On a hot, sun-drenched March afternoon, a team of heavily armed officers in tactical gear raided the Paso Robles home of a suspect awaiting trial, filling cardboard boxes and paper bags with evidence and carrying them to the trunks of their unmarked sedans.
The target of the operation was not the suspect, who was out on bail, but his possessions — clothes, notebook scribblings, possible weapons. The 19-year-old was among four defendants facing felony charges in connection with the assault of a man who was beaten with baseball bats and brass knuckles in his own driveway in front of his wife and children a month earlier.
The suspect was handcuffed and seated on his driveway, sporting an oversized T-shirt reading “Live by the Gun” and bearing a red northern star — a symbol sometimes associated with Northern California street gangs.
The warrant was one of three served that day in the North County by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office’s Gang Task Force and the Paso Robles Police Department’s Special Enforcement Team. Like other law enforcement agencies, they’re increasing efforts to document suspected gang members to assist prosecutors seeking enhanced charges for defendants in suspected gang-related crimes.
Prosecutors say the documentation paid off on that March day. The four defendants later pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon with gang enhancements and are now serving sentences ranging from one to five years.
Investigators such as Sgt. Keith Scott, head of the Gang Task Force, say the aggressive tactics are essential to disrupting cycles of gang-related violence.
“We’re here to break that chain,” he said.
The impetus for the increased enforcement effort, law enforcement officials say, is a rise in gang-related crime over the past decade.
They point to an increase in cases involving gang enhancement charges during the past 10 years, although San Luis Obispo County numbers and rate of increase remain far lower than neighboring counties.
Some critics also suggest that the growing number of gang enhancement cases is due not so much to more gang activity, but to increased documentation efforts by police and prosecutors.
Over the past decade, the number of gang-related cases peaked in 2010 and then dropped because gang activity in California prisons was no longer included in county statistics.
Officials also attribute the lower numbers to better law enforcement coordination since the county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission was formed in 2008 and the Gang Task Force was reorganized in 2012.
The Sheriff’s Office Gang Task Force has six members who work full time on gang cases: four deputies, one county District Attorney’s Office investigator and one county probation officer. Their salaries are paid by their respective departments’ budgets.
The Paso Robles Police Department also has dedicated specific officers to handle possible gang crime. Its Special Enforcement Team is staffed with two fulltime detectives who investigate cases involving gangs, drugs and human trafficking.
While the numbers dropped in 2011, they are slowly on the upswing. Whether the trend will continue and how those numbers will play into law enforcement’s claim of a gang problem in San Luis Obispo County is under debate.
A concerted effort
Local gang activity dates to the 1960s, with SLO County sandwiched between the historical turfs of two rival gang factions.
The dynamics of that rivalry may be shifting, according to a federal study released in March that says the powerful Sinaloa Mexican cartel, particularly active in Southern California, has been present in San Luis Obispo County since 2012.
Fighting street gangs requires that government agencies — within and outside local jurisdictions — coordinate with each other. But that hasn’t always occurred on the Central Coast.
“People need to understand gang members don’t acknowledge county jurisdictional boundaries,” said Michael Walker, executive director of the Central Coast Gang Investigators Association, a California nonprofit created in 2001 for police officers to share information and techniques. “And it’s fair to say that most counties don’t network and share (information) as much as they could.”
Within some counties, coordination can be lacking between cities, he said.
“Unfortunately, that’s very common,” Walker said. “You may have cities that deal (with gang members) on a more limited basis. Then you may have one or two agencies that don’t want to acknowledge they have gang members and may perhaps call them transitory.”
He added: “These days, if it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen.”
Recognizing that reality, in San Luis Obispo County the sheriff’s Gang Task Force implemented the SHIELD program in late 2012, which requires all officers countywide to document evidence of suspected gang membership during field interviews using consistent criteria.
While on patrol or during investigations, officers fill out a form that documents tattoos, associates and statements made by people deemed suspicious. Often, incoming inmates will reveal to County Jail staff their gang association to avoid being housed in a cell with a rival gang member.
Creating the field interview cards was a joint effort aided by Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission coordinator Marci Powers and California Men’s Colony Warden Elvin Valenzuela.
Powers uses the documentation to justify funding when she applies for state and federal grants for gang prevention and rehabilitation programs.
“Without those cards, we’re working with our hands tied behind our back,” she said.
Scott said his unit has seen a drastic increase in officers using the forms. “There’s no agency that’s not turning them in,” he said.
With better record-keeping by local agencies in place, the District Attorney’s Office can use that information to seek gang enhancements — special circumstances attached to a usually violent crime charge that, if a jury agrees, could add up to 15 years to a defendant’s sentence.
The enhancements require two sets of criteria. The prosecutor must prove the defendant participated in a street gang, knew the gang engaged in illegal activity, and either committed or aided in the offense. Moreover, prosecutors must prove the defendant committed the offense for the benefit of the gang.
Prosecutors do not have to prove the defendant was a bona fide member of the gang, however, but simply was associating with members during the crime.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran, who assigns gang cases for the DA’s Office, said the enhancements are one of the best tools his office has.
“When you prove a gang enhancement, it shows the defendant in his true light,” Gran said.
More and more, the prosecutors attempt to add gang enhancements to serious juvenile offenses when they involve known gang members, said Deputy DA Cheryll Manley, who handles gang juvenile cases. Trying an enhancement on a juvenile is the same as with an adult, she said, except the hearing is closed to the public and goes before a judge instead of a jury.
“We share the same burden of proof as adult cases, and sometimes it’s as difficult to educate the judge as it is to educate the jury,” Manley said, adding that about a third of her juvenile cases involve gangs. “It’s a real steady case load.”
In juvenile cases, a gang enhancement carries the potential for a harsher punishment, she said, but prosecutors tend to focus on rehabilitation through added conditions such as counseling or disassociation with gang members.
The ‘new War on Drugs?’
Gang enhancement cases are not open and shut. There’s debate among even court-qualified gang experts about the law and whether it’s unfairly stacked against defendants.
Before turning his life around and starting a consulting firm, Oakland-based criminologist Douglass Fort spent his teens and early 20s dealing drugs and hanging out on the fringes of gang culture. Since then, Fort has testified as a qualified expert on gangs and urban culture for attorneys defending alleged gang members.
“I see (unfair enhancements) all the time,” Fort said. “Prosecutors might not see it as abuse, they might just call it strategy. It’s the new War on Drugs — they’re getting federal dollars for things like prosecutors, police officers, equipment. It’s a money incentive relationship.”
Fort said it’s common for law enforcement agencies to stretch the truth and use the media to brand a defendant a gang member before he or she ever sees their day in court.
“That puts fear into the minds of a jury. … It’s about politics and dehumanizing and labeling people,” said Fort, who’s helped launch several college and job programs to help high-risk urban youth.
Often, Fort said, the enhancements are overkill.
“It’s the sugar on top of it. (Prosecutors) don’t always need it,” Fort said. “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey, look what we’re doing.’ ”
Matt Guerrero, a San Luis Obispo County defense attorney, said defendants face an immediate uphill battle the instant a gang enhancement is alleged in the courtroom.
“The term ‘gang’ is so inflammatory, it has prejudicial effect. It’s also interesting you mostly see them charged against ethnic minorities,” Guerrero said. “To a degree it’s a systemic bias.”
Guerrero said he’s seen individuals acting alone in a nonviolent crime charged with an enhancement. He didn’t want to minimize the presence of gangs or their impacts on society but said prosecutors need to use enhancements very carefully and the defense community needs to challenge them.
“It makes it really frustrating when the DAs think they can just prove that without the evidence there,” he said.
Other gang experts disagree. Former Morro Bay police Officer Ron Martinelli works as a criminal forensic consultant and consulted for the state attorney general’s street gang task force in the 1980s, which helped draft the legislation establishing gang enhancements.
Martinelli said he has seen gang enhancements wrongly alleged occasionally, but he attributed most to inexperienced officers, not prosecutorial misconduct.
“It’s all about the documentation. Without it, prosecutors simply can’t win,” Martinelli said. “The DA is really depending on the officer and investigator’s discovery. That’s what’s going to cause them to file charges in the first place.”
Gran said the county District Attorney’s Office stands by the use of gang enhancements.
“Before we ever file the charges, we reach out to the Gang Task Force and make sure they agree,” Gran said. “We only go where the evidence leads us.”