City Declares War on Gangs
Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton declared an all-out assault on the city’s street gangs Tuesday, saying they will use the same tactics that crippled the Mafia to pursue gang leaders and members.
“There is nothing more insidious than these gangs,” said Bratton. “They are worse than the Mafia. Show me a year in New York where the Mafia indiscriminately killed 300 people. You can’t.”
The new anti-gang initiatives are the latest in a long line of law enforcement efforts to curtail gang activity in a metropolitan area where authorities say there are more than 100,000 gang members and associates and at least 200 active gangs. Over the years, the initiatives have met with limited success in a community where some gangs date back five generations, and some experts predicted Tuesday that the current effort may fare no better.
The mayor and chief said the threat posed by gangs requires dramatic federal intervention and aggressive prosecution of gang members under federal racketeering statutes.
Details of the new anti-gang effort came at a news conference at the 77th Street Community Police Station in South Los Angeles, where nearly half of the city’s 614 homicides so far this year have taken place.
Police officials said Tuesday that they already have redeployed the department’s 300 gang suppression officers to eight divisions -- 77th, Newton, Southeast, Southwest, Hollenbeck, Foothill, Wilshire and Harbor -- where gang activity has spurred a double-digit increase in the city’s murder rate this year.
In the past three weeks alone, more than 20 people have been gunned down in South Los Angeles.
Today, Bratton will swear in Capt. Michael Hillmann as the city’s gang czar. Hillmann, who will take the rank of deputy chief, is charged with coordinating anti-gang efforts citywide, a newly created post. In addition, Cmdr. Earl C. Paysinger is scheduled to be sworn in as deputy chief for the South Bureau.
The new assignments come as the LAPD launches joint operations with state and county agencies to track down parole and probation violators, many of them gang members, living in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
“We’ve got to target fugitives and gun and narcotics violators who prey on our neighborhoods,” said Hahn, who while serving as city attorney used injunctions to stop gang members from congregating.
Bratton on Tuesday called gang activity “homeland terrorism.” Warning that the city’s street gangs are “the head that needs to be cut off” to stem gang activity elsewhere in the country, Bratton said he plans to head to Washington with Hahn shortly after the first of the year to ask for help.
“They need to get preoccupied with the internal war on terrorism as well,” Bratton said.
His second-in-command, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, said: “We’re going to use the full force of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) and the IRS to bring down these gang members. That’s what got Al Capone.”
Flanked by family members of Clive Jackson Jr., 14, a promising basketball player with no gang affiliations who was shot dead two weeks ago on Western Avenue, the mayor and chief said residents should not have to live in fear.
“Let the death of Clive Jackson be a call to action,” Hahn said as tears ran down the faces of Jackson’s parents. “We cannot and will not let gang members control these streets.”
Successfully attacking gangs, however, has proved difficult over the years.
Then-Chief Daryl F. Gates instituted massive police sweeps in 1988 and 1989, flooding the streets of South Los Angeles with 200 to 300 additional officers on random nights to make hundreds of arrests on minor and major violations. The program, named “Operation Hammer,” alienated large segments of the community while doing little to reduce crime.
Gates said his intention was clear-cut: “to make life miserable for gang members.”
In 1995, under Chief Willie L. Williams, the LAPD launched the largest street gang crackdown in its history in a joint operation with the FBI. But only one of the 63 people arrested by the 800-member team was charged with a violent felony.
Another task force, formed in the 1990s to go after the 18th Street gang’s clandestine network of leaders, also fell far short of its goals. Recent FBI estimates place membership in the 18th Street gang at about 15,000.
Still, the number of homicides in Los Angeles dropped dramatically in the late 1990s and remains far lower this year than the all-time high of 1,092 in 1992.
Assistant Chief McDonnell acknowledged Tuesday that the dismantling of the LAPD’s specialized gang unit known as CRASH may have contributed to spikes in street violence. The unit was eliminated in March 2000 in the wake of the Rampart Division scandal.
But McDonnell said the department’s new initiative won’t be a return to the past. This time, he said, the community and police must work together to erase gangs. “We don’t want to come out like in the ‘80s with Operation Hammer,” he said. “We are planning a holistic, collaborative approach to the problem.”
Experts say the task will be difficult.
Howard Abadinsky, a criminologist who has written extensively on organized crime, said the nature and magnitude of Los Angeles street gangs are far different from those of the Mafia.
Abadinsky said a three-prong effort -- run by the FBI and not the NYPD -- has led to a reduction in the influence of New York’s five big crime families, which altogether are estimated to have about 1,000 members.
“You need to stop recruitment; the problem you’ve got in L.A. is you have an unlimited supply of applicants,” he said.
“You have to have people undercover or you have to turn someone,” Abadinsky added. “You have to get electronic surveillance based on what your snitches tell you and have to use intensive, intensive activity over time to build a case.”
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said authorities have grappled for years with how best to go after street gangs.
“We’ve prosecuted gang members using federal weapons laws,” he said, adding that some cases are ongoing. “In other cases we’ve targeted gangs who engaged in drug trafficking.”
Mrozek said RICO laws were used to obtain 18 convictions against the Columbia Lil’ Cycos -- a clique of the 18th Street gang -- earlier this year. Prosecutors described the gang as patterning itself after East Coast Mafia families, spending money on suburban houses, a juice parlor and a used car lot.
Bratton said he will meet with U.S. Atty. Debra Yang next week.
Those who work on the front lines to stem gang activity say the city needs to invest in gang prevention as much as enforcement.
“If there is a year with lot of fires, the Fire Department gets money to hire more firefighters. In much the same way, the city needs to spend more money on gangs intervention,” said Kevin Fletcher of L.A. Bridges gang intervention program.
On Tuesday, a relative of Clive Jackson read from a letter the youth had written to UCLA officials asking for advice shortly before he was shot to death.
“I would like to know how to get into college so that I can get ready,” the 14-year-old wrote. “I want to know how much are the books there so I can save up. I don’t want my mom to pay for everything.... I thank you for your time and I hope to make it there.”
Hahn said too many lives such as Jackson’s had been cut short.
“Statistics cloud us from seeing the real pain,” he said. “His hopes and dreams will never be realized.”
Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.