Friday night. A darkened street in Boyle Heights. Sgt. Faryl Fletcher, a Los Angeles police gang expert, cruises by in an unmarked car as 10 Latino gang members lean against a truck.
The faces of the gang members are frozen in Fletcher's spotlight, their eyes defiant. "Damn, I'd like to jam those guys," Fletcher says.
To "jam" is Los Angeles police jargon. It means to randomly stop, frisk and question. With so large a group, Fletcher needs backup, and he radios for assistance.
But other anti-gang officers are too busy to respond. "Damn," Fletcher sighs, "I wish we could jam 'em."
Friday night. A darkened street in Lynwood. Sgt. Curtis Jackson, a Los Angeles County sheriff's gang expert, cruises by in an unmarked car as a dozen black gang members shoot dice.
"Hey, homeys, wuz happenin'?" Jackson asks the "home boys" (gang members) on the sidewalk, who wave and continue gambling. Their leader promises to finish the game "in a minute." Smiling, the sergeant takes him at his word but says he'll be back in two minutes.
"These people aren't dumb," he says, pulling away. "They're street soldiers. You gotta approach 'em like that. They got thinking minds, just like policemen."
The two encounters speak volumes about the sharply contrasting philosophies, tactics and effectiveness of Los Angeles County's two largest law enforcement agencies in their struggles against the epidemic of street gang violence.
For the Los Angeles Police Department, the war on gangs is led by the 145 officers of CRASH--Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.
Its counterpart in the Sheriff's Department is the 52-member Operation Safe Streets (OSS).
But except for common adversaries--gangs and gang violence--the two elite units share little else. In their missions, their manner, their training and turnover--and their apparent success in curbing gang violence--they are vastly different.
Gang crime statistics provided by both the police and sheriff's departments show that OSS--battling twice as many gang members with only a third as many officers--has done a more effective job in fighting gang violence than its more widely known counterpart, CRASH.
The CRASH mission is "total suppression" of Los Angeles' 160 street gangs and their 12,500 members.
In pairs and in strike forces, CRASH officers, two-thirds of whom work in uniform, handle virtually every gang crime in the city. They also "jam," or harass, gang members wherever they find them, at the same time collecting intelligence on gang activities.
The OSS mission is "target suppression" of the 239 gangs and 25,000 gang members in the contract cities and unincorporated areas that are in the Sheriff's Department's jurisdiction.
OSS deputies, all of whom work in plainclothes, "jam" gangs as well, but only those they target as the most criminally active. Deputies say they do not ignore non-targeted gangs, but they usually do not make a point of arresting those gang members for minor transgressions, such as curfew violations.
"We just get on the case of the bad gangs until they knock off whatever they've been doing," OSS Sgt. Curtis Jackson said.
When gangs are targeted, OSS makes arrests for significant as well as minor crimes, including loitering and even swearing in public. The strategy, sheriff's officials believe, forces otherwise violent youths to police themselves.
Gangs remain targeted until they behave themselves and are no longer a major crime problem. Then, the deputies move on to other gangs but keep an eye on those already suppressed. There are currently 92 gangs on the OSS target list.
"It's like eating a big block of ice," Jackson explained. "You can't eat the entire block at once, but you can chip off pieces of it and eat the whole thing eventually. That's what we're trying to do with gangs."
The strategy may be working.
In 1979, OSS' first year of operation, the Sheriff's Department recorded 92 gang-related homicides. The Police Department had 115.
By 1985, the Sheriff's Department reported that its gang-related homicides had plummeted to 57--a drop of 38%--even though its jurisdiction had grown to include several additional contract cities where gangs are found. During the same period, the number of gang killings in the city of Los Angeles climbed slightly to 120.
A similar trend was seen in other categories of gang violence, particularly felony assaults. In 1979, there were 1,608 such assaults in the sheriff's jurisdiction, compared to 1,070 in the city. But by 1984, the sheriff's gang felony assaults had fallen 13% to 1,402; the Police Department's had climbed 44%, to 1,548.
Both sheriff's and police officials acknowledge that the criteria used by each agency to define and report gang crime are virtually the same.
Overall gang violence has increased in both sheriff's and police jurisdictions over the last five years, but the comparative growth has been much slower under OSS.