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Police Train Hospital Staff on Gang Safety

Security: Oxnard officers hope to raise health workers' awareness in spotting potential members and avoiding problems.


OXNARD — Hoping to raise awareness and improve security, police are teaching employees at St. John's Regional Medical Center how to identify gang members in their care and to be alert for potential problems.

Two Oxnard police detectives recently met with a group of nurses at the hospital to discuss precautionary measures that should be taken, particularly when dealing with victims of gang violence.

"We aren't doing this to make you paranoid about gangs," Oxnard Police Det. Terry Burr told the nurses. "But gang members are a fact of life in our community.

"We are doing this so you are more observant--so the next time you see a group of gang members wandering the hallways, looking in doors, you'll call us, because you know they might be there to finish business."

For more than an hour, Burr and his partner, Det. Trent Jewell, rattled off the names of the city's 12 gangs, showed pictures of gang tattoos and talked about the clothes gang members like to wear--athletic jerseys, mostly.

"To a gang member," Jewell said, "that's a uniform. Just as you nurses have a uniform, and doctors, and police officers, they do, too. It tells other gang members, 'This is who I am. I'm a gang member. Respect me.' "

Burr showed a series of slides with gang members dressed in their uniforms, many flashing gang signs.

"These are hard-core gang members," said Burr, referring to a picture of four men dressed in Dallas Cowboy jerseys, fingers curled in the symbols for their gang. "A police officer is taking their picture and they are throwing gang signs at him. They eat, sleep and breathe the gang lifestyle."

The nurses gasped as they looked at the slide of a toddler dressed in an oversized T-shirt, dark sunglasses and sporting a blue baseball hat with the name of a gang across the top.

"This kid has no chance of growing up out of that lifestyle," said Burr, before switching over to a picture of a boy of about 8 years old, who was pointing an automatic rifle toward the camera.

Despite the dramatic pictures, the detectives took time to assure the nurses that the gang problem in Oxnard is getting better. Until 1996, Oxnard--home to more gang members than any other city in Ventura County--had as many as 19 homicides a year. Many of them were gang-related. Last year the city had one gang-related slaying. So far this year, there have been none.

But the gang members are far from quiet. Maria Evans knows that. As a nurse in the hospital's Mother/Infant Unit, she has seen what happens when Child Protective Services tries to take a baby from a 16-year-old gang member who has just given birth. They yell. They threaten. Or the father, also a gang member, becomes violent.

"Then you really got a problem," Evans said. "Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?"

"Yes," Jewell said. "Call us, and we'll go after those guys. The main thing they do is try to intimidate you so you won't call police. And they are pretty successful at it."

The threat is real, hospital employees acknowledge. Emergency room nurse Arnold Dechene remembers paramedics rushing into the hospital with a young man who had been shot in the chest.

He was a gang member, police officers said. And his enemies from a rival gang could have been close behind, trying to finish what they started.

So when another young man came in claiming to be the victim's relative, Dechene asked him to show identification. Instead, the man made a fist and punched a monitor.

Dechene realized he could have been hurt.

"If they get mad," Dechene asked, "what's to stop them from coming in and shooting you? You're right there. You're vulnerable."

The primary message from detectives: Be aware. Watch for the tattoos and the jerseys. When a gang member is on the hospital floor, watch who else may be roaming the area. And if an employee suspects trouble, call police.

Laura Hall, the hospital's education coordinator, said she hopes the presentation will give nurses a better sense of how to guard against problems and how to respond quickly to trouble.

"A lot of nurses are easily intimidated and might back down to these guys," Hall said. "But if they know this is coming, they can start planning what to do in their mind ahead of time. They'll be prepared."

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