whether the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls.
“The idea is that just busting the criminal is not enough,” said James Meeker, a UC Irvine professor of criminology, law and society. “You need to do more. You also have to do community development. It takes a lot more effort, but the rewards are there, and it’s well worth the money.”
Meeker, an expert on Orange County gang trends, said both Operation Roundup and last week’s raid have a better chance of success than most sweeps because police built individual cases against each of the more than 100 suspects arrested.