HUNTINGTON PARK — An alarmingly high number of violent crimes by rival gangs, including murders and drive-by shootings, have occurred in the city the past few months, authorities said.
"We've had more (gang crimes) in the past several months than we've had in the last several years," said Detective Mike Ewing, who is on the Police Department's anti-gang detail. "They're out of control."
In the past five months, from August to Dec. 22, there were six gang-related murders compared to a single gang murder in all of 1988, according to Police Department statistics.
There also have been 31 attempted murders, 31 drive-by shootings, 100 assaults with a deadly weapon and 89 gang-related robberies since August.
Mayor William P. Cunningham said, "It's something we're going to have to look at next year. If we can find the money for more police, we'll definitely hire them."
The city's two-officer gang unit was formed last January. Ewing and his partner, Detective George Hernandez, say there are eight to 10 hard-core gangs in the city.
Most of the recent violence involves members from Florencia, one of Huntington Park's oldest gangs, and the Bratz, a newer gang in the city. Ewing said he did not know the incident that started the fighting, but "they're killing each other because of something one gang did to the other."
In addition to the gangs based in Huntington Park, another 30 gangs have passed through the city at one time or another and committed crimes, the detectives said.
Some of the city's gang incidents this year:
* A teen-ager was shot in the groin Dec. 21 by someone in a car who yelled out a gang name.
* Seven juveniles were arrested Dec. 12 after they surrounded a 33-year-old man at a local park. One of the gang members slashed the man with a knife.
* A 15-year-old boy who was standing with friends was shot and killed Dec. 10 after an assailant claimed that the "B" on his hat stood for Bratz. The city is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the case.
* A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed in front of his home Oct. 7 after a carload of youths stopped to ask what gang he was from.
* On Oct. 8, a man died after he was beaten with bats and rocks. He had entered a rival gang's neighborhood to drop off a friend.
The recent increase in violence apparently has gang members on edge. The graffiti message "RIP" goes up in gang neighborhoods after fatal shootings.
"They shot my dad's house," said one veteran Florencia gang member recently. "What's up?"
Graffiti markings stake out territory around the city. A mural of the Virgin Mary with "Florencia" down one side, for example, adorns the wall of a building on the corner of Florence and Holmes avenues just west of Huntington Park. Ewing and Hernandez said some of the gang territories extend outside the city.
The gangs do not battle over drug profits, as do their better armed counterparts in other areas of the county, Ewing said. Gang members in Huntington Park mostly use pistols; automatic weapons are virtually unheard of in the city's gang warfare.
Much of the violence in Huntington Park is centered on several areas, including Arbutus Street, where Bratz gang members hang out just east of City Hall. Another hot spot in recent months has been the bar and discotheque in the Huntington Park Casino on the city's west side.
"About five months ago we noticed more and more Florencia veteranos (older gang members) were visiting this place," Ewing said.
The tension peaked Oct. 22, when a bar and parking lot fight broke out between suspected gang members amid a crowd of more than 200 at the casino, Police Chief Patrick M. Connolly said. About 30 law enforcement officers from Huntington Park, Bell, Maywood and the Sheriff's Department made 11 arrests for offenses that included assault to battery on a police officer, Connolly said. No one was seriously injured in the melee, he said. Since then, security has been increased at the casino.
The more violent gang members are in their late teens, but younger gang members also can be dangerous, the gang-unit officers said.
"It's not uncommon for us to (come across) a 12- or 14-year-old and find a gun on him," Hernandez said.
Arrests and convictions for gang-related crimes are difficult to obtain. Witnesses, who fear retaliation, are afraid to report the crimes, the detectives said.
"The people in this community understand the Bratz are killers," Ewing said.
And surviving gang members would rather avenge the attack themselves.
"That's why we're seeing an increase," Ewing said. "They're taking it into their own hands."
Police Chief Connolly said his department has stepped up its anti-gang efforts by forming the two-man detail and by starting a boxing program to keep potential gang members off the streets. But Connolly said he also hopes to meet with police chiefs in neighboring cities to form a unified anti-gang unit.
On the streets, Ewing and Hernandez said they need help in their fight against the gangs.
"We don't want it to get worse and it's getting worse," Ewing said.
BACKGROUND Gang violence has increased in Huntington Park despite recent Police Department efforts. In 1988, the department began a boxing program aimed at keeping youths off the streets and out of gangs. More than 40 kids are now enrolled, Police Chief Patrick M. Connolly said. In addition, Connolly formed a two-officer, anti-gang detail last January. The chief had pinned his hopes on a proposed utility tax to provide money to hire 15 additional officers to fight gangs and crime in Huntington Park. But voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in a special election last September.