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Police, Sheriff Divided Over Fresno Gang Sweep

Police, Sheriff Divided Over Fresno Gang Sweep

The Fresno Bee via YellowBrix

July 20, 2010

FRESNO, CA – Most people arrested during the Fresno Police Department’s well-publicized gang sweeps never set foot in the county jail, records collected by The Bee suggest.

About 75% of those snagged in a two-week stretch of the most recent gang sweep were cited by officers and let go after promising to show up in court.

This is by design, Chief Jerry Dyer said. The sweeps conducted by teams of officers are supposed to rattle the cages of gang members and reduce spikes in criminal activity, particularly shootings, he said.

“We’re disrupting their lifestyle,” Dyer said. “The goal is to have gang members looking over their shoulders for law enforcement, not for their opposing gang.”

But while skeptical citizens may ask why so few gang members are sent to jail in these operations, top officials in the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office ask why the number is not even lower. They say the sweeps catch too many nonthreatening offenders, overwhelming a system that, due to budget woes, has seen the number of available beds cut in half.

Sheriff’s officials also say the Police Department’s habit of publicly touting its high number of arrests, without explaining what happens to most of those arrested, misleads the public. They worry that residents think the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for quickly releasing bad guys to prevent jail overcrowding.

“All I’m asking is that we’ve got to be honest with the public,” Sheriff Margaret Mims said. “We’ve got to explain what these numbers mean.”

For example, Mims said, police sometimes arrest a person for a probation violation and book him into jail. The next day, Mims said, the Sheriff’s Office learns from a probation officer that the alleged misdeed really wasn’t a probation violation.

The result, Mims said, is unnecessary work for a jail staff already stretched thin. Mims said she has no proof whether such incidents have led officials in charge of an overcrowded jail to release someone else who then goes on to commit a serious crime.

“I know it’s possible,” she said.

Dyer said police have been doing sweeps since before he joined the department some 30 years ago. He said officers cite people arrested on misdemeanor violations and usually release them, expecting them to show up in court. He said the only exceptions are DUI and domestic-violence arrests.

Dyer said officers take those suspected of felonies to jail. He said about two-thirds of people arrested in gang sweeps have committed only misdemeanors.

Police arrested 648 people from April 25 through May 8, a period that was part of a larger gang sweep initiated in the wake of increased gang violence. The Bee collected all the names from police and asked Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie to determine how many came in contact with the jail.

Gattie found that the Sheriff’s Office had contact with 160 of the 648 people. But this does not mean that even all of these spent considerable time in jail.

Gattie found that 50 were released because the jail had reached capacity. Another 46 were sent to prison or to federal immigration authorities. Another 17 made bail, and 15 were released after the hold on them was dropped.

The others met a variety of fates. For example, three were taken to juvenile hall.

Dyer said he understands the pressure faced by a cash-strapped Sheriff’s Office operating a jail too small to handle the daily law enforcement needs of a county as large and diverse as Fresno County.

And his department is responding to the new era of tight budgets by implementing gang-fighting strategies that should lead to more consistency in monthly arrest totals, Dyer said.

But, Dyer emphasized that he believes strongly in the value of periodic gang sweeps, especially when warring sides cause a spike in deadly shootings. He said a sweep does precisely as the word suggests — a broad, forceful campaign in selected neighborhoods and backed by teams of officers with special skills takes enough bad guys off the streets to permit the law to regain the upper hand.

Dyer said the payoff is worth the effort, even if many arrested gang members spend only a few hours in the presence of officers and the more dangerous criminals get only a day or two behind bars.

“I am quick as police chief to put together those operations to suppress the violence before it gets out of control,” Dyer said. “Not only because you’ve got people being seriously injured, but [because] it creates a panic and a fear in our community that is hard to control. I’ve seen what happened in the ‘90s when violent crime was out of control. We’re never going back to there. The suppression operations are what allows us to do that.”

Dyer said a gang sweep usually is the result of a spike in gang violence, especially shootings.

“What ends up happening in the gang world is one shooting leads to 10,” Dyer said.

A gang sweep may last 30 or 60 days, and has several purposes, Dyer said.

The first is to disrupt the lives of gang members, he said. Gang members who aren’t periodically targeted end up “believing they have total anonymity. Those sweeps take that away,” he said.

Another purpose is to give officers a brief window to return to the gang-plagued neighborhood and investigate crimes without the presence of gang members who might intimidate witnesses or neighbors.

Dyer said this often leads to more arrests while “minimizing retaliation.”

Finally, Dyer said, a sweep gets some of the city’s most dangerous gang members off the streets and helps calm a neighborhood.

“Sweeps are good,” Dyer said. “They’re not the solution. But they do keep gang members on their toes.”

Dyer said some people arrested in gang sweeps aren’t gang members. They happened to be caught doing something wrong and arrested, he said.

Police statistics show that sweeps can have an immediate effect on gang violence.

For example, there were 24 shootings in southwest Fresno during June and July 2007. After police launched the violent crime task force on Aug. 1, 2007, there were no shootings for the next 29 days in that part of the city.

Police formed the violent crime impact team on June 30, 2010. In the prior two weeks, there were eight gang-related shootings. In the two weeks since the team’s launch, there were four gang-related shootings.

If police gang sweeps have been going on for decades, so, too, has a very real tension between the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, whose responsibilities in the Fresno area often overlap.

Consolidation of services and jurisdiction of county islands are two of the most prominent and long-standing sources of conflict between the two departments. Gang sweeps, their effect on jail overcrowding, and the Police Department’s public relations techniques in an era when both departments are stressed by money woes are merely the newest wrinkle in this feud.

Mims said she is tired of going to government meetings where people, armed with the latest arrest figures provided to the media by Dyer’s department, pepper her with questions about why she is letting so many gang members back on the streets.

“I think it’s important that, rather than take things on face value, you dig deeper behind the numbers,” Mims said. The Police Department “believes the number of arrests is important. I believe it’s not just the number of arrests. It’s also the quality of the investigation and a successful prosecution.”

Dyer’s gang sweeps have the strong support of Mayor Ashley Swearengin. She said that they along with the Police Department’s creation of the violent crime impact team have been effective in stabilizing neighborhoods terrorized by surges in gang violence.

“Jail capacity is a huge concern in the community,” Swearengin said. “I understand [Mims] is between a rock and a hard place. But that cannot prevent the Police Department from doing its job. … There is no holding back on our crackdown on gangs.”

Dyer said gang sweeps are not intended to flood the jail and pressure elected officials into spending more money to reopen part of the jail.

“We recognize the jail overcrowding,” Dyer said. "We don’t like it. None of us in law enforcement like it, including the sheriff. But at this present time, there’s nothing we can do about the jail-overcrowding situation.

“What we have to do is to make sure that the people we are arresting are the people that are contributing to most of the crime and violence in our city, and removing them from our streets for as long as we possibly can.”

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