Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Thursday that he was assigning more than 200 officers to a crackdown on the city’s most dangerous street gangs, even as officials acknowledged that their plan of attack was controversial.
Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa formally announced the initiative during a roll call of patrol officers at the Mission Community Police Station, which serves an area of the north San Fernando Valley where gang crime increased 160% last year. Citywide, gang crime rose 14%.
“We are mounting a coordinated, aggressive suppression strategy that targets the worst offenders and the most violent gangs, and we are coming at them with everything we have,” Villaraigosa said.
Although some experts contend that identifying gangs by name only adds to their street mystique, the mayor and chief broke with LAPD tradition with a list of the 11 worst groups to be targeted by a coordinated campaign involving LAPD officers, federal agents, state and city prosecutors and parole officers.
“Eleven gangs and their 800 members committed over 1,700 violent crimes last year,” Bratton said. “That’s 6% of all the violent crime in the city. It makes sense to focus our very limited resources on these criminals.”
Bratton said the initiative includes creating a special unit of 120 police detectives and 10 FBI agents to be tasked with investigating all gang-related homicides in the South Bureau region of South Los Angeles.
In addition, 50 police officers will be assigned to a new unit in the San Fernando Valley that will collect information on gang activity and deploy officers to hot spots. At least 18 additional officers have been brought into a Harbor Gateway neighborhood to deal with the 204th Street gang, a Latino group whose members have targeted African American residents.
“204th Street is gang No. 1 on the list,” Bratton said. “We are going to do everything we can -- with the city attorney and district attorney -- to go after them.”
In addition, 66 more officers have been assigned to the Central Division near downtown, and some of them will be moved around to gang hot spots as needed, officials said.
Beyond the additional LAPD resources, federal authorities also plan to provide extra agents to bring down the targeted gangs.
J. Stephen Tidwell, assistant director in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles, estimated Thursday that he has 25 to 30 agents working on gang issues in the city.
Tidwell said he would redeploy some of those agents to focus on the 11 targeted gangs and eventually provide more manpower to the initiative
“We can adjust the numbers. We agree with going after the worst gangs,” Tidwell said.
At the roll call news conference, Villaraigosa found himself having to address critics who question the decision to put gangs on a top 11 list because it might be seen as a badge of honor in the gang culture.
“We’ve had that policy [non-disclosure] in effect for three or four decades, and we are the gang capital of the United States of America,” Villaraigosa said. “When you think you can walk around, kill a girl because of the color of her skin, and do so in anonymity, I think what we are saying is ‘Uh uh.’ ”
Villaraigosa said he hoped that identifying the gangs would lead to a “more informed and confident community.” However, LAPD officials could not say Thursday how many members were thought to be in nearly half of the 11 gangs, or how many violent crimes each targeted gang was suspected of committing.
Though many gang members convicted of crimes were illegal immigrants, Villaraigosa disputed criticism that police are hampered by a special order that prevents them from asking suspects about their citizenship status.
The mayor said it is a federal responsibility to enforce immigration laws.
“Every police chief since Chief [Daryl] Gates has supported Special Order 40,” Villaraigosa said. Other reaction to the plan was more positive.
City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes neighborhood occupied by three of the gangs, said she was encouraged by the suppression plan but wants the city to also develop a better prevention and intervention plan to keep youths out of gangs.
“I certainly welcome this new strategy to attack the gangs head on, because what we have tried for the last 25 years has not been working,” Hahn said.
Meanwhile, a study released Thursday on gangs in Central America, Mexico and the Washington, D.C., area found that, contrary to popular notions about transnational networks and organized crime, these groups have few ties with gangs in other countries.
At a news conference in Washington, Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a researcher from the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the study was conducted in response to exaggerated reports that street gangs -- also known as “maras” -- were invading Mexico.
Times staff writer Stacy Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.