Ariz. police get tough on gangs

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The window tint was way too dark.

But it wasn't until police pulled over the Chevy Impala that they found what they were really looking for: gangsters. Four of them, heavily tattooed and hiding a golf-ball-size rock of crack cocaine packaged for individual sale. One of the men in the car had a felony warrant for aggravated assault and was taken to jail. Another was on probation and shouldn't have been hanging around gang members and dope. Police seized the car.

"It's zero tolerance with these gang members," Phoenix police Sgt. Todd Goehring said. "If they commit a traffic violation, they're going to get a ticket. If they have guns or dope, they're going to jail. Anything just to let them know we're watching them. They need to know when we're on the streets that they need to look behind them at all times." advertisement 
Across the Valley and nationwide, police are redoubling efforts to crack down on gangs after a resurgence of activity has brought new waves of fear and violence to communities.

This year, all three Valley police officers shot to death in the line of duty were gunned down by gang members. In Phoenix, the number of gang-related homicides more than doubled from six in 2003 to 16 in 2006. There have been 11 gang-related murders this year.

Gang members also are responsible for armed robberies, home invasions, thefts and drug dealing in neighborhoods across the Valley, officials say.

"We're just trying to keep our heads above water now," Phoenix police Sgt. Derek Stephenson said.

Targeting gang activity

In Arizona, officials estimate there are 20,000 known gang members belonging to 2,500 street gangs. Nationwide, the number of gang members has more than tripled, from 250,000 in 1991 to 800,000 now.

From New Jersey to Arizona and California, legislatures are passing tougher laws to target gang activity and police are fighting back.

In Los Angeles, for example, police have embarked on a new strategy that involves asking former gang members to help prevent violence. Police in California also have pursued injunctions to keep gang members from congregating in groups, an approach officials in Arizona say they are looking into.

New York prosecutors recently used terrorism laws to convict a gangster of fatally shooting a 10-year-old girl, saying the gang had terrorized the west Bronx for years.

In the Valley, police tactics include saturation patrols, like the one that led to the traffic stop in Phoenix, and mass arrests, coupled with a surge in intelligence gathering, and the creation of massive, real-time gang databases that are being shared among agencies like never before.

Officials say there is an unprecedented level of cooperation among federal, state and local agencies to track down gang members and build cases against them that will result in the harshest possible prison sentences.

"The most effective thing we can do is cooperate with each other, work together and conduct long-term investigations that are going to have the result of putting these people in prison for a long time," said Lt. Andy Vasquez, who oversees gang enforcement for the state Department of Public Safety.

It's a paradigm shift in enforcement but "a smarter approach," said Chuck Schoville, a retired Tempe police gang sergeant and president of the newly formed Arizona Gang Investigators Association, which already has 300 members. "All the cities realize they can't do it alone."

DPS has brought back the Gang and Immigrant Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission and now has squads working with local police throughout the state to do gang enforcement and conduct intelligence-driven investigations. Chandler police have partnered with the non-profit Improving Chandler Area Neighborhoods to do street outreach a couple of times a month and direct at-risk youth toward more positive activities. And law-enforcement agencies in the East Valley have teamed up to create the Fusion Center in Mesa, in which gang detectives not only share information but work together to solve crimes, regardless of where they occurred.

"We recognize that the bad guys do not understand about city boundaries," Mesa Police Chief George Gascon said. "We all have limited resources, and if we share the resources and we share the knowledge, we can become more surgical about how we go about fighting crime."

The efforts come a decade after gang activity reached its peak in the Valley. Back then, vast numbers of gang members were thrown in prison with tougher sentences for operating criminal syndicates, and the violence ebbed.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many law-enforcement agencies cut back or eliminated their gang units, reassigning detectives to homeland security. In the past couple of years, as some gang members finished their sentences and returned to the streets and others migrated from California, enforcement has been sporadic, and the problems have resurfaced with a vengeance.

Supression efforts

The graffiti scrawled on a central Phoenix fence is testament. It surfaced after Phoenix police Officer Nick Erfle was killed in September by an illegal immigrant and documented gang member.

"Cop killa," the graffiti said, also boasting the gang's name. The group had been relatively quiet for more than a year until Erfle was killed, and police realized their intelligence wasn't up to date.

"They're making a statement, so we're going to pay them some attention. Sometimes an act like this can fire them up," Stephenson said on a recent night as he patrolled the gang's territory. "We want to make sure they don't emerge into anything."

In July, after Phoenix police noticed an increasing amount of gang-related shootings, officials resurrected Operation Safe Streets, which began in the early 1990s to quell gang violence. For the first time, the operation has expanded beyond the summer months, with about 100 officers hitting the streets almost nightly to target gangs.

In the first three months, the efforts focused largely in the city's South Mountain and Maryvale precincts, and overall crime in both areas fell. Violent crime also dropped in all but one of the eight individual areas targeted within the precincts, with dips ranging from 9.5 percent to nearly 45 percent.

More than 300 gang members have been arrested, and police have identified nearly 500 other suspected gang members.

Drugs, vehicles, cash and more than 140 weapons have been seized.

The idea is to contact as many gang members as possible to develop information on their activities and associates. Suspected gang members are photographed when they are stopped and asked to show their tattoos. Some will flash gang signs for officers or show gang monikers written on their shoes. Anyone with a gun is checked to see if they can legally carry it.

At the same time, gang detectives are gathering intelligence that could enhance prison sentences when a gang member is caught committing a crime, and they are targeting gang leaders for racketeering and operating criminal syndicates.

Just this year, the Arizona Legislature passed a law increasing the presumptive prison sentence by five years for committing certain crimes to promote or assist a criminal street gang and made it a crime to participate in or assist a gang. The legislation also allowed the "use of a common name or identifying sign/symbol" to be used to prove gang membership, just the type of information police gather every time they contact a suspected gang member.

"There's a lot of emphasis on gangs for good reason," Stephenson said. "You can eliminate robberies, homicides, burglaries that those guys are committing.

"If we weren't here, it would get really ugly."

Running the street

"This is the Phoenix Police Department," an officer booms into a public-address system outside a central Phoenix home. "The house is totally surrounded, and we are not leaving. ... Jose, we're going to stay here until either you come out or we come in and get you."

Officers were on a traffic stop when a man came up to them to tell them about a drug house in the neighborhood. Officers were familiar with the home. "Mijo" is there now selling drugs, the man said.

Mijo's real name is Jose, and he is wanted for a gang assault. Officers quickly surrounded the house, and the man shut himself inside. A helicopter flew overhead. Police brought in the K-9 unit. An officer held a rifle to the front door. The man wouldn't come out. Officers wouldn't leave.

Hours later, Phoenix police, alongside deputy U.S. Marshals who also wanted the man, forced their way into the home. The man was found hiding inside a sofa. He remains in jail.

"We're out here and we won't tolerate this type of behavior," Phoenix police Lt. Charlie Consolian said.

"The gang doesn't run the street. We run the street."

Copyright 2007 The Arizona Republic

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