LONG BEACH — Police Officer Bill Corson, in grubby jeans and a ponytail wig topped by a dirty baseball cap, was the first to report potential trouble-makers: "It looks like one has a pencil or a small pen . . . They may be writing on the southeast side of the wall."
"You want us to jump out and grab him?" radioed another policeman waiting in an old unmarked van.
But Corson did not see the suspicious-looking characters actually write on walls, and there were no arrests. The officers sat and waited.
It was the beginning of the shift for Corson and eight other undercover officers who staked out the intersection of 7th Street and Magnolia Avenue one night recently--waiting for gang members to scrawl graffiti on freshly painted walls.
The stakeout was part of a unique pilot program: Paint over graffiti-scarred walls in the morning and stake out the site at night.
The city hopes to send a message with the graffiti stakeouts. "When you do this, you can expect to be grabbed," Cmdr. Danny Reynolds explained.
Graffiti is a reflection of gang activity, and some city and police officials say they hope to reduce gang-related crimes by putting a stop to the squiggly lines, obscenities and gang names scrawled on walls. Others question whether that is the best use of manpower.
So far, the special metro unit--which has fielded two such surveillance details--has not been very successful.
On the first stakeout, a graffiti artist shot at Officer Jim Settles. "Over 18 years (in the police force), I never thought if I was going to be shot at it would be over someone spraying paint on a house," said Settles, who called the graffiti stakeouts "a complete waste of time and taxpayers' dollars."
Gang members were so infuriated by that first undercover surveillance that they returned to finish what they had begun. "Not only did we get shot at, but they came back the next day, (spray painted) and knocked out the windows, so we sure showed them, didn't we?" said Sgt. Mike Sergi.
The second stakeout, a six-hour wait near clean walls on May 20, did not net police any graffiti-related arrests. They did stop and handcuff one teen-ager they thought had brushed against a wall as if he were writing on it. But after finding no graffiti and determining that the teen-ager did not fit the characteristics associated with a gang member, police quickly released him.
Although the officers nabbed no one for graffiti, that stakeout did net one arrest involving a drug deal the officers witnessed. And the nine undercover men who took turns watching the walls at Seventh and Magnolia ended up assisting in the investigation of several gang-related shootings within a few blocks of the corner.
"Maybe the gang members are too busy ducking bullets to bother with graffiti tonight," Sergi commented.
Or maybe, another officer joked, the gangs were fighting over "graffiti rights" to the clean walls.
Two Gunshot Victims
In any case, it was hectic on that Wednesday night. Two people wounded by bullets were taken to the hospital; nearby, someone else ducked as a gang member yelling "Eastside Longos" fired a gun from a moving car; four other shots were heard around 11:10 p.m. and several more around 11:50 p.m.; sometime during the night, another man was beaten up during a drug deal.
It was not an unusual night, police said. The area is in disputed territory, where several gangs--mainly the Samoans, the Eastside Longos, the Westside Longos and the Barrios Small Town--are vying for control.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the police radio crackled and Officer Steve Nottingham informed his colleagues helping with the shootings that they did not need to return to the graffiti patrol: "By the way, the walls are Code 4. (No further assistance is needed.) I know you were worried about that."
In alleys and streets within blocks of the 7th and Magnolia corner, groups of young people clad in leather jackets gathered, indifferent to a police helicopter hovering above and the swarms of marked police cars cruising the streets.
"You have to read the reaction to your presence. If they're really cool, they'll (psychologically) beat you," Sergi said as he drove up to one group of teen-agers. Some looked straight at him and others ignored him.
Patrol Cars Numerous
Sergi, one of two sergeants overseeing 22 officers in the Police Department's special metro unit, attributed the graffiti stakeout's lack of success that night to the number of patrol cars in the area. Even before the shootings, patrol cars were seen cruising through the busy intersection as officers spotted potential gang activity nearby.
Sometime after 8 p.m., for example, an officer in the narcotics unit sarcastically described gang members that he spotted near Chestnut Avenue and 14th Street: "They're all carrying bats, so it must be a big game."
Police and city officials acknowledge that graffiti is far from the most dangerous activity associated with gangs. But it is one of the most visible and one of the most irritating, they say.