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Police Chief Calls for Regional Approach to Gang Violence

By Jorge Casuso and Olin Ericksen

March 16 – While there are likely less than 50 gang members living in Santa Monica, tackling the city’s gang problem will require a regional approach and help from the entire community, the police chief told the City Council Tuesday night.

The advice -- echoed by other top City officials -- came two weeks after 15-year-old Eddie Lopez was gunned down at a mini-mart on Pico Boulevard, spurring a period of communal mourning in an upscale beachside city that has been grappling with the thorny issue of gang violence.

“Why, in a city like Santa Monica where there is so much can bad things happen?” Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. said during his opening remarks. “Unfortunately that’s the way of the world.

“I mean bad things do happen, and it’s up to people like us, people like me, to make sure those things don’t happen,” the well-built police chief whispered into the microphone.

Much of the gang violence taking place within Santa Monica’s borders -- including the murder of Lopez, as well as the double homicide of Johnathan Hernandez and Hector Bonilla a year earlier -- is perpetrated by gang members from outside the City, Butts said.

“The majority of gang-related homicides, felonies, assaults and other crimes that are committed in Santa Monica are committed by gang members that belong to gangs in Los Angeles and other places,” Butts told a solemn council.

The gang problem in Santa Monica is but a small microcosm of the problem plaguing Los Angeles County, which claims nearly 86,000 gang members belonging to 1,100 different sects or cliques, Butts said.

By comparison, there are less than 100 Santa Monica-based gang members who belong to three different cliques, and less than half of them live in the city, the police chief said.

The problem is that the larger and better-armed Los Angeles gangs visit the city to retaliate against local gang members who scrawl graffiti on enemy turf or show other signs of disrespect, Butts said.

Local gang members “are relatively restrained within the boundaries of Santa Monica,” Butts said. But “when they do something in other areas, they invite retaliation.”

Gang members from outside the city will come to Santa Monica and, if they see police, they will leave, the chief said. But they will come back until they don’t see any police, and that’s when they’ll strike.

“The first Hispanic that fits the profile, they’ll shoot at,” Butts said.

“We don’t control what goes on outside of our borders, and we’re endangered by those individuals who choose to maintain a gang affiliation,” the chief said.

The immediate goal is to protect the community against gang violence, Butts said, while the long-term goal is “to starve the gang populations so that there aren’t new soldiers coming up, recruits coming up.”

While an inter-agency gang task force that meets regularly to discuss crimes has made a significant dent in curbing gang violence, the entire community must get involved, Butts told the council.

“It’s not something we’re going to do by ourselves,” Butts said. “They (gang members) all have family, they all have friends and they all have people that they talk to.

Unless “sustained community pressure is put on them to bring accountability… unless we remove the designation of an area as gang turf,” Butts said, “then we will be forced into this defensive position.”

Top City officials echoed Butts’ advice.

“If it’s going to be meaningful,” said City Manager Lamont Ewell, “it’s got to be a regional approach. We cannot insulate the boundaries of Santa Monica.”

Council member Richard Bloom, who placed the discussion item on the agenda, called on the “community” to get involved.

“I think this is an issue that the community needs to own,” Bloom said. “We all need to pull together in a common agenda that says this behavior is not going to be tolerated.”

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