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Santa Ana takes on gangs

Gang arrests follow a surge in violence. Police urge residents to report gang activity.

August 21, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

It was nine hours into the anti-gang surge, and an empty wheelchair sat in the driveway.

"The guy in the wheelchair just took off running," said Santa Ana Police Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo, standing over three tattooed teenagers, suspected gang members seated with their hands behind their backs while police checked their parole status. Just hanging out with one another could be a violation, Carrillo explained.

Although none of the three was arrested and the not-so-disabled man was never found, Carrillo, who directs the Santa Ana Police Department's gang suppression unit, said parole checks like those taking place this week in Santa Ana are key to restoring peace to the city's central neighborhoods.

In response to an escalation of violence -- including three shootings in a 24-hour period last month and an increase in arrests of gang members with guns -- Santa Ana police have launched a three-day operation targeting gang members and encouraging residents to report crime in a 2-square-mile area southwest of the Civic Center.

The operation began early Tuesday with 62 officers in patrol cars and on motorcycles, who saturated the neighborhood bounded by 1st Street, Edinger Avenue, Bristol Street and the Santa Ana River. Officers walked crime-heavy neighborhoods to talk to residents and urge them to call if they spotted trouble. Probation officers and parole and immigration agents also patrolled the neighborhood.

By late Wednesday authorities had arrested 38 on suspicion of a range of crimes, including probation and parole violations and outstanding warrants, weapons, vandalism and drug charges. Most are suspected gang members, and one was the brother of Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

The surge continues today.

Although crime in this city of 350,000 has fallen in recent years, the latest increase has centered in several neighborhoods of mobile home parks, apartments and single-family homes in the city's core, eliciting fears that those gains could be eroding.

Although aggravated assaults, which include shootings and stabbings, have gone down since last year, police said, homicides are up, with 18 so far this year compared with 11 by this time last year. More than half the killings were gang-related.

Councilman David Benavides, who represents the area, said the concentrated police presence falls in line with the city's strategy of focusing enforcement and community organizing on crime hot spots.

"It sends a message to the bad element out there that we're not going to sit back and let you terrorize these neighborhoods," he said.

"It's about making sure that small percentage that's causing the problem gets reined in and is taken away."

But others said the crackdown bordered on harassment.

Faviola Ayala, 30, who watched as police brought in young men and women whom they had arrested to be booked at a mobile command post at Jerome Park, said she worried that authorities were simply profiling the gangster look: shaved heads and baggy, color-coordinated clothing.

"Are they arresting people because they're robbing, killing or selling drugs, or are they just targeting people because of the way they dress?" she asked. "My husband wears baggy clothes, and he's not in a gang."

Armando Martinez, 32, a parolee, was stopped twice in three minutes while riding a bike. Police searched him and spoke to him but did not cite him.

"They're always categorizing us," he said. "When they see the tattoos and the way we look, we get pulled over a lot."

Martinez said he had come to expect the police scrutiny. With most of his upper body covered with gang tattoos, including a "SANTANA" tattoo that takes up his upper back, he said he didn't consider the police attention to be overkill.

Police have not focused only on racking up arrests. They have also worked to overcome what they say has been one of the biggest obstacles to ending the violence: residents' reluctance to report crimes for fear of retaliation.

Construction worker Alejandro Velazquez, 53, said that although he has witnessed a lot of trouble by gang members, he has never called the police.

"I'm afraid that if I call they'll find out and break into my car, or worse," he said.

Police Cpl. Jose Gonzalez said that such unwillingness was so endemic that the department decided to respond to the latest spate of violence by walking through several neighborhoods, telling residents that they can report crime anonymously and without fear.

At the Country Club Mobile Home Park on Sullivan Street, which last month was shaken by a police shooting and a homicide two days apart, police and church representatives knocked on every door, leaving fliers with instructions in Spanish at all 114 homes.

Gonzalez asked resident Elvia de la Riva if she had noticed the increase in crime.

"Yes, it's pretty ugly," said De La Riva, 52, who lives in a mobile home with her husband and two teenage sons.

Carjackings and other kinds of "delinquency" have become more common lately, she told him.

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