The number of gang members in Orange County has dropped by more than a third since 1995, according to an analysis of gang activity that at least one expert says could be misleading.
The data found 13,259 gang members in Orange County, compared with 21,514 a decade ago, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Thursday.
He said the decline was due to more aggressive law enforcement and prosecution -- and, to a lesser extent, the cost of living in Orange County, which is driving gang members elsewhere.
Recruiting efforts have been hampered and leadership weakened, Rackauckas said, because younger gang members are being prosecuted as adults, almost 90% of gang-related crimes in the last two years have been filed as felonies, and gang members are facing longer prison terms.
"We are aggressively prosecuting the hard-core gang members and disrupting the leadership of these criminal enterprises," Rackauckas said. "It makes a significant difference when we can bust the godfathers of these gangs."
Gang members are tracked through a statewide database maintained by the California Department of Justice. People are entered into it if they meet two or more of the following criteria: are an admitted gang member, are named by a reliable informant, wear gang attire, display gang signs or tattoos, frequent gang areas, or are arrested with known gang members. The potential gang member's information is purged from the database if no crimes are committed in five years.
Los Angeles County has about 1,100 gangs with about 85,000 members, down from 150,000 in 1995, said Wes McBride, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant and president of the Assn. of California Gang Investigators.
The city of Los Angeles is home to 463 gangs with 39,000 members. Riverside County has more than 287 gangs, totaling 12,000 to 16,000 members, according to recently released figures. Statewide, there are about 175,000 gang members, McBride said.
Orange County has 338 gangs, down 15% from 1998, when the number of gangs peaked at 400, according to the report.
Gang experts say members have become smarter and more organized, and are extending to other forms of crimes, especially identity theft.
Rackauckas said that by adding prosecutors, investigators and forensic accountants to his economic crimes unit, a large white supremacist gang -- one of a dozen in Orange County -- was broken up with the arrests of 62 of its 95 identified members. The Huntington Beach-based gang financed its activities through identity thefts and methamphetamine sales, he said.
But experts said data on gang-related crime remain sporadic and incomplete, in part because of the lack of a national standard for what constitutes such an offense.
The Los Angeles Police Department considers any crime committed by a gang member to be gang-related, while other jurisdictions consider that definition too broad.
McBride questioned whether the number of gangs has dropped, as Orange County's statistics suggest.
"I don't know of any gangs that just disappear because of law enforcement crackdown," McBride said. Instead, he said, they might initially evade detection because they have recruited new members who are unknown to investigators.
He said Orange County gang members have moved to Riverside County, the Inland Valley and the San Joaquin Valley -- or out of state -- to seek moreaffordable housing.
"New members are going to be there for a while before we know about it," McBride said. "They don't come to us and say, 'Hi, I'm a new gang member.' We just put a lot of pressure on them and they pop up somewhere else."