Police step up efforts to curb gang violence

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-- Photo by Victoria Gilcrease-Garcia.

The New Haven police had been looking for “Black Pat” ever since they raided his house in the Hill neighborhood in late August and found a stash of drugs, cash and gang recruitment pamphlets.

Most troubling to police was the trove of materials glorifying the culture of the organization known as the “Grape Street Crips.” The Grape Street Crips — a copycat of a violent Los Angeles gang of the same name — had been confined to the Hill neighborhood about six blocks south of Yale’s Medical School campus, and police were determined not to let them expand.

Although police doubt the presence of the El Salvadoran gang in the New Haven area, some buildings in Fair Haven have been tagged with graffiti bearing the gang's name.
Although police doubt the presence of the El Salvadoran gang in the New Haven area, some buildings in Fair Haven have been tagged with graffiti bearing the gang's name.

On Aug. 27, members of the New Haven Police Department’s Tactical Narcotics Unit acted on their suspicions and burst into “Black Pat’s” house. Pat, 27, whose real name is Patrick Brown and who is also called “Pizzy,” was nowhere to be found. But the drugs netted the arrest warrants police needed to put Brown behind bars — if they could ever catch him.

Police continued surveillance of the 15- to 20-person gang, arresting another member for a murder in September. But Brown — the gang’s leader — continued to elude capture. Acting on a tip, detectives finally caught Brown after surrounding him in his Chevy Equinox on Orchard Street on Oct. 21. They sealed the block, expecting trouble, but Brown gave up without a fight.

The Crips have been relatively quiet in New Haven ever since, according to police. But they are but one of the many gang factions police are now fighting in New Haven. Like a game of whack-a-mole, the New Haven police frequently quash gangs that pop up around the city. But even after a successful strike, another gang always emerges, police say. According to interviews with six New Haven police officials and two outside gang experts, a complex and fluid network of street gangs inhabit the city’s neighborhoods, with constantly shifting allegiances and dealings.

While police say few if any gangs have actual ties to national gangs — even if they share a name, such as the Crips — they remain just as dangerous to the city. For example, police said local gangs are behind a majority of drug crimes in the city, a majority of shootings and a significant portion of robberies.

The NHPD now has arguably the most aggressive stance against gangs in decades. Meanwhile, local gangs have showed a greater interest in identifying with larger, more organized national groups such as the Bloods and Crips. Under the direction of soon-to-retire Police Chief James Lewis, the police have taken a tough stance against gangs, but no official doubted that despite the city’s best efforts, gangs are here to stay in the Elm City.

‘THE INTELLIGENCE BUSINESS’

Rick Pelletier’s job as a detective in the NHPD’s Gang Intelligence Unit has taken him from drug dens to gang hideouts. But every morning, he spends the first two hours of the workday surfing the Internet.

Using the online databases of the New York, Connecticut and New Jersey gang investigators associations, Pelletier has to stay abreast of the latest gang trends, fashions and crimes.

“We’re in the intelligence business. It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Pelletier said. “And it changes every day.”

Gangs in New Haven are always in flux, he said, with alliances and turf changing on even a daily basis in such a small city.

Many gangs try to claim affiliation or common identity with national organizations like the Crips, Bloods or Latin Kings. The El Salvadoran gang MS-13, which the Federal Bureau Investigation calls one of the most brutal in the world, even claims to have members in the city, although police doubt those claims have any substance.

Occasionally, however, national gang members do make an appearance in New Haven, police said.

Just two weeks ago, New Haven police and the U.S. Secret Service arrested a man with ties to the Latin Kings for counterfeiting $20 bills and attempting to purchase an illegal handgun with a silencer. He had been making the bills using a computer out of his house on Greenwich Avenue in the Hill neighborhood.

Whether they are national or not, police say the gangs are still dangerous.

“We don’t really have national gangs in New Haven,” Chief Lewis said at a press conference last month, “but that doesn’t really matter when you’ve got young thugs wrecking neighborhoods. So we’re still determined to go after them.”

LEWIS’S PUSH

When Lewis arrived in New Haven in 2008, the NHPD had no gang unit of any kind. A former California police chief in Pomona, Lewis was familiar with the mayhem gangs could bring and was determined to keep New Haven from a similar fate, two police officials said.

“Chief Lewis came in and made a strong statement that we do have gangs and we have to confront them,” said Sergeant Richard Miller, district manager of the Hill South policing district.

Miller added that previous police chiefs had not been so aggressive, but would not say which. Pelletier had no such reservations.

“Pastore,” he immediately said when asked, referring to former Police Chief Nicholas Pastore from the ’90s. “Hug-a-thug. Let’s just say he had a different approach.”

Still, while the police’s operations have shifted since the ’90s, gangs remain embroiled in a wide range of illegal activities.

“Pick a crime,” Pelletier said.

He said gangs will do anything that makes easy money, which is usually drug-dealing. But he said gangs are always looking to diversify and often commit robberies, especially against other drug dealers who cannot run to the police.

Teenagers learn about famous gangs through the Internet and television and subsequently adopt their lifestyle, Pelletier said. The History Channel television program Gangland, which depicts gangs from across the country, has had an especially significant impact on gang affiliations in New Haven, he added.

“I can almost guarantee you, the week after a certain gang’s been on that show, we’re going to see graffiti and even supposed membership here,” he said.

Teenagers in New Haven may have a gang’s handbooks and know its rules by heart without having ever met an original member, Pelletier said.

AN UPHILL BATTLE

While Pelletier hinted that an earlier softness toward gang activity allowed groups to gain foothold in New Haven, this slide is common across the country.

Ron Stallworth, one of the foremost experts on gang activity in the U.S. and the former Gang Intelligence coordinator for the State of Utah, said police and politicians often ignore gang problems as they are emerging because they do not want the presence of gangs to reflect negatively on their records. By the time they respond, gangs are firmly entrenched and near impossible to dislodge.

“You can’t do anything if you’re too busy denying the problem,” Stallworth said.

If gangs fully emerge, Stallworth added, the best police can hope for is to try to control and contain them rather than eliminate them.

“Make their life miserable,” he said. “Show them that the police run the community, not them.”

Miller said he tried to assert the dominance of the police in Hill South this past summer by substantially increasing patrols in areas where the Bloods operate in the neighborhood, using crime suppression patrols and traffic stops in gang territory. That summer, the city had no murders for only the second time in 20 years.

Lt. Luiz Casanova, district manager of the Fair Haven policing district, said he takes a similar zero-tolerance approach to gang activity. Fair Haven, an area where the Latin Kings are known to operate, has been largely free of gang violence recently, he said, although gang graffiti continues to sprout up around the neighborhood.

Fair Haven has seen several shootings recently, but Casanova said he is confident they were not gang-related, though the investigations are still underway.

As for what more can be done, Miller suggested that districts have their own gang units, rather than rely on one central unit that serves every district. But mostly, officials said, success against gangs requires the ability to admit that they exist and to relentlessly target them.

Detective Mike Torre of the narcotics unit, who focuses on connections between drugs and gangs, said the police effort against gangs requires close coordination across the force. Information must flow freely between gang and drug detectives and with patrol officers, who are the front line against the gangs. But the detectives are fully aware of the challenges they face.

“We’ve had gangs as long as we’ve had men,” Pelletier said. “They’re born out of social conflict and economic hardship, and there’s not much we can do about that.”

Still, crime and shootings in the city were down over 10 percent last year, a decrease police said was at least partly attributable to anti-gang efforts.

The National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that south-central Connecticut has as many as 2,500 gang members.

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