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City Mobilizes Against Latest New Gang Presence


COMMERCE — For the last several months, evidence of increased gang activity has appeared in this mostly industrial city of fewer than 13,000 residents.

The graffiti of one gang were on a mailbox outside City Hall last week. The markings of other gangs tag an alley behind apartments and duplexes where a reputed gang member lives.

A youth at a city park was dressed last week in black and silver, wearing black sneakers with a white stripe--standard gang attire.

The signs are scarce in contrast with neighboring East Los Angeles, or in such Southeast cities as Huntington Park and Norwalk.

But Commerce officials say they are not waiting for matters to worsen. They are gearing up a largely preventive anti-gang program, similar to one begun in 1982 and allowed to expire when the gang threat diminished.

The City Council voted Tuesday to establish an anti-gang unit.

"For the last seven years, we've had the luxury of being pretty much gang free," said Robert Chavez, the city's social services manager and coordinator of the renewed anti-gang effort. "The problems went away. It stopped."

There are six small gangs in Commerce, Sheriff's Lt. Robert Hoffman said. The largest is called the Choppers, which boasts 40 to 50 members, he said.

Chavez said city officials are especially concerned about what appears to be a new and growing crop of gang members, about 20 to 25 youths 13 to 16 years old. Several of those youths are recruiting.

"It's a group of kids . . . that has moved in from different areas, different barrios," Chavez said. "They're bringing in their outside influences."

An increase in graffiti is the most noticeable result, city officials said.

Gang-related crime rates have remained fairly stable.

Forty-nine gang-related crimes have been committed so far this year, Hoffman said. There were 53 gang-related crimes for the same period of 1989.

The difference is that in 1989 there were just 17 serious crimes committed by gangs, and 26 during 1990. Serious crimes this year include one kidnaping, six assaults with deadly weapons, four burglaries and two robberies, according to Sheriff's Department statistics. There were no gang killings in either year.

City and law enforcement officials said Commerce must move quickly before the problem mushrooms. "There is an increase in the activity, there's no doubt about that," said Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Allen, who is assigned to Commerce. "Any increase should be taken seriously."

Councilmen James B. Dimas and Artemio E. Navarro are part of the anti-gang unit, which will also include law enforcement and school officials.

The city has already started a parent information program. The program includes notifying parents when their children have been involved in such gang-related activity as scrawling graffiti on walls. Truancy, drug and alcohol use, theft and vandalism are also reported to parents.

The city held a community forum July 13 to give residents the lastest information on the gang problem and how to tell whether a child is involved in gangs.

The anti-gang unit could dust off employment and other programs used eight years ago to quell gang activity. The employment program included incentives to encourage employers to hire local youths to keep them off the streets. Commerce paid half of the youths' salaries.

"Because we're an industrial area, we're going to be working to develop more jobs for that age when nobody wants to hire them--14 to 16," Chavez said.

The results of a youth mural program still adorn a wall at Bristow Park, which is surrounded by a neighborhood that has been the center of most of the city's gang activity. Some Chopper members helped paint the mural years ago, Chavez said.

Commerce officials will also try to channel more youth into sports and recreation programs offered by the city. Commerce has a strong tax base because of its industry, so most of those programs are free to residents.

Considering the city's small number of residents, many of whom have lived there for decades, Commerce officials are confident that they can combat the new gang threat.

"At this stage it can be controlled, as long as we work on it as a community, together," Chavez said.

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