Fresno Triples Its Anti-Gang Forces

THE STATE

Fresno Triples Its Anti-Gang Forces
Crime: An explosion of killings, other violence prompts a massive police crackdown on the city’s estimated 500 gangs, 12,000 members.
By WILLIAM OVEREND
TIMES STAFF WRITER

February 25 2002

FRESNO — One month into the biggest gang crackdown in Fresno history, 25 extra police cars are cruising the streets when the report of an armed robbery in progress flashes on patrol car computer screens.

Sgt. Walter Boston watches the lights go on across his monitor. Four cars, eight cars, a dozen. They are swarming the area in hot pursuit.

The chase ends quickly on this night. The driver is forced off the road. According to police, he is reaching beneath his seat for a gun when they open fire. Phillip Aguilar is dead at the scene. A paw is tattooed on Aguilar’s body, a sign of membership in Fresno’s largest gang, the Bulldogs. The next morning, Mayor Alan Autry says the ending might have been the same without the new crackdown, but maybe not.

“That was the first thing I thought about,” he said. “Those extra cars have to help. The odds that a patrol car is somewhere in the area of a crime are greatly increased these days. It’s hard to beat more bodies on the streets.”

Fresno’s gang crackdown began in January. It followed 40 murders in 2001, a 67% increase over the previous year. Nine of those were gang-related. And already there had been seven homicides in 2002.

A jewelry store owner was shot to death Jan. 8 during a robbery in the middle of downtown–an area Autry is determined to revitalize.

That is when the mayor and Police Chief Jerry Dyer decided a massive show of force was needed, and they would more than triple the size of Fresno’s anti-gang forces.

Police and community leaders say the city’s gang problems are growing more serious every year. Police estimate that there are more than 500 gangs in Fresno, with 12,000 members. Police say the Bulldogs alone have several thousand members.

Members of Southern California gangs have been moving into Fresno, a trend that has triggered new turf battles. And many gang members previously imprisoned are back on the streets, hardened.

Meanwhile, police and community leaders continue to fight the use of methamphetamine and other drugs that they say fuels much of the gang violence.

Debate Over How to Deal With Gangs

The only major area of debate is how to deal with the gangs. Community leaders say the city needs to throw more social and educational resources into the fight.

“The crackdown is a good thing as far as it goes, but it is just a Band-Aid,” said Frank Muna, a lawyer who once served on the city’s Human Rights Commission. “What’s going on now is for the press, so everybody can feel safe. But it’s only a temporary solution.”

Before January, Fresno had a 30-member Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium, with officers from the police, Sheriff’s Department, district attorney’s office and California Highway Patrol.

But at a time when homeland defense was becoming a new priority for many law enforcement agencies, the decision was made to add 100 more officers to the unit. About 70 came on loan from the 704-officer Fresno Police Department, the rest from other agencies.

“Homeland defense was a question for us,” Autry said. “How do you fight terrorism from abroad and our own home-grown terrorists: the gang members and the drug dealers?”

He said there should be a good sense of how the newly fortified anti-gang effort is working by the end of this month. But statistics already reflect improvement.

Fresno Police Lt. Greg Coleman and California Highway Patrol Capt. Cal Minor are two of the top commanders of the anti-gang force. They say gang-related felony arrests jumped from 41 in December to 212 in January. Misdemeanor arrests climbed from 38 to 446. And there were no gang killings during that time.

High Police Visibility Having an Impact

“We wanted very high visibility in the high-crime areas, and that is working,” Coleman said. “Realistically, everybody knows you can’t do something like this forever. But we are determined to do it as long as necessary.”

Although there are black, Asian and white skinhead gangs, Latino gangs are by far the city’s largest. The half a dozen Latino activists who gathered last week to discuss the issue agreed that the crackdown has, at least temporarily, helped curb gang violence. But gangs may simply lie low until the crackdown inevitably ends, they said. Long-term solutions will require some major shifts in city spending priorities.

“The police are doing a good job right now,” said Alfonso Hernandez, director of the city’s Chicano Youth Center. “But what really happens with something like this is that the police build up their stats to show how they need more police.

“What about more programs for education?” Hernandez asked. “People in Fresno love the Boys Clubs and the Boy Scouts. But they don’t go into the barrios because they are scared.”

Autry said that’s an impression he is determined to change. With 100 extra police on the streets, an extra 20 to 30 patrol cars out every night, the message is being delivered that the city will not be terrorized by gangs, he said.

“We are a growing city, and right now we are pouring millions and millions of dollars into sprucing this city up,” he said. “We have to show people that this is a safe city, and you can bet we will.”

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