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Panel Hears Ideas for Addressing the Asian Gang Problem

November 15, 2001|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The growing terror that Asian gangs inflict on their own communities was described Wednesday in Arcadia to a new Asian legislative caucus holding its first hearing ever.

It is an issue that has been hard for the Asian American community to confront publicly, caucus member and Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) said. But in places such as the San Gabriel Valley and parts of Orange County with significant populations of Asian descent, the situation cannot be overlooked, she said.

The four-member Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus will try to increase public awareness and seek solutions.

"Asian gangs target and intimidate their own community," Liu said. "Too often, they are ignored or left undetected."

Law enforcement workers, social workers and educators addressing the panel at City Hall described the depth of the problem.

Unlike others, they said, Asian gang members are mobile rather than turf-oriented, driven by money as opposed to protecting a geographic area. They are as likely to be educated and wealthy.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who also sponsored the hearing, estimates there are as many as 25,000 members of Asian gangs.

Kim Yoshida, a specialist in Asian gangs for the California Department of Justice, said the gangs know that robberies, kidnappings and extortion can go unreported in the Asian community.

"There is always that fear-of-intimidation factor. They rely on the victim not reporting it," she said.

Yoshida said about 400 gangs have a membership primarily of Hmong, Laotian, Mien and Vietnamese descent. They pioneered home-invasion robberies and violent carjacking, she said, and some lure teenage girls to hotels to rape them.

"The victims have ranged from 11 to 15 years old, and sometimes they have been tattooed with a gang's initials and told they are gang property," she said.

To get the community to be forthcoming, authorities must overcome cultural concerns, said Greg Thompson, a deputy on the sheriff's 18-member Asian Crime Task Force.

"A lot of [Asian Americans] aren't as much afraid of the gangs as they are afraid of law enforcement," based on experiences with authoritarian regimes, he said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Gregory Dohi said law enforcement agencies need to pool resources to create a database on Asian gangs. "Just as in the fight against global terrorism, we need intelligence to fight street terrorism," said Dohi, who last year oversaw the district attorney's Asian Gangs Unit.

He said that the Los Angeles Police Department has one expert on Asian gangs and that a plan to move county probation officers to schools will soon mean the redeployment of the only two probation officers assigned to Asian gangs. He said that plan fails to take into consideration the fact that Asian gang members tend to hide their affiliations on campus.

Schoolteachers are on the front line, said James Schofield, assistant principal at Alhambra High School, whom Liu credits with inspiring the hearing. He said that there are nine Asian gangs on campus and that they have been involved in shootings and stabbings off campus. One student, he said, tried to extort $500 from another youngster with the threat of a beating, then demanded $300 each month thereafter.

Upscale Arcadia isn't immune. There are members of 19 known gangs in the city, about half of Asian descent, Police Officer Toni Caylor said.

Westminster Police Sgt. Marcus Frank said Asian community leaders "often don't want to admit that gangs play a role. They fear a loss of face or sense of shame." And Asian parents often refuse to admit their children are in gangs, he said, making intervention harder.

He asked lawmakers to expand asset seizure laws, because some Asian gangsters who go to prison still keep money they extorted.

Frank said the state's wiretap law is outdated because it requires a new warrant for every telephone a suspect uses, unlike a new federal law that allows one warrant to apply to a person.

"We have gang members who switch [cellular] phones every week," he said.

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