In response to what he called "a dramatic increase" in crime by street gangs made up of illegal aliens, the commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's gang activities section said Thursday that his unit, working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has launched a new program to deport the gangsters to the countries of their origins.
Lt. Robert Ruchoft said that in a little over a week, 36 members of two street gangs have been "shipped back" to Mexico by the INS.
Ruchoft said there are "about a half-dozen" criminal street gangs made up of illegal aliens, nearly all of them Latinos. Police have estimated that there are 160 street gangs in Los Angeles, with a total membership of about 12,500.
Ruchoft said the two gangs hit to date were Mexican nationals, "but we are now working on a Salvadoran gang."
Catherine Leslie, a police practices attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she had not heard of the new program, had received no complaints about it, but added: "We certainly will look into it. We are worried whether the department is stepping beyond its jurisdiction."
There has been no formal announcement of the new program, which as yet is unnamed. Ruchoft commented on it only after a reporter inquired about it.
Police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said the new program does not constitute a change in department policy. "We don't arrest people for being illegal aliens," he commented, "but it is a pilot program in our campaign to obliterate violence by gangs."
He added that the criteria for arrest and deportation are that the individual is positively identified as a member of a specific street gang, that the street gang can be shown to be actively involved in the commission of crimes, and that the individual observed in a public place (on the street) is identified as an illegal alien from the sum total of police information.
Ruchoft said he proposed the new program because "street gangs are our No. 1 crime problem . . . and we have become increasingly aware over the last two or three years of a dramatic increase in illegal aliens involved in criminal street gangs, particularly in Central (downtown) and in Rampart Divisions."
Ruchoft said he contacted INS representatives two months ago and asked how the department could help rid the city of alien street gang members. The cooperative program, under which the department's CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) units and the gang activities section provide the expertise on the gangs themselves, received approval "all the way from the top," Ruchoft said.
He said the INS has assigned a four-man team to work with his division and officers of CRASH detectives, who know the hangouts, names and activities of street gang members.
"We know who they are, and where they are, and the criminal activities in which they are taking part. . . . They are no different from other street gangs in their criminal activities--from murder to robbery to burglary to auto theft," Ruchoft said.
Ruchoft said the INS agents make the arrests, except in instances when gang members are caught in actual criminal acts, such as dealing drugs.
He characterized the program so far as "highly successful . . . it is too early to tell whether it will result in a big decrease in crime--but it can't hurt."
An INS source said that, in fact, suspected aliens are given the choice of returning voluntarily or going before an Immigration and Naturalization Court for a hearing. He also said the total number sent home to date is closer to 60. In addition, he said, the INS has placed "holds" on about 20 suspected illegal aliens arrested by Los Angeles and other area police departments on criminal charges.