Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Mayor's Fake "Worst Gangs"

LA Weekly

Cops, gangs, residents — all ridicule City Hall’s politically correct top 11

Wednesday, March 7, 2007 - 6:00 pm
Angry constituents: Gang members are taking time out from the usual mayhem to trash City Hall. (Photo by Ted Soqui)
It’s not unusual for a top-10 list to cause controversy. Top 10 movies of all time. Top 10 restaurants in the country. But recently the Los Angeles Police Department and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced with great fanfare a top-11 list of the worst and most violent gangs in the area. While movie buffs and foodies might lightheartedly argue their cases in bars and cafés, the LAPD list is being scorned and laughed at on gang corners, in patrol cars and in squad rooms.

When asked about the top-11 list, one Los Angeles officer and expert on gangs said, “It’s laughable. There was pressure from the [brass] to get out the list, but they didn’t ask the right people. They didn’t ask or listen to the experts.”

The lead homicide detective of LAPD’s deadly Southeast Division found the list odd. “I can’t imagine that those are the worst gangs in the city,” said Detective Sal LaBarbera. “I think they were trying to spread it out over the whole city, because we’ve got five gangs alone in Southeast — the PJs, Grape Street, the Bounty Hunters, Hoover and Main Street — that could be on that list.”

Southeast Division and neighboring 77th Street Division suffered 136 homicides in 2006, representing more than 28 percent of all killings in Los Angeles. Yet only two gangs from Southeast and 77th got onto the apparently geographically and politically correct list — Grape Street Crips and Rollin’ 60s Crips.

The list does contain some truly dangerous gangs. But it also leaves out very powerful gangs: the Hoover Street Criminals, East Coast Crips, Bounty Hunters, Florencia 13 and Quarto Flats — the old-time Boyle Heights gang with close ties to Mexican cartels.

“It’s a bunch of bullshit,” said Antony “Set Trip” Johnson, 17, a gang member with the Five Deuce Hoover, a subset of the notorious Hoover Criminals. “We should be on that list. Fuck it. We the most hated gang in Los Angeles.”

Johnson, who was very familiar with the list, scoffed at some of the gangs on it. “204th Street? That’s bullshit. That ain’t a rough neighborhood. What they got, 10, 20 members? And Canoga Park Alabama? You gotta be kidding me. That ain’t a gang hood. La Mirada Locos? Never in my life have I heard of them.”

A few miles away, in Rollin’ 60s turf on Brynhurst Avenue, a group of Crips studied the list of top 11 gangs set out on the hood of a battered dark blue Nissan Sentra. They had not yet heard about it until shown the list by the L.A. Weekly.

“I never heard of some of these gangs,” said Steven Smith, of the Rollin’ 60s. “This has got to be political. Where’s the Bounty Hunters? Where’s the Eight Treys? Who the fuck is 204th Street?”

The politics of this strange list, announced by LAPD Chief William Bratton and Villaraigosa as part of their crackdown on a purported explosion in gang violence, shows itself most vividly when it comes to 204th Street — a predominately Latino gang that is not considered among the city’s worst.

That gang apparently made the list almost solely on the basis of the racially motivated killing of black 14-year-old Cheryl Green, as a nod to angry black community leaders and intense media interest. Green’s killing put the gang on the map, but its members have attacked several black victims in recent years. However, the 204th is not active enough to be seriously considered one of the worst in L.A.

On 204th Street turf near Western Avenue and Del Amo Boulevard, a gang member who would not give his name seemed offended when it was suggested that 204th Street is not one of the 11 worst gangs. “No, cousin, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on around here,” he said as he walked away.

Two young men who live nearby, however, said the area was “all right.” Said Herman Galvez, 17, “It’s not that bad here.” Jesse Ortega, 27, his cousin, said, “Well, it’s politics and 204 is on the list because of that shooting of that little black girl. Now that was terrible.”

In the sprawling San Fernando Valley, while attempting to research the one Valley gang that made City Hall’s list — the Canoga Park Alabama (CPA) — I spent three hours driving and walking the streets. I was curious to see how the CPAs felt being on a widely publicized list with some of the nation’s most infamous gangs.

I struck out, unable to track down even one member.

An office manager of a pest-control business on Alabama and Gault streets in Canoga Park said he sees the gang often in the afternoon, but never has had a problem with them. “I’m not here at night, but they are cool to me,” said Preston Foster. “When I heard five years ago I was coming to work here, I thought it would be kinda dangerous, but it’s not like that at all.”

In the parking lot of Mission Hills Bowl on Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills, a woman in a van was “shocked” to hear Canoga Park Alabama had been named the worst Valley gang. “I’m very surprised to hear that because it’s worse in Mission Hills and Pacoima than it is in Canoga Park,” said Pamela Saldy. “I would have thought it would have been the San Fers.”

Turns out, she was right — City Hall was wrong. Lieutenant Gary Nanson said that, when asked by LAPD brass to come up with a list of the worst gangs in the Valley, he and all six LAPD gang details in the Valley put the San Fers at No. 1.

The San Fers are a decades-old, 700-member gang based mainly in the Valley’s northern reaches — concentrated in Mission Hills and the tiny, heavily Latino city of San Fernando, which is encircled by Los Angeles.

Based on a combination of crime statistics, gang intelligence and the level of community fear, Nanson and his detectives ranked the Valley’s top 10, starting with the worst, as: the San Fers, MS 13 Fulton, Vineland Boyz, Canoga Park Alabama, 18th Street, Project Boyz, Barrio Van Nuys, Langdon Street, Blythe Street and the Van Nuys Boyz.

From 2005 to 2006, gang crime in the Mission Division, home to San Fers, rose 165 percent, while the West Valley, home to Canoga Park Alabama, saw a 55 percent rise. (The percentages sound huge. But the number of actual crimes are fairly small because Valley gang activity is modest compared to city-side gang crime.)

So Nanson, based in the northern Valley, was a bit surprised when the announced top-11 list omitted the San Fers. On one hand, Nanson agrees with naming the gangs, a departure from the previous LAPD policy, saying, “I think it’s a very positive step for law enforcement to come out and name these gangs because they can no longer remain anonymous.”

“When we gave the list to Chief [Gary] Brennan, I noticed they pulled out Canoga Park Alabama,” said Nanson. “I was surprised, because the San Fers were the Valley’s most problematic gang. But I now believe I know why they picked out CPA: It was because of the new racial twist which makes it very topical.”

The Canoga Park Alabama is a Latino gang. Nanson said that in the last six months or so Canoga Park Alabama has been involved in racially motivated attacks against blacks. Squashing attacks by Latinos on blacks is a political priority right now.

It’s all politics: Mayor Villaraigosa (Photo by Orly Olivier)
Some think releasing the list could result in even more bloodshed. Jose Ramon, a barber in Gardena, worried that the list could inspire gangs to “go on a killing spree” just to get on the list. “I think the gangs that weren’t nominated might try to do something crazy so they can get nominated next year,” said Ramon, whose girlfriend lives near Jordan Downs, domain of the “nominated” Grape Street Crips.

The executive director of the California Gang Investigators Association is against publicizing the list, which he feels is flawed. “No, these are not the 11 worst gangs in the city, but they had to pick some from a variety of divisions,” because of political pressure to spread the list over a broad geography, said Wes McBride.

“If you are going to name the top 11 worst gangs, then name the 11 worst gangs. But my problem in naming the 11 worst gangs is that the 12th worst gang might get upset.”

McBride said there is no definitive list of the top 10 or 11 worst Los Angeles–area gangs. “It’s like a top-10 restaurant,” he said. “They might be one of the best restaurants in the city, but then the chef leaves and it’s not the same. Same with the gangs. They might be very active and then a couple of their shot callers [gang leaders] get busted and the gang is put in shock.”

Daude Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip turned community activist, agreed, saying, “I seen that funny-ass list, but it didn’t amount to nothing, just some more political rhetoric.” Sherrills said his family moved into the tough Jordan Downs housing project when it was new, in 1942. Today, he said, “They spend a billion dollars to arrest a motherfucker, but they don’t spend enough to educate a motherfucker.”

Sherrills’ brother, Aqeela Sherrills, said the list is a waste of taxpayers’ money. “It’s ridiculous that they are making this top-11 list like they are taking on the Mafia,” he said. “They are making it like these gangs are centralized organizations. I wish they would just go after the most violent individuals rather than put a whole community down.”

Former Grape Street gang member Kmond Day, 32, was in a parking lot near Building 47 at Jordan Downs talking to older homies about the list, which he found bizarre.

“I can understand why Grape [Street] is on the list, but what I don’t understand is why are we the only one around here on it,” said Day, who says he volunteers his time to stop gang activity.

Bow Wow, 28, another former gang member, said putting Grape Street on the list won’t make a bit of difference in Jordan Downs: “We already got a gang injunction on us. They got helicopters flying over here all the time. They got these million-dollar security cameras all over this place. What else can they do?”

He suggested that Bratton and Villaraigosa, rather than issue a meaningless list crafted with racial politics, geographic politics and media coverage in mind, “get four, five respected individuals from each project and have them run some good training programs. They got the money to do it, but they sending it to the wrong people.”

With so many complaints about the city’s supposed worst 11, the L.A. Weekly crafted its own Dirty Dozen list of worst gangs, based on crime statistics and numerous interviews with LAPD gang experts, officers in gang details, homicide investigators, gang members and community leaders. The results, roughly in order from worst to not as bad:

Rollin’ 60s Crips

Grape Street Crips

Florencia 13

Hoover Street Criminals

18th Street Westside

Black P. Stones Bloods

Quarto Flats

PJ Crips

East Coast Crips


Main Street Crips

Mara Salvatrucha

Several sources said the Bounty Hunters, a Bloods gang from Nickerson Gardens public-housing project in Watts, should be on the list. However, crime is down substantially in Nickerson Gardens, with three 2006 homicides in the general area, as well as 45 robberies and 53 assaults. It’s not a safe place. But it’s a far cry from 1989, when the area was racked by 11 homicides, 139 robberies and 162 assaults. By 2003, the violence had dropped to six homicides, 52 robberies and 153 assaults.

Behind these stats are concerned Nickerson Gardens residents and workers who volunteer their time reaching out to younger gang members and youths who haven’t yet joined gangs.

Respected community leader Donnie Joubert, 46, said he was proud of the work that “younger brothers have done to make things better in Nickerson Gardens.” Standing in front of the project’s gym one recent evening, he added, “We are not trying to say Nickerson Gardens does not have problems, but we’re trying to make it better, and we have had some success in dealing with the gang members. I thank God we were not on that list.”

In the end, the top-11 list announced with great fanfare by Villaraigosa and Bratton, and accepted largely without question by Los Angeles media, has resulted in a curious outcome: gangs, antigang activists and police say it’s packed with politics. In a matter of days, the Weekly crafted a more realistic list, sans politics, according to the rank and file — not the brass, but the officers and detectives who know the gangs and deal with them on the streets every day and night.

Click here to read Ganging Up on City Hall: Is this really a surge in gang crime, or is Villaraigosa peddling fear?