RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ask just about anyone who lives here in Los Angeles and they'll tell you they can't remember a time when gang violence wasn't a problem. Over generations, street gangs have become more organized and more vicious. Law enforcement agencies are experimenting with new tactics to curb gang violence. One possibility, bringing gang members up on federal charges. From Los Angeles, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this latest in our series on new responses to an old problem.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: LAPD supervisor Robb Berke stands on the stoop of an apartment in South Central LA where the police have just served a search warrant.
Mr. ROBB BERKE (LAPD Supervisor): Hey Bill, whenever you're ready.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Behind him, through the open door, you can see officers scouring the apartment, opening kitchen cabinets, flipping over furniture. They are looking for drugs or guns. And even from the stoop, you can smell the skunky scent of marijuana coming from inside.
Mr. BERKE: The purpose of this particular warrant is just to find out, to get inside of the location and to get the narcotics recovered. We weren't as worried about getting somebody arrested with it right now. We can do that at another time. We're more concerned with the intelligence of what we can gather while we're inside here. That helps us out a lot more.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Apparently, drug houses in South Central LA all look alike. The furnishings generally consist of what a handful of gang members might need while they wait to make a drug sale. So there's a television, a couch, a bed. Nothing more.
The cops on Berke's squad spend about 40 minutes in the apartment. When they finish searching the place, Berke leaves his LAPD business card on a table. He attaches a note suggesting the residents call if they have any questions. Berke smiles and says, they almost never call with questions. His team found only a small amount of marijuana in the apartment.
Mr. BERKE: It's not the case of the century if that's what you're going to. Yeah, we're not talking about pounds and pounds or crates of it.
TEMPLE-RASTON: But Officer Berke isn't disappointed because he's taking the longer view. The search was a classic component of a gang fighting strategy known as enterprise theory. The police come and gather evidence to take down the gang itself. The idea is to piece together enough crimes linked to a particular gang to build a case that would bring federal charges, not just state or local ones.
Deputy Chief CHARLIE BECK (LAPD): There's a huge difference between federal time and state time in the minds of a Southern California gangster.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Deputy Chief Charlie Beck has been working gangs at the LAPD for 30 years.
Deputy Chief BECK: State time is not what they like. I mean, they'd rather be out. But, you know, they're basically going to a venue where they're comfortable, where a true gangster who is what they call down for the gang leads a pretty good life in there. But when you go to federal prison and you go to Minnesota or South Dakota or something, you know, they don't have that kind of support.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And while he can't be sure that the prospect of decades in federal prison stops some members from committing crimes, what he does know is that it's been invaluable in helping the police develop information. Beck says nothing creates an informant faster than the prospect of 20 years in a federal penitentiary.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Thomas O'Brien is responsible for bringing cases against these gangsters.
Mr. THOMAS O'BRIEN (U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California): Traditionally, street gang law enforcement has been considered by many to be a local problem.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He's sitting in his twelfth floor office at the U.S. Courthouse. From this vantage point, L.A. stretches out as far as the eye can see.
Mr. O'BRIEN: In the Harbor Division, which is one of the divisions for Los Angeles here, an area referred to by the neighbors as ghost town, we went in, and in about a four month operation we wired up some confidential informants and they went in and purchased narcotics and weapons from gang members in the neighborhood.
TEMPLE-RASTON: They used that operation to take down dozens of gang members and indict them on federal racketeering charges.
Mr. O'BRIEN: We're routinely getting sentences from 10 to 20 years and above. If you don't think that's an impact, I think it does. I think that word goes out to the streets and they realize, you know what? The fun and games are over. These people are doing some serious time for these crimes.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Department of Justice has made gang prosecutions a priority. Consider this: A couple of years ago feds in California probably prosecuted about 50 to 100 gang members a year. O'Brien says this year, they are on track to prosecute 1,000.
Mr. O'BRIEN: As a recent example, we did a case, we indicted - about a month or so ago, we indicted 30 people federally. The whole investigation from start to finish was four months, and that's almost unheard of, I think, at least in this district, for the federal government to be able to move that quickly.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Tom Diaz has just finished a book about Los Angeles' Latino gangs and law enforcement's efforts to disband them. He says local law enforcement just doesn't have the muscle they need to dismantle gangs.
Mr. TOM DIAZ (Author): It's not that local law enforcements agencies or police agencies couldn't do it. They really don't have the resources to do some of these techniques. And secondly, they don't have the backup of the very tough federal laws, some of which are just unparalleled in their ability to put leaders of organizations in prison for very long periods of time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And in the federal system, they serve out their sentences.
Mr. DIAZ: One of the things that the federal system stands out for is A: there's no parole, which is very significant. If you're sentenced to 15 or 20 or life imprisonment, it means exactly that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The LAPD estimates that just 5 to 10 percent of gang members in Los Angeles commit 65 to 70 percent of the crimes. That's why local and federal authorities are naturally setting their sights on those offenders. The idea is not to just put them away, but also to discourage the younger generation - what U.S. Attorney O'Brien calls eager beavers - from stepping into their shoes.
Mr. O'BRIEN: It might have been a good idea to, you know, sling dope, you know, 15 years ago, and if you have a nice Rolex, you have a nice car, you're having a good old time. If you get caught, you might do a year in county jail, but you're going to be out in a month. And, you know, then you're - you actually earn your stripes. You know, you become a big shot because you've actually shown you can go to jail and take it and come back out again. That's over.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Police will be the first to tell you they can't arrest their way out of the gang problem. What has refocused minds on the issue is the concern is that street gangs in this country appear to be at a critical stage of development. Latino gangs in particular are increasingly transnational, developing ties with international syndicates like the Mexican mafia. And that naturally concerns law enforcement. That is why they're trying to attack the problem now, while they still can.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Hear the last story in our series on battling gang violence later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on how in order to battle gangs effectively, law enforcement have had to change their perception of those who join those gangs.
Unidentified Man: We can't think of gang members as being dumb kids who failed in school and just took up a thug life. No, these guys that reach the top in the prison gang food chain, these guys are brilliant, and they could run corporate organizations here if they had a mind to do that.
MONTAGNE: More later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And you can hear earlier stories from both our programs at npr.org.