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 just after 9 p.m. last Friday. Six LAPD officers, including two in plainclothes, plus eight civilian volunteers, have gathered in the parking lot of the Hollenbeck Division station for a graffiti stakeout. The idea is fairly simple. The group will position themselves near a wall that is chronically plagued by graffiti and wait for someone to tag it. Then the cops will swoop in and make an arrest.
This is the first such operation since the swearing in of L.A.’s new police chief, William Bratton, who has repeatedly mentioned graffiti as a his number-one priority in his recently declared war against gangs. But Officer George Gonzales, the head of Hollenbeck‘s Problem Solving Unit, says this operation didn’t come down from the chief. ”We tried the same thing a few years ago,“ he says, ”but after Chief Parks did away with the senior lead officers, we no longer had the manpower to do it.“
Whatever the stakeout‘s provenance, two locations have been selected for tonight’s action: One is just outside the Pico-Aliso housing projects on First Street between Gless and Clarence streets; the other under the graceful, old, open spandrel-arch bridge constructed in the 1920s at Fourth and Lorena streets. As to why these particular spots have been chosen, Gonzales is vague. ”They‘ve been pre-selected for a while,“ he says.
Johnny Ortega says he knows exactly why the spots were chosen. ”The police told me they picked those places because of Bratton,“ he says. Ortega is a 32-year-old former gang member who supervises crews for Homeboy Graffiti Removal, the organization that contracts with the city to paint over tagging on the Eastside. Tonight he has already cleaned up the two walls in question; now, he is on standby via walkie-talkie in case there is a rash of arrests and a location has to be repainted. ”They told me Fourth and Lorena is where the chief had his press conference about graffiti,“ says Ortega. ”And First Street was picked because he has to drive right by there on his way to Parker Center.“
Yet, if it is arrests the police want, Ortega says, there are better places. And a stakeout would likely be most effective at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., not 9 p.m., he adds. ”We know exactly which spots are hot when because we’re out there at 5:30 every morning cleaning ‘em up.“ Ortega shrugs. ”But the cops don’t ask us for our opinion.“
The stakeout is specifically targeting gang graffiti, not tagger graffiti. Tagger graffiti means the messages scrawled by spray-paint-can-wielding youth on walls and freeway overpasses as a sort of illegal extreme sport. Gang graffiti is mostly the marking of territory. ”Tag-banging,“ as Ortega calls the most aggressive form of gang graffiti, involves forays into an enemy‘s territory to cross out the other guy’s graffiti and replace it with your own. Tag-banging can get people killed.
At around 9:30, four LAPD squad cars, three unmarked cars and a big, beat-up, white, unmarked GMC van featuring blackout curtains at every window, follow each other to the Fourth-and-Lorena location. The cars stay out of sight, and Gonzales parks the van in the open. He and two volunteers settle into the carpeted rear of the vehicle, walkie-talkies in hand, and peer out the windows.
Gonzales says that his Problem Solving Unit (PSU) originally began in the Northeast Division in January of 2000 to address concerns that were being ignored when the community-oriented programs like the senior-lead-officer system were disbanded. ”You know, quality-of-life issues, like too many gang members hanging out on a certain corner,“ he says, ”or bad lighting on a certain street.“ But in the fall of 2000, the focus of Hollenbeck‘s PSU changed when a 10-year-old girl was killed on Clarence Street in a gang-related shooting. ”The gang detectives called us in and asked us if there was anything we could do.“
I reported on the killing and remember it vividly. A few minutes before 6 p.m. on a warm Sunday evening in October 2000, five homeboys with guns crept over to 122 S. Clarence Street where a cluster of their ”enemies,“ homeboys from The Mob Crew (TMC), spilled out of the front door and onto the sidewalk. The gunmen opened fire on the TMCs. Actually, two people died on Clarence Street that night. First, a bullet hit a 19-year-old named Ray Hernandez. Then another bullet flew farther up the street and struck a pretty, dark-haired third-grader as she rode her bicycle in front of her parents’ house. Hernandez died on the spot. The little girl, Stephanie Raygoza, died before she arrived at White Memorial Hospital.
”The concept we developed in response was to acquire some leverage to remove the element in the house that had caused the death of the girl,“ Gonzales says. ”So we used several agencies -- Building and Safety, the Department of Child and Family Services and the city attorney -- to get this family out. It was the first time we‘d even done anything like this. But that’s basically what we‘ve been doing ever since. Instead of attacking certain gang issues in terms of strictly enforcement, we try to use this dispersal strategy to break up gang hangouts and strongholds.“