Its 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 Hollenbecks Problem Solving Unit, says this operation didnt 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 stakeouts provenance, two locations have been selected for tonights 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. Theyve 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 were out there at 5:30 every morning cleaning em up. Ortega shrugs. But the cops dont 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 enemys territory to cross out the other guys 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 Hollenbecks 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 wed even done anything like this. But thats basically what weve 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.
The dispersal strategy is a pretty interesting notion on which Bratton might want to expand. Gang hangouts not only endanger innocents, they endanger gang members. If you want to cap an enemy homeboy, you look for a place like the Clarence Street place, where youll likely be shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, well before the Ray HernandezStephanie Raygoza murders, gang workers and friends had pleaded with Martha Campos, the houses rent-paying tenant, to move herself and her two homeboy sons to a safer area. Even Campos oldest son -- an intelligent, exceptionally personable 29-year-old ex-homeboy whod left the neighborhood and made good -- pleaded with her to move. Then, four months before the HernandezRaygoza killings, the elder son dropped by his old street and was shot to death by gang members at 3 in the afternoon, a block from his mothers house. If the PSU could have forced Martha Campos to move a little sooner, three people might still be alive.
Back at the stakeout, the hours pass uneventfully. In a city with a skyrocketing homicide rate and a police force that, by the chiefs own reckoning, is 3,000 officers short of the number needed to protect and serve its populace, its hard not to wonder how sensible it is to have six cops and eight volunteers spending an entire evening watching a wall.
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At 11 p.m., a popping noise that might be a gunshot turns out to be a firecracker. By half past midnight, the uniformed officers want to pack it in. Gonzales argues for going on to the First Street location, but when he turns the ignition key in the undercover van, the engine wont start. When the tow truck finally drops him off at 1:15 a.m., Gonzales decides its too late for First Street, and heads into his office to do paperwork.
I drive over to First Street on my own, but find the freshly painted stucco surfaces between Gless and Clarence streets still pristine. Just for the hell of it, I cruise elsewhere, then drive back to First Street as the clock hits 2 a.m. The landscape has markedly changed: Across the blocklong stretch of recently clean walls someone has sprayed a series of brilliant red letters with the smooth, careless ease of a skywriter: TMC the letters spell over and over. TMC, TMC, TMC. Under various inscriptions, the same someone has signed his name, Danger, in blood-colored paint, still fresh enough to be sticky.
When I touch the red paint, it has an oddly mnemonic effect. Suddenly, I remember the precipitating event that, two years ago, brought in the gangsters who killed Stephanie Raygoza: It was graffiti. That Sunday afternoon, some TMCs had crept a few blocks south into Cuatro Flats territory and tag-banged a bunch of walls. Three hours later, the Cuatros retaliated with guns.
The next morning, I call Cara Gould, operations director of Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit under which Homeboy Graffiti Removal operates. I ask her what she thinks of the whole graffiti-stakeout thing. I think going after graffiti is good, she says, but for heavens sake, be smart about it. Go to the hot locations, not the ones that were hot two weeks ago, dont go with big white vans that any homey can make as belonging to the police, and go late. But, if you do it right, Gould continues, and you arrest the homeboys who are tagging -- trust me, nine times out of 10, youll have also just arrested the shooters.