Gangs and the Projects

As a gang investigator, I found that when my case involved project gangs or when the crime occurred in or near the projects, the Housing Authority or Housing Police were the best source for information.

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Most successful anti-gang programs have two basic components: one designed to gather current gang intelligence and another to provide intensive supervision of known and identified gang members. Both of these elements would be more effective if the targeted gang and its members could be concentrated in a specific confined area.

For whatever reason, this is what naturally occurs in the Los Angeles urban government housing, or "the projects." It probably happens in projects in your jurisdiction, as well. But my expertise is Los Angeles, so I will discuss the L.A. projects and you can determine if my experience is applicable to your town.

Since their inception following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the projects have been the spawning ground and hot house for growing gang culture.

The more than 20 East Los Angeles Maravilla gangs originated from one original Maravilla Projects Gang. And the Los Angeles Pico Gardens Projects spawned a mixed race gang known as Don "Geronimo" Jordan's "Apaches" and later the African American "Purple Hearts" of the early 1950s. (Note: Geronimo was the welterweight boxing champion of the world from 1958 to 1960.) Pico Gardens also spawned the very violent Forth Street Flats Gang or Quarto Flats.

This phenomenon is not particular to Los Angeles alone, it occurs in government housing projects across the United States. This is where gangs grow. If you wish to impact gangs you cannot afford to ignore the projects.

An excellent academic study of gang and non-gang families in East Los Angeles Pico Gardens Projects can be found in a new book by James Diego Vigil, "The Projects." Professor Diego Vigil is a social anthropologist and among the few social scientists in academia that I would recommend to the working gang officer.

At the end of his book on the projects, Vigil makes two major policy recommendations. First he points out that parental education is vital and that mental health and social behavioral counseling services such as drug, alcohol, and marriage counseling should support these parental programs. Second, "a proactive and positive stance needs to be adopted at the highest levels of departmental policy making, so that patrol officers' routine practices are aligned to those of the housing police."

Over the years since the depression, law enforcement entities, whether private, state, county, or city initiated, have been developed to patrol troublesome project areas. Because this required intense patrolling of a very limited area and often included some input and project residence control, these project police often enjoyed some significant success and resulted in a reduction of criminal activity.

As a gang investigator, I found that when my case involved project gangs or when the crime occurred in or near the projects, the Housing Authority or Housing Police were the best source for information.

Most other agencies and many individual officers in Los Angeles County treated these Project Police as second class cops. They complained about these units recruiting from a pool of disciplined cops from other agencies or somehow less than the "quality" recruits selected for LAPD or LASD. Others laughed at their tiny jurisdictions or limited experience.

However, I got to know many Housing Authority officers over the years, and I can tell you that they seasoned more quickly than officers in larger agencies because of the intensity of their patrol areas. They had no slow areas like Beverly Hills, Encino, or Marina Del Rey in their patrol district. Every door they kicked was steel reinforced and the people behind that door were more likely to engage the officers in a violent confrontation.

The daily patrolling of this small area made each patrol officer quickly familiar with each street and problem location. This does not happen in larger jurisdictions until many years of patrolling.

Repeated tactical deployment in similar situations and in the same locations gave them another edge. Project patrol officers and their supervisors developed practical counter measures they could employ without calling big brother agencies or major tactical SWAT teams. They secured housing diagrams and electric, gas, and water control locations.

They used listening posts in vacant apartments and rooftop surveillance positions with great success. Los Angeles Housing Authority Police also developed special problem teams and even won national interagency SWAT competitions, competing against many more famous urban SWAT teams.

And talk about community policing, almost every project police officer knew every gang member in his or her housing complex. This was the strongest advantage of the project officers. They knew who every troublemaker was, just exactly where he lived, who he hung out with, and who his family members were. This is what is lacking in the larger law enforcement gang units of today.

Even then this was not true of the surrounding area patrol officers. As a deputy sheriff working gangs, I probably spent more time in the LAPD-patrolled projects of Ramona Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Nickerson Gardens than any LAPD officers assigned in those areas. Several of my fellow Deputies were shot or killed "poaching" in the LAPD projects. I very nearly lost my life in the Imperial Courts Projects when my trainee and I were attacked by Grape Street Crip Gang members.

In Long Beach, East Los Angeles, Pacoima, or South Central Los Angeles, the Housing Authority officers risked their lives and limbs in the worst and most dangerous reporting districts daily, attempting to make living conditions for the city and county citizens forced by poverty to live there, a little safer.

In the Maravilla Projects the County Housing Authority basically worked themselves out of a job. They did this by significantly reducing gang criminal activity and evicting the most violent families and drug dealers.

After years of improving conditions in the projects, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors killed the funding for the housing police in the Maravilla Projects. As a result the Maravilla Projects ceased improving and began returning to the gang, drug, and criminal conditions of the past.

City and county authorities have often rewarded project patrol officers by disbanding their most effective units and returning patrolling duties to the already overburdened surrounding agencies. Penny wise and pound foolish county supervisors eliminated these units to save budget money for other pet programs.

As a result, gang and drug activity in the projects has increased again. This is costing Los Angeles citizens millions. Neglected by most cops chasing their radio calls, gang members again stand on corners and intimidate passersby.

So next time you hear about some great new city or county gang initiative designed to impact the activity of criminal gangs in the barrio or ghetto, remind the planners to include the projects in their programs. Better yet, ask them to read Vigil's book.

About the Author
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Sergeant (Ret.)
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