Los Angeles is the most gang-saturated city per capita in the world.
In the nine square miles that make up Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood alone, there are 65 different gangs and roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members. If you are a cop working the streets of Los Angeles, most of the calls you respond to are gang-related.
Gangs have been a problem in Los Angeles for generations now, but they weren't as lethal in the past. It used to be that gangs were more concerned about tagging and turf than committing crimes. Now gangs are more like criminal syndicates — like the mafia. And law enforcement is changing its techniques to break them up.
In a four-part series, NPR is taking a close look at street gangs and why gang violence is climbing.
A Cop's Changing Job
Sergeant Herb Cirilo sits in his squad car with the police radio crackling. He supervises the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street Area Gang Unit and has been an LAPD member since 1987. He worked gangs as a police officer for about four years during the early 1990s.
Cirilo has a shock of dark hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and is the kind of guy who ends a cell phone call to his wife with the phrase, "See you later, kiddo."
One evening in May, Cirilo weaved through rush hour traffic to provide some backup on a robbery call. Police officers in Los Angeles' Harbor area had tracked some suspects into an apartment complex. Cirilo drove 110 mph down the Harbor Freeway as a police dispatcher provided a blow-by-blow account of what was unfolding on the ground.
"We'll try to get up there and back them up," he said, keeping one ear to the radio. "I don't hear any other units backing them up just yet."
The dispatcher dispassionately described the three robbery suspects bailing out of their car and taking off in different directions. One after another, they were apprehended.
By the time Cirilo rolled up in his squad car about four minutes after the first radio call, the suspects had been all rounded up.
The police cars were all parked at odd angles. Residents were lined up along the sidewalk, wearing those sheepish expressions that people wear when they are staring at something they know they shouldn't be staring at — but they just can't help themselves. Their eyes all seemed to be trained on one man: the suspect sitting handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
"This gangster they have in the back seat, I recognize him from back in the early mid-1990s," Cirilo said quietly.
The suspect was a longtime member of the East Street Wilmas, a Latino gang in the Harbor area.
"It is funny, now dealing with the Hispanic gangs, they commit crimes, go to jail. They get out of prison and they come back to their neighborhoods and prey on the people still," he said. "It is their daily conduct."
Breaking Up Gangs in a New Way
Now, gangs shake down merchants in their neighborhoods. They commit brazen robberies like the one they had allegedly committed the day Cirilo rolled up. They are into drugs and guns.
"At the turn of the century the [Mafia] families were just beginning to come together and organize," said Supervisory Special Agent Robert Clark, the point man in the FBI's Los Angeles gang division. "That's the stage Latino gangs are at now."
It is with that pattern in mind that federal authorities began looking at breaking up gangs in a different way. In the Mafia break-up days, the authorities didn't just go after the mob bosses. They were more strategic. They looked for key players — important cogs in the operation.
Borrowing from that playbook, law enforcement isn't just targeting top dogs in the gangs. They are focusing on the shot callers who were responsible for most of the violence, or the drug dealers with the biggest connections. They have found that arresting these players does more to hobble gangs than big sweeps or cracking down on leaders.
"It does seem smarter to me," said Connie Rice, a gang expert and civil rights attorney in Los Angeles who happens to be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's cousin. "It seems like they are going after it like they finally figured out how to go after the Italian mob. And it seems to work best with the hierarchical criminal syndicates that are primarily organized for crime."
The Death of Brandon Bullard
No recent incident illustrates this change in mindset — and closeness of the new federal and local partnership — more than the reaction to the killing of a gang member named Brandon "BL" Bullard a couple of months ago. He was gunned down at a Watts housing project called Jordan Downs during a party. Apparently, the fight was over a girl.
Bullard was one of the key players in a gang called The Grape Street Crips. Grape Street is one of the main thoroughfares through the 103 two-story shotgun-style buildings that make up Jordan Downs. The Grape Street Crips basically rule the complex.
Jordan Downs is depressing in the extreme. There are few trees and just patches of dirt between the structures. The buildings themselves are labeled Building 42, Building 43 and so on, giving the whole place a prison-camp feel.
Bullard was known for taking care of people in the Downs. He gave them money and provided protection. He cut such a figure that when he was wounded by a rival gang three years ago, it sparked six weeks of tit-for-tat violence between the East Coast and the Grape Street Crips. Twenty-six people were wounded and nine died before the violence stopped.
This time, when news of his murder spread, police braced for the worst.
Within 36 hours of the Bullard killing, police responded to 10 different shootings in Watts — 17 people were wounded, four were killed. As the death toll started to mount, LAPD Chief William Bratton responded by pulling together an unusual meeting.
Thomas O'Brien, the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, was one of the people Bratton called. O'Brien said he sat at long table with people from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Chief Bratton threw it out: Here's our problem, how are we going to fix this?" O'Brien said.
To understand just how revolutionary this is, you need to know that federal agents and local cops traditionally spend a lot of their time throwing elbows. Local cops see federal guys as condescending, telling them what to do and how to do it. So calling the feds in so early in the process was a bit of a departure.
"We were there to talk about the strategy long-term, how we could stop that kind of thing from happening again before it ends up in that kind of violent weekend," said FBI Assistant Director in Los Angeles Salvador Hernandez. "And that, while not unprecedented, was somewhat new to us."
Partnership Yields Results
Charlie Beck, the deputy chief of the LAPD, said the meeting was an indication of things to come. He has been working gangs in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, and he sees a role for the feds in the fight.
"This is our sandbox and we know when things are going to develop and we're good at that," he said. "But we need to bring more resources to bear than the Los Angeles Police Department alone. We're able to do that because of partnerships that have developed."
The FBI's Hernandez said this kind of change and these kinds of partnerships were inevitable.
"You do this for 20 years, you start to realize that you are doing the same time over and over again," he said. "And while that is your job and you do it well, it is not necessarily the answer and I think people have started to understand that."
Bratton's cross-jurisdictional meeting yielded results. Within a month, the U.S. Attorney's office brought indictments against 18 of the gang members Chief Bratton said were responsible for the bulk of the violence.
While it is too early to tell if using the techniques that disbanded the Gambino family in Little Italy will be able to help disband the gangs of Los Angeles, law enforcement officials say it is important to change their techniques.
The partnership between federal officials and local ones is part of that strategy.