Like the winged mythological monsters they are named for--with a dubious power to spoil whatever they descend upon--the Harpys street gang has soured the lives of residents and merchants in a neighborhood near USC, city prosecutors say.
Citing the gang's involvement in shakedowns, extortion, robberies, vandalism and murder, the Los Angeles city attorney's office hopes that a judge Monday will grant an injunction making it illegal for 29 of the gang's members to associate with each other in public.
The neighborhood targeted by the proposed injunction runs from Washington Boulevard south to Jefferson Boulevard, between Figueroa Street and Normandie Avenue, said Jim McDougal, a prosecutor for the city attorney's gang unit. Unlike some gang injunctions, the court orders sought by prosecutors would not prevent members from using pagers, cellular phones or other devices that are sometimes used to facilitate drug deals.
The Los Angeles Police Department's senior lead officer for the target area says residents endure "silent suffering" as they live among glowering gang members. Police say there are about 450 active members of the gang.
"People are afraid to talk," said Officer Guillermo Galvan of the LAPD's Southwest Division. "Sometimes families threaten other families and say things like, 'You better keep quiet--you know who my son is.' "
The injunction effort is the fifth by the city attorney's office since a January 1997 state Supreme Court ruling allowing cities to prohibit suspected gang members from associating on street corners or annoying residents, McDougal said. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in April bolstered the ability of city and county prosecutors to use the method.
Similar orders have been credited with sharp reductions in gang-related crimes in the nearby stomping grounds of the 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs.
Although the American Civil Liberties Union argues that gang injunctions may simply force members to move their base of operations, McDougal said the Harpys cannot do that because of geographical impediments and the number of rivals outside its borders. Prosecutors say Harpys members have preyed overwhelmingly on their own people for four decades since their inception as a car club that got rougher and rougher.
A USC police detective called the Harpys "one of our big pains in the neck."
Thirteen of the defendants already have felony convictions.
"This is a very turf-oriented gang. There's lots of gunfire every time a rival gang comes in," McDougal said. "Every time that happens, good people are put at risk."
Last week, Felipe "Clumsy" Alvarado, who police identified as a Harpy, was killed by gunfire from suspected 18th Street gang members at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. At least one of the victim's companions was a defendant in the injunction, Galvan said.
Because the street gang is hemmed into its neighborhoods by larger adjacent gangs, including 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, prosecutors are hoping that the order could have a chilling effect on the Harpys gang activities.
"They shake down local taco and hamburger stands, small businesses whose workers live in the area," McDougal said.
One such business owner said Saturday that a member of the Harpys asked for $150 to $180 a month for protection from the gang.
"There have been times when 30 or 40 of them were inside or outside my place stealing wallets, putting knives to customers, taking food without paying for it," the business owner said. "I hired a security guard--they threatened him--and after a few days, he quit."
The prosecutor said that residents and merchants often remain silent during community meetings with law enforcement officials, fearing for their safety if they publicly speak against the Harpys. In private, said McDougal, people have begged the city to do something about the gang.
In one of numerous declarations in favor of the gang injunction, one resident wrote: "On the MTA bus, one of [the Harpys] glared at me and showed that he was carrying a gun. The driver would not call the police--too afraid."
The Youth Empowerment Project--a center run by a nonprofit organization providing a variety of services for youths, including computer and career training--has emerged as a defender of some Harpys against the injunction.
"We are against anything that keeps youths from succeeding," said Mark Wilson, the center's project director.
The city attorney's office has expressed a willingness to make Youth Empowerment Project a place the defendants can go for services without violating the injunction, but Wilson said he doesn't believe that would happen.
As part of its mission to provide outreach to youths, the center has hired about eight Harpys--two of them supervisors--and has at least 12 members of the gang who visit the facility.
Wilson said based on meetings with people in the neighborhood-- mediated in part by Harpys gang members--he believes that law enforcement accounts of the gang's "terrorist" impact on the community are exaggerated.
Wilson added that the young people who come into the center, including Harpys, are "trying to change their lives."
But LAPD gang officer Freddy Arroyo said he doubts that gangsters who have forgotten their origin as a car club and neighborhood football team will change that easily.
"Sometimes when I book a gang member, I tell him what a harpy is: A creature that's part woman and part bird, and they shake their head and get mad," Arroyo said. "They think a harpy is this powerful eagle."