By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It‘s pushing past 10 o’clock on Friday night, and smoke from a barrage of fireworks still lingers above the historic grandstand at the Los Angeles County Fair.
The crowds that pack the broadway jostle for the exits and that last, vain dash to the beer stands that these days are supposed to close at 10 sharp. A few lucky guys manage to emerge with that final five-dollar plastic cup full of booze; others stomp, curse and gaze repeatedly at their watches as if it really couldn‘t be so late.
The cops, perhaps a dozen of Pomona’s finest, are lined up across the entrance to the carnival, bathed in the garish lights from the roller coasters and rides. Their eyes dart among the crowd that swirls around them; some let their hands fidget on batons and holsters, others fold their arms defensively in front of them. Collectively they appear to be in a purgatory somewhere between alert and downright edgy.
Then, out of the pulsing crowd of tired moms, sugar-wired kids and beer-addled dads, emerges a pack of homeboys, their shaved heads slick and shining under the colored lights. Eyes narrowed to hard-looking slits and walking at a clip that betrays an ominous sense of purpose, they head straight for the carnival entrance and the police line.
For the cops, the sight of vatos dressed to impress -- or, more accurately, intimidate -- is like a tiger shark emerging from a school of scattering fish. It means trouble.
As the homeboys approach, the officers converge on them almost casually from all sides, perhaps hoping to avoid any commotion as they initiate some street diplomacy that‘s known in fair jargon as the ”meet and greet.“
In short order, the lawmen extend an invitation (one, as the old saying goes, you can’t refuse) to a small, enclosed patio behind the Pomona P.D.‘s tiny station house at the fair -- one that’s safely away from public view. A few moments later, the homies emerge from behind the wood gate, some smiling sheepishly, others with brows furrowed in anger. They disappear quickly into the crowd streaming into the carnival. The cops again fill out their skirmish line and wait for the next catch. It starts all over again.
While perpetual cop critics may sense something odious about police ushering ”suspected gang members“ behind the building for a heart-to-heart talk, there seems to be little more going on than some good old-fashioned verbal intimidation. Names are taken, but asses are not kicked -- yet.
”Basically, we welcome them to the carnival section of the fair and let them know what the rules are,“ says Captain Joe Romero, a veteran Pomona officer who has pulled duty at the county fete since the early 1970s. ”We‘ll get some basic info on them. We may pat them down, advise them that the carnival section is full of families out to enjoy the fair and that we will not allow any ’mad-dogging‘ (hard stares) or throwing of gang signs or rowdy behavior.“
Sometimes the gang members are photographed, but the entire encounter is usually videotaped by police cautious of accusations of harassment and interested in keeping a record of gang members who pass through the fair. County parole officers are also on hand, keeping tabs and looking for violators. After the points are made, the gang members are free to go, presuming there are no warrants or parole violations.
Of course, some may question who exactly gets pulled aside for a discussion and what the criteria are, but the formula seems centered more on common sense than racial profiling.
”We’re looking for guys who come in wanting to be noticed,“ says Officer Joe Waltman, a 17-year veteran of the force who works the department‘s gang detail. ”The guys we pull aside at the fair are usually walking billboards. They’re advertising who they are and what gang they‘re from.“
As he watches people stream in and out of the carnival, Waltman points out who does and who doesn’t make the official greeting list.
”Wannabes, smalltime,“ he snorts as a crew of Latino teens decked out in street gear strut by unmolested, chests out in bravado. Waltman seems to sense that they are trying too hard. ”They‘re a party crew, looking more for girls than a fight.“
Some punkers stroll by.
”Being a fashion victim is not against the law or necessarily dangerous,“ he chuckles.
A tightly knit group of well-dressed, stone-faced rancheros cruises through the police line, and Waltman takes note. ”Now those guys were probably drug dealers. But we shake them down and all we’d find are cell phones, pagers and a lot of cash. They‘re here to spend their money and that’s about it.“
Waltman‘s radar goes off again moments later as a lone, middle-aged black man emerges from the crowd. ”Here comes an O.G. from Sin Town [a notorious Pomona Crip set] now,“ he says. The man spots Waltman, and the two start laughing simultaneously.
”Waz up?“ the man says as he shakes hands and exchanges banter with the cop. ”I’ve been out for a while and I‘m stayin’ out this time,“ he tells Waltman. There is no search or rap about the rules; it‘s more of a catch-up session. As the man finally moves on down the midway, Waltman notes previous encounters with the Crip were less pleasant. ”We killed his brother in a shootout a few years ago.“