PLACENTIA — Robert Medina and fellow gang member Happy expect to spend the rest of their lives in the city's La Jolla neighborhood.
They were born and raised in the largely Latino area--it's their turf. And they say it doesn't take much to start a fight between the La Jolla gangs and those elsewhere in the city.
"Us going over there," said Happy, 18, who gave only his gang nickname, "that's all it takes. . . . I was raised over here. I'm used to this."
Since the first of the year, Placentia's south side has experienced about 20 gang-related shootings and about 25 stabbings. While these violent crimes have struck the Santa Fe and Atwood neighborhoods, police say that most of the problems are in La Jolla, an area in the extreme southwest section of the city.
In response, newly appointed Police Chief Manuel Ortega has launched the city's first gang detail, a two-man team that will concentrate on La Jolla in an attempt to give the streets back to the people.
"We don't want to see this area become the battle zone any more than it has at times," said Officer John Armstrong, 37, who along with Officer Tommy Valentine were appointed to the gang detail beginning in early May. "We want to make people feel comfortable to go to the park or go to the store."
The rallying cry became louder after a New Year's Day gang fight broke out in La Jolla, setting off a three-hour wave of violence that left a bystander dead and seven others wounded.
The La Jolla neighborhood is made up of about two dozen streets, many still lined with single-family homes where Latino families have lived for generations. The neighborhood has changed somewhat in the past decade, with more Asians, blacks and Anglos living there. New apartment complexes have been built along the south side of La Jolla Street, and some homes are falling into disrepair.
While the two officers are responsible for tracking gang members, they also try to curb drug use and loitering at corner markets and city parks--problems not necessarily associated with gangs yet alarming to neighborhood residents.
"The ones that are going to have the problems with us are the small percentage of people, the heroin addicts who leave their needles in the park, the ones who hang out in front of the market," Armstrong said. "We're not down there to mess with Joe Citizen on some ticky-tacky thing."
Police also report signs of Asian gang activity in La Jolla, although only 20 of the city's estimated 350 gang members are believed to be Asian.
Happy and Medina already know the two officers well. Armstrong and Valentine each have patrolled the area in the past. The two gang members said that the news of the new gang unit has spread, but they doubt its impact.
"We don't like it," said Medina, 21. "But I think it's going to be the same."
Some longtime residents of the south side, while commending the new gang unit, also remain skeptical. They say it could take a much greater effort to make La Jolla the neighborhood it once was and point out that the Police Department is not adding new officers, just moving them to a newly created beat.
"It's a slight improvement, but not what we would like to see," said Margarita Duncan, who lives in the Santa Fe neighborhood north of La Jolla. "Give them time. Two for the beginning is fine, but I think it should be increased at a later date."
Councilwoman Maria Moreno has suggested using city redevelopment funds to establish a police substation in the La Jolla neighborhood. "I don't want to see a Band-Aid approach taken," she said. "I'd like to see (the patrol) taken a step further by using redevelopment money."
Police say their effort is partly dependent on how much they can spend. The department has a $5.7-million budget for next year, and two police positions are to be eliminated by attrition. But in addition to money, police say, it will take more community involvement to deal with some of the area's difficulties.
"We're no magic wand," Armstrong said. "We're not going to get all of the problems to go away."
To start, Armstrong and Valentine have met with neighborhood groups and have introduced themselves to residents. Both officers have covered the south side in the past, so they know many past and present gang members. Part of their task has been to add to an index of the city's gang members, each identified by characteristics ranging from tattoos to girlfriends.
Already, their work and the identification system has helped capture three reputed Asian gang members suspected of invading a Yorba Linda home and robbing family members of $40,000 in cash, jewels and weapons.
Still, the two officers say much of their time will be spent on the streets and at a small office at the Whitten Center, a community-park facility on Melrose Avenue. They say their goal is to establish trust with neighborhood residents and to make their presence known, particularly on weekend nights when violence often flares.