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Anti-Gang Program a Good Team Effort : * Cooperation Between Agencies Helps to Cut Red Tape

January 23, 1994

Santa Ana police are moving quickly to get a new anti-gang program up and running. Based on a successful program in Westminster, the Santa Ana version has a new wrinkle that could serve the city well: It includes agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Westminster program began two years ago, teaming a deputy district attorney, an investigator from the district attorney's office, Probation Department officers and police for a coordinated crackdown on the most violent gang members.

Putting everyone together makes it easier to cut red tape and avoid layers of bureaucracy. It's quicker to get search warrants; a prosecutor can advise how to make a case more likely to stand up in court; a probation officer can spot a gang member known to be violating conditions of probation. Westminster Police Chief James Cook said violent felonies dropped 59% in the two years after the program started.

That's an impressive record, one that deserved emulation. Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi had the good idea of urging county officials to expand the program, and the Board of Supervisors wisely agreed. Santa Ana will get two of the team programs, with Anaheim, Garden Grove, Orange and Costa Mesa also on the list.

Police in Santa Ana decided two months ago to seek help from ATF as well. Santa Ana Police Capt. Dan McCoy, coordinating what will be called the Street Terrorist Offender Project, or STOP, said in some cases there are tough federal laws for gun crimes and in applicable cases, ATF agents can steer accused criminals to federal prosecutors. That's another valuable weapon for the police.

The ATF is part of the Treasury Department, whose secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, said this month that Orange County had developed into one of the nation's 10 most crime-ridden localities. There is some question over the statistics used in Bentsen's ranking but there is no doubt that Santa Ana registered a record 80 homicides last year, with a record 47 of them gang-related.

Besides providing agents to help the Santa Ana anti-gang unit, the Treasury Department has ordered ATF agents to redouble their efforts to learn the source of guns used by criminals in Orange County. Coming up with that kind of information is a tall order, but if the agents can fulfill it, they will provide valuable assistance that can help cut off the source of criminals' weapons.

One problem for ATF investigators is that far too many guns are available. The California Department of Justice estimated that handgun sales in Orange County totaled more than 50,000 last year, double the figure in 1986, when record-keeping began. ATF agents said when they track a gun, they check first to see if it was stolen. In some cases, homeowners do not realize guns were taken in residential burglaries until police tell them. So much for home security.

Even with the federal help, Santa Ana police have their work cut out for them, since the county's most populous city has the largest number of gangs. The investigators are right to single out the toughest, most dangerous gangsters for pursuit and prosecution. A study of Westminster's program last year found that nearly half of those prosecuted were charged with crimes involving guns. And contrary to some perceptions, most victims of gang crime were not members of rival gangs, but innocent civilians.

As those involved in fighting gangs have noted, it took years for the gang problem to grow to the fearsome proportions it attained, and it will take years to reduce gangs' power. STOP should be a good start.

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