Going Beyond Suppression Patrols To Eradicate Gangs

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Curtis Jackson pioneered a different way to attack gangs. Instead of using "show of force" suppression patrols, Jackson relied on intelligent tactics.

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The godfather of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's gang units was Sgt. Curtis Jackson. Before Jackson's innovative ideas of how to effectively employ police resources against the gang problem, L.A. gang fighters were limited to specialized suppressive patrol tactics with marked cars and uniforms.

This "show of force" tactic looks good on the 5 o'clock news, but produced limited success. Modern gang units keep falling back to this limited tactic.

In his book, "A Line in the Turf," Sgt. Jackson explains how and why the Operation Safe Streets (OSS) concept works. It's written as a practical manual based on his years of research and the grant he wrote that founded the LASD's OSS gang units.

The book concentrates on the selection process for gang-unit team members and intelligence-driven tactics to target the right people at the right time. This can be compared to the use of proper military tactics in a time of war. Prophetically, the author warns against many of the failed tactics such as reliance on gang sweeps, ex-gang members in gang programs, poor choices in team selection, and the lack of real police intelligence.   

In case you don't remember, the U.S. lost the Vietnam War. We lost it because we tried to fight this modern guerrilla war using World War ll tactics. This is what most cities are doing today, trying to fight today's gang wars using yesterday's failed tactics. They don't get it. Even gang units who have histories of more successful tactics, such as LAPD's C.R.A.S.H. and LASD's OSS, have forgotten what really works.

The next time you hear about a gang unit making "mass gang arrests" in "gang associations warrants" and using "suppressive patrol tactics" and recovering table loads of firearms, ask them two weeks later how many criminal filings they produced? How many of these firearms had to be returned to lawful owners?

In Vietnam, we tried a tactic sometimes called "saturation bombing." Our leaders promised to bomb the enemy back into the Stone Age. This is comparable to heavy saturation patrol tactics used against gangs. As in Vietnam, this tactic only causes the enemy to "huddle" up and go underground. This tends to further unify them as they wait out the suppressive patrol sweeps.

These tactics also produce collateral civilian "casualties" in the form of aggressive no tolerance enforcement, as well as pedestrian and vehicle stops. This turns the average citizen against the police and encourages the citizens in the target area to identify with the enemy. This feeling in gang neighborhoods is known as the feeling of living in occupied territory.

Another failed Vietnam tactic was the common practice of taking a hill or other strategic location only to abandon it after it was successfully assaulted. This would be followed by the enemy re-taking the same hill, which was followed by another assault on the same hill.

This tactic can be compared to gang units such as LASD OSS Gang Enforcement Teams (GETs) responding in short deployments countywide to impact gang problems in a target area and deploying somewhere else a few days later, abandoning the first target, only to find that it will become necessary to return to "put out the fire" in the first location again. This is a waste of man power and other resources (overtime), and the final result is of little difference from the original situation.

After a carefully documented experimental gang program in the violent Firestone District in the 1970s called Operation Hickory Street, Sgt. Curtis Jackson wrote a grant request for a new gang program he called Operation Safe Streets (OSS). This concept was modeled after his super successful Hickory Street program that reduced felonious acts by the gang by 75%. In December of 1978, the new unit was funded for four, three-man teams at stations in Lynwood (Compton), East Los Angeles, Lennox and Pico Rivera. These were the four LASD stations reporting the most gang activity at the time.

The original 12 OSS team members were carefully selected from aggressive patrol officers with histories of actively working gangs and developing street informants. One sergeant was assigned to supervise two OSS teams. The selection of the team sergeant was crucial. A U.S. Marine, Vietnam veteran and former drill instructor, Sgt. Bob Perry, led the Lynwood and Lennox teams. Sgt. Juan Rodriguez, an outstanding proactive cop that was well respected in the Hispanic community, led the ELA and Pico Rivera teams.

The original grant did not budget for police cars, desks, chairs, filing cabinets, telephones, cameras, or support staff. It was bare bones. Gang deputies played musical chairs and sat in desks emptied of their station detectives. We used their telephones and installed pirated police radios into our private vehicles. OSS detectives raided the county salvage yards for desks and filing cabinets. Equipment needs were overcome by the naive optimism and the real desire to combat the growing violence in the streets.

Similar to the Hickory Street program, the three-man team could concentrate at first on only one gang—the most violent gang—in the station area. This would be an intelligence-driven deployment, so the first steps involved gathering current statistics and intelligence on the target gang.

The first thing we learned was that gang crimes were significantly under-reported. The Lynwood team, which I was assigned to, found that the target gang was twice as big and twice as criminally active as previous statistics would have indicated.

These seven questions must be asked:

  • What gangs are operating in the area?
  • What gangs are allies of the target gang?
  • What gangs are rivals of the target gang?
  • What are the boundaries claimed by the gangs?
  • Where do the gang members hang out?
  • How many gang members are there?
  • Who are they? (Though it's almost impossible to identify all of them, try.)

Jackson's concept was that this gang team would patrol the target areas in plain clothes and unmarked cars while attempting to contact and become familiar with every member of the gang. As detectives, we would be assigned every case involving the target gang as either suspects or victims. This caused some resistance from station detectives, narcotic units and homicide at first, but this loosened up after a few successful "assistance to and co-unit assignments."

No matter how busy the teams got, Jackson insisted on our patrol presence from 3-4 p.m. when local schools let out and gang assaults commonly occurred. The consistent direct interaction between gang detectives and active gang members established a working rapport and intimate knowledge of the gang and its most active members. This cannot be obtained from computer data or gang files.

Even in the worst areas of ELA or Compton only about 10% of the population become active gang members. In some areas, that group could be responsible for as much as 80% of the crime. From paint sniffing to murder, OSS carefully recorded and prosecuted any crime involving the target gang. OSS teams worked closely with the district attorney's office, probation, parole and the school police. Later, OSS would liaison with the custody division and provide intelligence intercepted in the county jail.

As a result, the first target gang was impacted significantly. The most active gang members were in prison serving long terms, and the gang suspected everyone of being informants, even its most influential members. The gang became paranoid and weak. Soon rival gangs began attacking the target gang.

OSS then began targeting surrounding rival gangs. Like ever-expanding circles around the bull's-eye, target zones of safety and control expanded from the original turf center. However, OSS never gave up the original ground. The original gang remained a target gang, but was much easier to control. We didn't have to take the same hill over and over again.

When an OSS team was able to get a community eyewitness or gang informant willing to testify in the court system, detectives protected the identity of that individual and escorted him or her to and from the courthouse. They carefully explained the procedures of the justice system bureaucracy and used victim witness-protection systems to move them when needed.

Suppressive patrol tactics and gang sweeps were occasionally still used, but intelligence-driven surgical strikes targeting the most violent gang members were more common. Like the smart bombs of the Gulf War, they produced minimal collateral damage in the community and devastated the enemy targets.

Though not openly applauded by the public, the anonymous telephone line and private talks with parents later reassured us that the community actually enjoyed our pinpoint accuracy. This can only occur when the team is listening to the community and developing true gang intelligence.

Several of the first target gangs ceased to exist. Operation Safe Streets received national acclaim and was labeled the "most successful gang program in the nation." However, when the original OSS team members promoted or retired, administrators lacking an understanding of Sgt. Jackson's gang tactics returned to the reactionary tactics of the past.

Los Angeles-based gangs are different in structure and organization than New York- and Chicago-based gangs. They may have some specific mode of gangster clothing, graffiti style, language, territory or method of operation that is particular to each gang.

However, they would all be significantly impacted by Sgt. Curtis Jackson's gang-fighting tactics. This method works, provided you select the right people and plan your tactics to be intelligence driven.

About the Author
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Sergeant (Ret.)
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