FBI joins L.A. policing effort in war on street gang crime

Times Staff Writers

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III joined local law enforcement officials Thursday as they announced a campaign for the “strategic dismantling” of two street gangs after the killing last month of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in the Harbor Gateway area.

In addition, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he plans to keep convicted gang members in jail for their full sentences, exempting them from an early release program underway to relieve overcrowding.

Mueller was in Los Angeles to pledge FBI assistance in the city’s battle against gangs after a 14% increase in gang violence last year, including a hike of nearly 25% in South L.A.

The arrest of two members of the 204th Street gang in the shooting death of Green sparked outrage after police said they believed the Latinos targeted the girl because she was African American.

The FBI director stood with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William J. Bratton, Baca and others in front of a market in the tiny gang-plagued neighborhood as officials outlined their multi-agency attack on the 204th Street group and an affiliate, the Eastside Torrance gang.


“No one should have to fear for their life because of the color of their skin; not in our city, not in our country and certainly not in this neighborhood,” Villaraigosa said. “We have a message for these gang leaders: We are coming with everything we have. We are coming with services and suppression, and we are putting you out of business.”

The news conference was held in front of a market on Harvard Boulevard, just north of 204th Street, that some African Americans are afraid to patronize because of the area’s predominantly Latino gangs.

Authorities will use search warrants, hate crime investigations and graffiti, trespassing, narcotics, truancy and curfew laws to go after the gangs, Los Angeles Police Department officials said.

The 204th Street gang has 120 members and is accused of terrorizing African American residents of a nearly 2-square-mile area that it considers its turf. The Eastside Torrance gang is associated with the 204th Street group but is smaller.

Police are already planning to ask judges to approve “stay-away” orders for gang members to keep them out of the neighborhood. And starting today, LAPD officers and sheriff’s deputies will share patrol cars while driving through the area.

Because 17 members of the 204th Street gang live in Torrance, and have crossed city boundaries to escape Los Angeles police, the crackdown will include cooperation with the Torrance Police Department and regular county parole officers as well as the joint patrols.

“It allows for the sharing of intelligence and getting the message to these characters that the boundaries they go across so freely don’t matter,” Bratton said.

The LAPD-led initiative will gather intelligence on the gangs, including the identity of members, in hopes of obtaining an injunction to limit their ability to gather on streets, the mayor said.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration will target drug crimes, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will go after guns.

Federal agents will provide electronic surveillance of gang activity and operate observation posts in the neighborhood; the U.S. attorney may use federal hate crime and civil rights laws to put violators in federal prison, where sentences are longer, officials said.

“We will be working shoulder to shoulder with police officers in these areas,” Mueller said.

Baca’s decision to exclude gang members from the jail’s early release program removes a big hurdle to the success of any crackdown, officials said.

An increase in gang crime citywide has Bratton drawing up a list of the 10 to 20 worst gangs in the city for similar targeting.

The Harbor Gateway area has experienced racial tensions for more than a decade as African Americans have moved from a nearby housing project to the predominantly Latino neighborhood, the officials said.

In 1997, a black youth was killed in the area, followed by three racially motivated homicides including the killing of Green, city officials said.

The stepped-up enforcement effort was denounced by some community activists, including Aqeela Sherrills, who for years headed the Community Self Determination Institute.

Sherrills questioned why the city is not doing enough to provide youth programs and after-school services, and he noted that Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, a local civil rights organization, has announced that gang members had agreed to a truce earlier this week.

“They are going to spend millions of dollars even though Najee Ali already brought about a peace treaty,” Sherrills said.

Earlier in the day, Mueller told about 100 members of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce that increases in gang violence were being seen across the nation but that the problem was a special challenge in Southern California.

“Los Angeles, for better or worse, is ground zero for modern gang activities,” Mueller said.

“Here in Los Angeles the ratio of gang members to police officers is overwhelming,” he added. “This is where we in the FBI can help.” Times staff writer Sam Quinones contributed to this report.