With South Los Angeles residents decrying interracial tensions between blacks and Hispanics and a recent spate of killings that many believe to be racially motivated, Baca publicly asserted that there is, indeed, interracial violence between gangs–a view strongly denied by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. Bratton maintains that although gang killings, like all homicides, are up, only one in 10 involves a killer and victim of different races and that gang feuds over turf and drugs are the leading causes of such violence.
During a recent editorial roundtable held at Our Weekly, Baca frankly discussed black-brown tensions, the county jail system, and his new Southern California Gang Emergency Operations Center which will institute strategies to fight gangs.
Baca maintains that there should be more public dialogue about the racially fueled tensions and that the festering animosity between black and brown gangs in the streets and in the jails is not being discussed enough. Despite his admonitions about black-brown violence, he admitted the Sheriff’s Department currently has no statistics indicating a major rise in race related violence.
In a June op-ed piece that he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, Baca stated that “we have a serious interracial violence problem in this country involving blacks and Latinos. Some people deny it….but they’re wrong. The truth is that, in many cases, race is at the heart of the problem. Latino gang members shoot blacks not because they’re members of a rival gang but because of their skin color. Likewise, black gang members shoot Latinos because they are brown.”
Despite differing opinions, Baca said that he and Bratton maintain a good relationship. “My op-ed piece poked an invisible finger in their (LAPD’s) eye,” he said. “If they think I’m backing down on this (black-brown gang violence), they’re wrong. Their statistics are not adequate. The suspects don’t say ‘I’ll kill someone because they’re black or brown.’ The assailants are too smart for that.
“There are 1,000 murders in the county every year, and 450 of them are caused by gangs. I’m ready to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly. If we don’t get more open about it, where does the community go?”
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Baca said he has “lived” the race issue, allowing him to be sensitive to the fears of African Americans and Hispanics who claim that racially fueled violence is an all-too-real occurrence. He readily acknowledges that Los Angeles County is the “street gang capital” in the United States, a title he hopes will one day change.
And Baca said he continues to be disturbed that continuing gang violence impacts communities where families cower indoors with their gated windows locked. “I have contacts with many families terrified of being caught up in a drive-by,” Baca admitted. “They climb into the bathtub when the shooting starts,” he maintained.
Leaning forward, Baca declared, “It’s a problem, I know there’s a problem, so let’s talk about it. This is not about city versus county, or Baca versus Bratton. I say there’s a problem because 10 to 13 percent of the (racial) tensions result from gang violence.”
And the problem is city-wide–Baca said sheriffs have cracked down on gangs in Duarte, Wilmington, Hawaiian Gardens, Florence Firestone, and South Los Angeles where Latino gang members have been known to rid blacks from neighboring streets. “Right now, we have 100 members of the Florencia gang under federal indictments,” said Baca. “People are targeted from a standpoint that they are not welcome in these communities. It’s public safety and constitutional rights issue,” Baca pointed out.
“We had to go into Hawaiian Gardens to eliminate a gang there. They were on a mission to push African Americans out of Hawaiian Gardens. I think that’s worth talking about,” Baca maintained. “This gang problem is a tough issue, but it has to be dealt with head on. We have photos of Latinos with the phrase N-killer on their backs. This racial animosity does exists in the jails and on the streets. I’m not saying it’s causing 100 percent of the violence, but it’s a gigantic issue that must have a higher priority when it comes to how we police our communities.”
And Baca said he is meeting the problem head on by launching the Gang Emergency Operations Center (GEOC), which will develop strategies to fight gangs. The G.E.O.C will gather information about gang culture, analyze the data and then put it in action through suppression, intervention or prevention.
“Gangs are an ongoing emergency,” Baca declared. “It’s an epidemic-everyone must wrap around the disease and the cause.”
Not only does Baca assert that racial tensions exist in the streets, but that it is a very real problem in the county jail system. “Most of the race based incidents in the jails are caused by the younger inmates–usually from the ages of 20 to 25. They start the racial animosity because they want to gain respect from the other prisoners,” Baca pointed out. “Gang members are a problem for both blacks and Hispanics. When an inmate says it’s best to take an inmate of another race out of the same cell, we listen. When we sense there is racial tension between inmates, we segregate.”
Ironically, Baca said that older prisoners shy away from younger ones who foster racial tension. “Older inmates don’t want to play that game anymore,” said Baca. “Their attitude is, ‘Don’t bother me, I just want to do the time.’ Basically, the majority of the inmates don’t want any hassle,” Baca maintained.
Despite accounts to the contrary, Baca said that a Mexican Mafia does exist in the prison system and that “shot callers” actively dictate commands to fellow gang members still on the outside.
“We monitor all their phone calls to the streets, so we are able to gain information to quell any negative activity,” said Baca. Despite efforts, Baca admits that monitoring all activities in the county jail system is not easy. “Jails are very difficult to manage. The inmates know how to find weaknesses in the system,” he acknowledged.
Baca said that overcrowding is not an issue in the county jails, which has been under a court consent decree since 1982. “It caps the jail population at 20,000 beds, but Baca maintains that the capacity of the jails should be 30,000 beds.
There is a $672 million plan afoot to reorganize and expand the Los Angeles County jails that could bring amenities and additional servicesto the prisons, a plan that Baca welcomes.
He hopes part of the money will be used to fund parenting and literary programs for women inmates. “We want to change the culture of how we incarcerate women. Most women in the county jails are not violent. We also want to maintain a drug recovery program in the jails. If you teach people how to recover from being addicted, they will not become addicted,” he maintained. “Locking someone in a cell without progress is not enough. A person should come out (of jail) a better person.
“I believe that transparency is part of policing and it is the right of the public to know about the jails,” stated Baca, who said that groups such as the ACLU regulary monitor the county jails to ensure that inmates are being treated fairly.
A staunch believer of public trust policing that includes the public’s participation in the mission of public safety, he also emphasized the LASD’s core values that every sheriff must live by. Leaning forward, Baca reads the values: “I commit myself to honorably perform my duties with respect for the dignity of all people, integrity to do right and fight wrongs, wisdom to apply common sense and fairness in all I do and courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.”