Operation Fly Trap: Police Suppression and Gang Violence

Susan A. Phillips, Anthropology, Pitzer College

Research Grant, 2005

This project was intended to be an exploration of the utility and efficiency of a gang task force in Los Angeles, California, examining whether the police’s idea of targeting violence through the drug trade is an effective weapon against gang crime. I wanted to look at impact on the families of those targeted and at gang members’ own views of the causes of violence. The project became the story of a sweep in Los Angeles from beginning to end—and included the moments before and after police action from varying perspectives. For the project, I interviewed a range of individuals, including those targeted (drug dealers and gang members), their families and friends, as well as some law enforcement officials (FBI and Los Angeles Police Department).

Though I originally wanted to interview the families of all 28 individuals targeted in the sweep, people were far more reticent than I had anticipated. There was a level of paranoia in the wake of FBI undercover work that made trusting outsiders difficult. Ultimately, I was able to gain the confidence of the highest-level dealers involved in the case. The project became framed around their experiences and those of their families, and focused primarily on the four key families of those indicted on federal charges, three of whom received over 20-year sentences for drug conspiracy charges.

The purpose of the interviews and statistical analysis I conducted for the project was to find out what happens to the families of those targeted in drug sweeps, to understand the interplay between the drug trade and gang violence, and to test the effectiveness of targeted gang task forces as a method of deterring violence. Participants weighed in on issues, told stories about their lives, and helped me to understand how they framed police action as just one in a series of ongoing life struggles.

Non-gang violence during this period rose in equal measure to the decline in gang violence, leaving the overall number of violent crimes in the targeted neighborhoods identical before and after the task force.

The formal goals of this project were as follows:

  1. To analyze the family fallout of a gang sweep
  2. To analyze whether or not the gang sweep was successful in reducing violence
  3. To analyze insider explanations for gang violence

1. The family fallout of this task force was significant and is an example of structural violence. Here the notion of an “extended” criminal community is useful. For example, the number of direct kinship ties between gang members and the people targeted in the case meant that targeting 28 people in two neighborhoods impacted vulnerable people who were not gang members at a significant rate. Predictably, the families targeted dealt with financial difficulties, eviction, relocation. Sometimes these resulted from having drug proceeds removed from their families and always from the added pressure of having people in the jail, prison, and the court system. Children were frequent victims after the sweep and often their family situation had to change in ways that ranged from living with different family members to being placed in foster care. All of these findings support other recent work on how incarceration punishes by extension, and impacts families and children.

2. One unanticipated finding in the arena of family fallout was the amount of health-related problems noncriminal family members faced. Some children began to suffer from depression or ulcers as well as failure in school. Family members often became ill with stress-related illnesses, including significant weight loss, chronic headaches, rises in blood pressure, eczema, and so forth. Further, at least three deaths can be associated with the family breakdown attendant on Fly Trap. All of the victims were women, all were already in ill health, two were elderly and they all relied heavily on key targeted family members to care for them. My analysis of their deaths utilizes work on illness and social inequality, spousal loss, and trauma (see for example recent work on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina).

3. To analyze whether or not the gang sweep was successful in reducing violence, I conducted a statistical analysis of gang-related and non-gang-related violent crimes (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape) in the two targeted neighborhoods in the six months before and the six months after the task force. The findings demonstrate a 40% decrease in gang-related violent crime in the two neighborhoods between these two time periods, which seems at first to demonstrate the effectiveness of the task force in meeting its stated goals. However, non-gang violence during this period rose in equal measure to the decline in gang violence, leaving the overall number of violent crimes in the targeted neighborhoods identical before and after the task force. Reasons for this finding might include the disorganizing impact of disrupting the drug trade, the fact that gangs, when strong, actually suppress a degree of non-gang violence, and possibly unnoted changes in policing strategies. In general, then, the task force did impact rates of gang violence but rates of all violence in the neighborhood did not change in the short term after the sweep. In the long term, no significant changes have taken place in terms of the strength of gang and drug structures in the two neighborhoods. I also analyzed drug sales and possession arrests six months before and after the task force and there was no difference between the two time periods. Clearly, more comparative work needs to be done here but the findings seem to point to the effectiveness of sweeps at incarcerating individuals involved in the drug trade and the ineffectiveness of sweeps in combating neighborhood violence either for the long or short term.

4. In order to analyze insider explanations of gang violence, I spoke to people about the causes of gang violence in their neighborhoods. In particular, I reviewed the causes of death for gang members in the two neighborhoods. Drugs did play a role occasionally, but were by no means the only cause of gang violence. What I found was that a) neither of the two main gang feuds causing rampant neighborhood violence was caused by the drug trade; and b) there are different systems internal to gangs that impact violence in neighborhoods. The drug trade is one, street gang politics is another, and a third is prison-level gang politics. There is some overlap as well as many ties between all of these, but they remain distinct systems that sometimes conflict with one another. Leaders in one may not be leaders in the other. Thus those targeted in the Fly Trap drug conspiracy sometimes netted violent individuals and sometimes not; by no means is a drug-related task force a proxy for targeting gang leadership.

In general, the findings of the project stayed true to the anticipated findings of the project as originally outlined to the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The book project that has resulted from this work is structured roughly around the following themes:

  1. The drug trade and police surveillance (this includes treatments of snitching and wiretapping)
  2. Family fallout (as outlined above)
  3. The impact on gang violence (as outlined above)
  4. The war on drugs (including sections on uses and expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, evidence issues, appeals, family and target perceptions of governmental wrongdoing)

In the realm of law and society, the findings of this project demonstrate how gangs and the trope of violence are being used to bolster failing drug war machinery in the United States. This complex furthers the ongoing criminalization of communities of color in a manner that cements the networks of violence surrounding those communities.

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