PART 1 of 4
Editors note: This four-part series is not designed to scare, but to inform our community of the increasing gang presence in the foothill area. The goal is to make us aware what resources are available and how to best work — together — to eradicate this problem before it escalates.
Gangs have been in existence for centuries. The term "thug" dates back to 1200 AD India, referring to a gang called "Thugz" that roamed the countryside. They had their own symbols and hand signs.
Today when people hear the word "gang" an image of graffiti ridden buildings lining downtown Los Angeles comes to mind. However gangs are not limited to just a few neighborhoods. Today's gangs are organized, they recruit and they are mobile.
Suburban areas like La Cañada and the greater Crescenta Valley have remained relatively isolated from gang activity but the valley is not immune to their influence, say local law enforcement officials.
"They have cars," said officer Jason Lee, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "We can't stop them from traveling."
An initial signal that gangs are moving into an area is the appearance of graffiti on public buildings. Many foothill residents may be unaware of any graffiti in the area, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. A local organization known as Volunteers in Pride (VIP) has been on graffiti patrol for years. Established in 1991, VIP volunteers clean graffiti as soon as they find it or it is reported. They work closely with law enforcement and have sent representatives to Washington, D.C. in support of anti-gang and anti-graffiti bills. When they find graffiti they first record it, then clean it.
"[Employing LAPD] Chief [Bill] Bratton's policy of 'broken windows' can be really effective," said Lee. The "broken windows" policy is based on a theory that graffiti and other crimes decrease when signs of criminal activity are taken care of immediately.
That is why VIP volunteers respond quickly, cleaning graffiti. The organization covers areas in La Cañada, La Crescenta, Glendale and Griffith Park. In recent months, VIP members have seen not only an increase in graffiti in the LCF and CV areas but more bold symbols of a gang dispute.
"In the years 1991 through 1996 the [graffiti] was very heavy," said Pete Rosenthal, spokesperson for VIP. "Then the last five years or so had been way down, but in the last year we have seen a marked increase."
Rosenthal added that in recent months graffiti activity has increased dramatically. In a recent interview with VIP, a six foot table was covered with a myriad of photographs depicting local buildings, signs, fences and walls blanketed in gang graffiti. The photos were of gang symbols and monikers. The destruction of private property was clearly evident, even after the cleaning process was completed.
The photos showed familiar buildings, including businesses in La Cañada, La Crescenta, Montrose and north Glendale, that were victimized in the most recent wave of graffiti. Both sides of the tunnel that runs beneath Memorial Park on the 210 freeway were spray-painted with gang graffiti, and the outside walls were also covered. There were territorial gang graffiti spray-painted in and around Crescenta Valley High School.
Area residents have also been the target of graffiti. Neighbors cleaned graffiti in their neighborhood near Crescenta Valley Park. The walls of a historic building located near the park had to be knocked down because the graffiti defacing it could not be removed, neighbors said.
According to officials, there are two main gangs that have become established in CV's surrounding areas. They are believed to be responsible for the increased graffiti activity reported throughout the valley in recent months.
"Yes, I have noticed an increase in gang graffiti [in the Crescenta Valley area]," acknowledged Detective Sean Riley of the Glendale Police Department.
The two types of graffiti most commonly seen in the area are tagging and gang graffiti. Tagging is when a name or moniker is painted on something.
"These [guys] are not classified as gang taggers. They just want to get their name out there," Riley said. Although the taggers could be associated with a gang they are more likely to be people who want their monikers out there, he added.
Gang graffiti identifies the gang association and establishes an area as belonging to that particular gang, or turf. It is an increase in this type of graffiti that has been seen recently and raised concerns.
"There is a dispute going on between [two gangs]," said Lee as the reason for the increased activity.
This observation was echoed by Riley and Crescenta Valley Sheriff detectives including Brian Tibbett. GPD, LAPD and the CV Sheriff's Station all communicate with each other on the issue of gangs and graffiti. All had noticed an increase due to the mounting tensions between the gangs.
"When you start seeing more graffiti and then some [gang logos] crossed out by others there is a dispute with the turf," LAPD's Lee said. "The turf can equal how much narcotic sales that it [the location] is in. That is one of the primary reasons for them to start with graffiti."
"We haven't really seen a sign of violence but just an increase in tensions," Riley added.
Tibbett agreed that the graffiti seen in LCF and La Crescenta this summer did not correlate with increased violence or drug arrests.
However, Lee cautions that graffiti is a warning sign of things to come.
"Increased graffiti is always a sign of danger and it [this danger] could escalate," Lee said.
It is this concern that caused law enforcement agencies to increase their patrols in the area. In the last two weeks, the graffiti has decreased, but local officials know that the offenders are still around.
"I had a list of those that were part of a tagging crew," Tibbett said. He couldn't arrest them because he had no hard evidence linking them to the graffiti. "I knew where they lived so I went door-to-door to meet them face-to-face just to let them know that I was watching."
Another reason contributing to the decrease may be the recent arrests of two juveniles in the La Crescenta area. According to Riley, both juveniles are alleged graffiti offenders.
One of the them entered a placement facility out of the area while the other is waiting for his case to be brought before the court. The latter has four to six other charges pending against him including graffiti and being in possession of a concealed weapon.
"He has yet to be in front of a judge," Riley said. He added that many times the juveniles are initially arrested on graffiti charges, but will have to wait so long for a court date that they are arrested again and again before they are brought before a judge.
All officers agree that law enforcement must be vigilante in the areas of gang graffiti and tagging.
"We are communicating with each other," Tibbett said.
"I work with Brian Tibbett," Riley said. "We have a monthly gang meeting, the Interagency Gang Task Force that Glendale hosts." The task force includes representatives of Pasadena, Burbank, LAPD and the CV Sheriff's Station.
"We are actively gathering intelligence," said Sgt. Victor Ibarra of the CV Sheriff's Station. "We believe in being proactive ... and are constantly networking with other law enforcement agencies."
Tibbett has begun a graffiti and tagging data file, and GPD has an extensive data file.
Lee encourages those who are victims of graffiti to record it by taking a picture of it and then reporting it to their local law enforcement agencies.
All agree that the community needs to report graffiti so a record can be kept of the gang logos and tagging monikers.
"That [recording of graffiti] leads to something good. It is a good investigative tool," Lee said.
The graffiti may have decreased in the last few weeks but it still has a strong presence in the area.
"We may have had a marked decrease recently; however, it is still an everyday occurrence in La Crescenta and [we clean graffiti] every couple of weeks in La Cañada," Rosenthal said. "I just had to [clean] one on Sept. 7."
Some residents and businesses do not report graffiti incidents. Law enforcement advises that anytime a business or residence is victimized by graffiti it should be reported before being cleaned because all officials keep records of the incidents.
"Community involvement and law enforcement working together can make a difference," Ibarra said.
He stressed that reporting incidents of graffiti, or any crime, along with "keeping eyes and ears open" is essential in preventing the spread of gang related crime.
Next week, a look into who these gang graffiti members are and where they are coming from. E-mail the La Cañada Valley Sun with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.