Gangs and Guns: Police Citizens' Academy Gets Heavy

PART TWO IN A SERIES: The third week behind the scenes of the Santa Cruz Police Department gave us a look behind the paramilitary part of police work and the prevalence of gangs in the city.

The video looks innocent enough.

People are walking along the Beach Boardwalk. Rides are spinning. Kids are carrying corn dogs and cotton candy.

Then, one man in a white T-shirt walks closely past another man dressed identically and going the opposite direction.

One of them turns around and stares. Then he uses his fingers to flash a sign. In the blink of an eye, one of the men runs back and attacks the other, decking him with a punch. And four other men, all in white, surround the scene. One picks up the victims' backpack and runs off.

They weren't walking together, but were more like an Army reconnaissance unit, spread across the Boardwalk, as if, says Officer Joe Hernandez, they were expecting to start trouble.

"This is where one of them would pull a knife," says Hernandez, who is interpreting the surveillance video shot on the Boardwalk's hidden cameras. Luckily it didn't escalate to that.

It's a fascinating look into gang violence, something that is all over Santa Cruz and rears its head regularly in beatings, stabbings and break-ins. This is one day of the 10-week Citizen's Academy sponsored by Santa Cruz Police, to give people a look into what the department does.

"It's in every neighborhood," says Officer Jose Garcia, who outlines various gang territories from the Westside circles to 17th Avenue on the Eastside and traces them back to the prisons from which they were founded and continue to be run.

"They know each other, just like kids in high school know each other," says Garcia. "They know who the jocks are, who the cool rich kids are. These guys know who the other gang members are."

It all sounds like something out of the Sopranos, but it's real and it's here, even in the most family-friendly places. Gangs recruit teens who have to pay "taxes" to their superiors and have to commit crimes to earn the money or get beaten or killed for failing to do so.

Sometimes members are there because their parents or grandparents were in gangs, or are still in them while in prison.

The power of the gangs, they explain, is that sooner or later everyone in one, or their relatives, ends up in prison. If someone on the outside doesn't comply with an order from Pelican Bay or San Quentin, their family members will pay for it in jail.

Hernandez and Garcia show some ways to recognize various gang members. Things that symbolize the number 13 are a reference to the 13th letter of the alphabet, M, which stands for Mexican Mafia or Sureños. Others referring to 14, N, trace back to the Nortenos.

It can be a Roman numeral, or two lines and three dots – part of the Mayan numerical system.

A red San Francisco Giants hat can be interpreted as a putdown of the Sureños, because the color and the SF say to the gangs, "Scrap Free." Soreños are insulted by the word scrap.

An image of a fallen North Star cuts down Norteños, who use the star as one of their positive images. Blue is associated with Santa Cruz, while Red is largely Watsonville's color, but there are local gangs that use green or brown, or like the gangbangers in the video, go undercover in white.

The officers trace this all back 40 years to the prison system, when countrified and more urbane Mexicans split off into rival gangs caleld the Mexican Mafia and Nuestro Familia, with the former identifying with the color blue and the later, red. The gangs, they say, have remained in power in prison and continue to hold influence on the outside.

"Why can't they just take away their rights to communicate?" asks one of the 20 students taking the class. "They should lose their rights when they get sent to jail."

"Talk to the legislature," says one of the cops.

A student asks what is the most frustrating thing for them dealing with the gangs.

"It's tough for me to see the same thing happening over and over," says Garcia. "I have five or ten minutes to change somebody's life. What am I going to tell you in five minutes that's going to change your life."

And it's a life sentence for most gang members. The only way out is to leave town, because if they leave one gang, they keep their old enemies and their old friends also become enemies.

"They could leave town, but they don't have the means or education to get out," says Hernandez. "Because they didn't invest in themselves."

The class also got a look into the Santa Cruz Police arsenal of short barrel automatic weapons, flash bang explosives, hot and cold gasses, a robot camera, tasers and bullet proof vests that are as heavy as suitcase packed for a weeklong trip.

No, the department doesn't have a helicopter, but it does have a highly-trained unit prepared to take on the toughest hostage scenes. They have to be able to hit their targets 100 percent of the time, run a 40-yard sprint, climb a chain link fence, do 10 drop downs and complete a 400 yard run in 4 minutes and 45 seconds.

If they can't, they are booted from the emergency unit.

Over the years the lesson this SWAT team has learned, according to Sgt. Michael Harms, is that they don't rush into a situation. Too many people get killed that way.

Instead they plan and consider all kinds of options before turning to weapons, to try and end troubles peacefully. Of course, this isn't television and things still can and do take surprising turns.

"A perfect SWAT operation and a unicorn is pretty much the same thing," says Harms.


Michael A. Lewis April 19, 2012 at 08:56 PM
So the answer to gangs in our neighborhoods is a militarized constabulary? What good has it done so far? Now we have our police decked out in military gear and weapons and propagandized to see the people of our neighborhoods as The Enemy, trained in techniques of oppression, expecting Al Qa'ida to pop out behind every corner. And we still have gangs and gang violence. It's not instead of; it's in addition to. Now we have two armed and hostile camps in our neighborhoods. Why does this not make me feel safe?
Brad Kava April 20, 2012 at 12:27 AM
The militarization isn't tied to the gangs...only that those two courses were taught on the same day. Aren't there times, like with that hostage situation with the jail escapee, that you want police to have the power to help people? I think they showed that they don't use force needlessly by retreating on the bank takeover and I don't know of an SCPD showing of too much force. Am I wrong?
Michael A. Lewis April 20, 2012 at 03:14 AM
I didn't say anything about force. I'm talking about turning our local police into military units, equipping them with military hardware, and indoctrinating them in military tactics. This is how we get police forces indiscriminately spraying pepper spray on peaceful protesters, shooting innocent bystanders with "rubber" bullets, and treating the public as guilty until proven innocent. The police officers in Santa Cruz, as individuals, have always been courteous, helpful and patient. I fear that will change as military culture takes over our local police.
Mark D. Cavanaugh April 20, 2012 at 08:51 AM
when gangs are running around with ak47's and plenty of ammo to go around i think it's pretty important that the cops can one-up them. honestly wished theyd just go into these communities and start gassing them out like roaches but that would be too much for people like michael to handle. everyone's entitled to their due process and human rights....right?
Mark D. Cavanaugh April 20, 2012 at 08:58 AM
its that exact mentality that allows gang culture to flourish too mike. our town is primarily composed of people with very similar opinions as yourself on such topics, and gangs see a little beach town full of rich white people who are easily intimidated and at the same time very very anti-violence, they're stoked! we as a culture need to sack-up, put our foot down and tell gangs to get out of here. im tired of hearing of high school kids getting stabbed for no reason, im tired of having to think twice about wearing my favorite red shirt. this sort of thing takes force, it takes guts, it takes kicking a little ass and taking a few names to set a tone and let it be known that gangs cant come in here and reign. and thats whats happening. theyre running our town, more and more everyday. what are we going to do about it? sit at our computers and whine about how training our local cops too militaristically is going to empower them too much? or somehow promote or influence future abuse of power issues? live in the now.


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