A Friday night on the front lines of L.A.'s gang wars
Sgt. Sean Colomey patrols the most gang-ridden neighborhood in the gang capital of America. It is his job to lead 28 specially trained police through an area where assault weapons seem as common as grass, graffiti "tags" define the turf, and 7 of every 100 residents are members of one gang or another.Skip to next paragraph
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He is just the man Police Commissioner Anthony Pacheco wants to know.
A wave of gang violence, one that some say is the most vicious in city history, has engulfed Los Angeles, and the city's police are mounting an equally historic response. It is Commissioner Pacheco's job to assess how effectively the LAPD is confronting the gangs – whether it has the tools and personnel it needs, whether police tactics stay within the law. He sees the response as a huge and necessary undertaking. No less than "the future safety of L.A. is at stake," Pacheco says.
So it is that on a recent Friday night Sergeant Colomey, the gang expert, and Pacheco, a civilian appointed to serve as one of five LAPD commissioners, meet in the parking lot of the Southeast Division headquarters at the corner of 108th and Main Streets. Pacheco will ride along on this shift – it's a chance to pick Colomey's brain about gang rivalries, to catch the cop's-eye view of the action. This ride-along, like others he's been on over the past 18 months, will help the commissioner decide for himself whether the police crackdown is having an effect.
It's just one night and just one lens on the gang problem, but Pacheco feels it's a vital perspective to gain.
Colomey slides on a bulletproof vest, and hands one to the commissioner. Velcro closes them tight, but it's small comfort. The vests can stop bullets from handguns, but not from AK47s. A Chinese-made copy of the notorious Russian assault rifle can be had on the streets for about $100.
"It's all over the place," Colomey says of the gun. "It's a military weapon that will send a bullet through you and the next guy and the house next door and keep on going."
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The latest crime report came as something of a shock to many Los Angelenos. Crime rates had dropped citywide for five straight years, mirroring the trend in other major metropolises. But last year L.A. as a whole saw a 14 percent jump in gang-related violent crime. Police say there are 39,000 gang members in Los Angeles – and 15,000 of them are active in the compact area where Colomey and Pacheco will be on patrol.
Colomey, though, was not shocked. His division, which encompasses Watts and South Central L.A., has logged roughly 500 shootings a year for the past few years.
On their ride together through this 9.3-square-mile community – 200,000 people boxed in by four freeways – Pacheco and Colomey are taking a kind of inventory of 65 gangs who police say rule these streets like terrorists. "They do everything that terrorist groups do ... rule by fear and intimidation, the threat of violence and murder in every area of these neighborhoods," says Colomey, a 17-year veteran.
It's the apparent spread of gang violence to additional parts of L.A. that has set in motion a kind of "Marshall Plan" attack on the problem, of which the LAPD response is one part. So far, police department action includes unprecedented collaboration with the feds: the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). It includes injunctions that restrict the activities of certain gang members and nuisance-abatement crackdowns that target gang hangouts. It includes formal lists of "most wanted" members and "most wanted" gangs and better-coordinated ways to track and prosecute them.
But there's also plain old enforcement, meaning a bigger show of force and more arrests. This night would make that clear.
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About half of Colomey's gang enforcement detail is on duty at any given time, so the sergeant is set for a casual tour of "non-frontline" duty with the commissioner.
That plan changes in the first minute of his shift.
They set off first for the scene of an earlier shooting. But the parking lot is still visible in the rearview mirror when Colomey and five other cruisers are summoned for backup in a cocaine bust just blocks in the other direction. That's a sizable backup squad, but Colomey says the extra hands will be needed for crowd control – local residents who often press the perimeter of an arrest scene.