L.A.’S New Gang War

Next month Los Angeles officials will announce details of a new anti-gang initiative aimed at suppressing a resurgence of gang crime in and around L.A. After falling for several years, gang-related crime rose 14 percent last year; 58 percent of the city’s murders were gang-related in 2006, up 50 percent from the previous year. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has brought together what he calls an “unprecedented collaboration” to fight the gangs—including prosecutors, the LAPD, the L.A. Sheriff’s office and other local police, along with such federal agencies as the FBI. The plan: to target the city’s most violent gangs, including one notorious Latino gang that has allegedly been targeting black victims in south Los Angeles. Bratton spoke with NEWSWEEK Los Angeles correspondent Andrew Murr about his confidence that this plan can drive down gang crime and help provide a template for other cities battling these deadly rivalries. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Gang crime went up 14 percent in Los Angeles last year. Is that the genesis of your anti-gang effort?

William Bratton: Gang crime in the city had been going down for four years, so last year we were working against some historically low numbers. It was also influenced by a very significant increase in the San Fernando Valley, which had had a very small part of the overall gang problem. But last year, its growth was very noticeable—almost 40 percent—and that increase was what fueled the overall city increase by and large.

What we are looking to focus on this year as part of our overall crime-reduction goals is to get gang crime back in line. Our overall goal this year is going to be 5 percent for the UCR crimes (homicide, rape, robbery and other violent crimes listed as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports) and getting gang crime back into the negative column this year.

Why target just a few specific gangs?

The idea is that we have over 400 gangs in the city, with 39,000 documented members. The majority of those gangbangers are relatively dormant. But there is a significant percentage—the 10 percenters we would call them—who produce a large amount of the crime. Over the last several years, one of the strategies we had employed very effectively to reduce overall crime was focusing on what we called the 10 percent solution. Ten percent of the criminal population commits about 50 percent of the crime, and 10 percent of the locations are where 50 percent of the crime occurs.

We have a relatively small police force for a huge city. Unlike New York, where I had large numbers of officers to commit everywhere all at the same time, here I have to very strategically move them around to hit emerging crime trends [Bratton served as New York City police commissioner from 1994 to 1996]. So effectively, what we are going to do this year among gangs is to strategically focus and prioritize our resources on that problem. There’s a core group of certain gangs and gang members who are the 10 percenters, if you will—the most violent, the most prolific.

As we are doing better reducing the overall crime numbers, the hardcore persistence of the gang crime is becoming even more evident. I’ve been here almost five years, and overall crime is down about 30 percent, including gang crime. Homicides are down by almost that [much]. But gang homicides last year constituted about 58 percent of the homicides in the city. It is a component of crime that fuels so much of the violence and what people fear in the city. What makes the gang problem in Los Angeles so unique versus other cities around the country: nobody has it in as large a way as we have here.

How will you decide which gangs make the Top 10 list?

We are using three categories to determine who ends up being targeted. One: the gangs who commit the most violent crime around the city. Two: those gangs who are engaged in interracial and hate-crime violence. And three: gangs and gang members that are engaged in targeting the police. Those will be the three overall barometers that get people into the top 10.

There may be more than 10 gangs. There may be 15 or 20. But it’s the idea that this will be the priority on the suppression list.

You mentioned interracial gang crime. The Latino 204th Street gang is in the news for shooting 14-year-old Cheryl Green to death in December—because she was black. For a long time in L.A., law enforcement maintained that violent gang crime was rarely race-related. Is there a new awareness? Is there more race-based gang crime?

Two men have been arrested in that case. (Note: police arrested two alleged members of the 204th Street gang, Ernesto Alcarez, 20, and Jonathan Fajardo, 18. Each is charged with one count of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder for shooting at Green's friends. Neither has entered a plea yet). It’s not that racial violence was unimportant, but it is relatively infrequent. Most gang crime occurs among the races, but occasionally it crosses over. But even when it crosses over, it may not be motivated by race. Frequently it’s motivated by personal disputes or battles over control of the streets, or control of drug trafficking. That which is specifically focused on going after somebody because of race is going to be prioritized. In a city that is so multiracial and multiethnic, for all of us to coexist, we can’t tolerate any activity targeted against somebody because of race.

Fortunately, that’s a relatively small amount of the gang crime and has never been a significant percentage of it. But as we saw at 204th Street, it can take a horrible turn. There was a 14-year-old-girl who was sitting on her bicycle minding her own business and was killed just because she was black in that particular neighborhood.

The 204th Street initiative is an example of what we will be doing in the larger, more comprehensive citywide initiative. We’re focusing on a very violent gang and bringing all the forces to bear that we can.

Last year, there were several racial fights and killings in local jail and prisons. Is that spilling over onto the street?

You can anticipate that some of that would come out with them. But as to trying to connect the dots, I’m not aware of any of that specifically. There were stories a couple of years back about the Mexican Mafia (prison gang) targeting blacks, but we could not document it anywhere. But with 204th Street, we are very comfortable that a lot of what that gang engages in is racial intimidation and has been for many years.

What makes them different? Why did they focus on black victims?

Who the hell could understand gang members?

I was hoping you could.

They’re all crazy. Anybody that’s sane and has a sense of values can’t understand them. Most of them are sociopaths. Most of them are semi-literate. And almost none of them have graduated from high school. From an educational point of view, a socialization standpoint, and a moral standpoint, they are very different than the average person. Trying to get your arms around their motivations is very difficult.

How will you move against a particular gang? Will there be more gang officers, more patrols?

A central tenet of all of this will be force multiplication. For example, we have several dozen gang injunctions in force in the city (court orders that forbid specific gang members from congregating within a given geographic area).

They’re in force against about 40 of the worst gangs. Those are very effective tools, but enforcement of them has been pretty much given over to the approximately 400 full-time gang officers. We are going to seek to give over to all of our 4,500 patrol officers. That’s a multiplication by 10 of the number of personnel who are going after those several thousand gangbangers named in those injunctions.

Similarly the DEA, the FBI and the other agencies are all stepping up to work within task forces. FBI Director (Robert) Mueller came in last week. The FBI, despite their focus on terrorism, [has as] their secondary focus traditional crime; they’ll focus on gangs, and one of their priorities will be Los Angeles.

Just a few weeks ago you told me that you were worried that the FBI had gotten out of the domestic crime business in favor of terrorism. Is this the kind of cooperation you’d been looking for?

Exactly. They’ve been very responsive to the positions we’ve taken here. That is, this is a manageable problem and one that, if we can get control of the gang problem here, the birthplace of the gangs, it’ll be very helpful as the FBI is dealing with other gangs—for example the MS-13 gang around the rest of the country. The importance the FBI is attaching to this effort was certainly reflected in the fact of Director Mueller coming in here last week very specifically to focus on gangs. Most of what you see him talking about is terrorism. This was one of the few times where you’ve seen him come locally to emphasize that they are going to get involved in this in a big way.

What is learned here is exportable. What works, what doesn’t work, what type of coordination works best. What I’m very excited by is the fact that all these agencies, I’m not knocking on their doors by and large, they are knocking on my door to be part of it.

How will you know when you’ve won against a given gang and can move on?

You won’t be able to eradicate them. This isn’t a war on them, though you hear that term a lot. What we are engaged in is a suppression strategy. I want them to basically climb back into their holes and reduce the violence. They are going to still congregate and hang out, if you will. But what I’m concerned about is the behavior. I could care less if you are in a gang. But I don’t want you shooting, stabbing, raping and robbing. If you do, we’re going to find a way to get at you, and to send a signal that if you engage in that behavior, you’re setting yourself up as a target not only for other gangs to come after you, but for the police.