LAPD makes a dent in March, but gangs hold ground in Valley

LA Daily News
Article Last Updated:04/03/2007 10:09:17 PM PDT

Two months after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed a crackdown on the city’s most-wanted street gangs, the Los Angeles Police Department still finds itself struggling to make a dent in San Fernando Valley crime.

While violent gang crime has subsided 12 percent across L.A. so far this year, compared with the same period in 2006, it remains flat in the Valley.

“This is not one arrest away from success; this is a journey that is going to take persistence and real endurance of working toward getting violent crime down,” Deputy Chief Michel Moore, the Valley’s top cop, said Tuesday.

But LAPD officials say their two-month-old effort to combat gang crime – including having a 50-officer task force in the Valley and placing probation officers inside the gang units – is showing steady progress. And the department points out that, citywide, gang crime is down 15 percent among the top 11 targeted street gangs, while arrests of their members are up 35 percent so far this year from the same period in 2006.

“These very-early numbers show we are making progress but still have a lot of work to do,” said Matt Szabo, the mayor’s spokesman. “Residents in the Valley today are safer than they have been in decades.”

Overall, gang crime in the Valley inched up 1.8 percent over this time last year – when a 44 percent spike in gang crime led city leaders to call for an assault on gangs.

Gang crime in the Valley jumped 15 percent in February – when Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton announced their crackdown – over the same month last year. But in March, it dropped 23 percent from the same month last year.

“The numbers are getting smaller each time around,” said David Doan, second in command of the LAPD gang unit. “I am encouraged by the numbers I see. If they keep the pressure up, then I think the numbers will be below what they are now in six months. But it’s too early to tell.”

In the Valley, 2.3 out of every 10,000 people will be victims of gang crime, compared with 6.9 of every 10,000 in South Los Angeles and 1.8 in West L.A. Much of the Valley’s crime is concentrated east of the 405 Freeway, Doan said.

Isaac Luna, owner of a muffler shop in Pacoima, said prostitutes used to regularly pick up johns along his block, and taggers frequently marked up his business. Though their presence diminished over the past few years, he thinks the recent clampdown has scared off criminals and gang members.

“I see the difference. There’s a lot less people in the street at night,” said Luna, former president of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce. “A while ago, you used to see a crowd of gang members hanging out. You don’t see that anymore. The LAPD has really made an effort to work with business owners, the community and even our Neighborhood Council. They know we are down to change the community.”

After Villaraigosa and Bratton announced their plan, many criticized it, saying the decision to name gangs and their members would glorify criminals and inspire those seeking recognition.

Over several weeks, the mayor and chief claimed the upper hand, announcing the capture of two of the most-wanted gang members, including one from Pacoima. But pressure still has been building to create an accountable prevention and intervention program.

“We are looking forward to the day when we are spending as much on suppression as we are spending on intervention as well,” said Bobby Arias, president of Communities in Schools, a gang-intervention program that has garnered the LAPD’s trust.

Later this month, Villaraigosa is expected to release his own prevention and intervention plan.

For now, Moore said the 50 extra officers give the department the ability to throw investigators behind cases that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.

On Saturday, the task force aided in apprehending Robert Valdez – a man police say has a long criminal history and could be responsible for several still-unsolved gang crimes.

“Typically we don’t have the resources to commit investigative resources,” Moore said. “You give (officers) the training and ability, and they demonstrate what the LAPD can do.”

But so far, the task force is limited, dispatched only to the Valley’s high-crime areas. The Devonshire Division – which covers Chatsworth, Canoga Park, Northridge and West Hills – was the only one that saw a spike in gang crime during March. And it wasn’t patrolled by the task force.

“Our violent crime task force is only so big. We can’t spread them throughout the Valley,” said Lt. Gary Nanson, head of the LAPD’s Valley gang unit. “It’s not a good tactic to move them in and out of one area. You need resources to cover it all the time.”

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