Two Houston police officers nearly died in a firefight this week with a career criminal from the 52 Hoover Crips.
Days later, two MS-13 gang members laughed outside a courtroom after facing a judge on charges of murder and aggravated kidnapping of young women.
A drive-by shooting in southeast Houston last month sent three men to the hospital.
The violence comes amid a spike in gang-related killings and assaults in recent months. Communities dominated by gangs are reeling as police grapple with a troubling threat and prosecutors vow harsher penalties for gang perpetrators.
“The gang issue we’ve had here in Houston has always been like this,” said HPD Sgt. Clint Ponder, who works in the department’s Gang Intelligence Unit. “It goes through peaks in valleys. And right now we’re seeing an uptick. We’re absolutely seeing an uptick.”
Reasons for the spike are unclear, but law enforcement veterans say light criminal sentencing, a decline in specialized gang units, and the evolving nature of Houston’s gangs from turf-bound cliques into roving, cash-focused enterprises are all potentially to blame.
“People fear these guys,” said Houston Police Officer Doug Griffith, who has worked on an anti-gang task force in southeast Houston for more than 20 years. “This is how they maintain power in their neighborhood, they use fear and intimidation … It’s very sad for residents living in area controlled by these gangs.”
Transnational and homegrown gangs have remained a troubling bane of law enforcement for years.
A Texas Department of Public Safety threat assessment released in January warned of the specific danger posed by transnational gangs such as Tango Blast, the Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).
“These groups pose the greatest gang threat to Texas due to their relationships with Mexican cartels, high levels of transnational criminal activity, high levels of violence, and overall statewide presence,” the assessment noted.
Hundreds of smaller, homegrown gangs and cliques pose costly and often lethal threats to Houston communities. Some of the region’s largest, like the Houstones, have hundreds of members. Others may have just a handful of associates.
All told, approximately 20,000 gang members, belonging to at least 300 gangs, live in the Houston region, said FBI Supervisory Agent Mark Sabol, who oversees the agency’s Multi-Agency Gang Task Force in the city’s Texas Anti-Gang Center, where members from local and federal agencies work to address the region’s gang violence. Law enforcement has also created the website www.stophoustongangs.com to give residents a way to anonymously report gang activity.
Shift in manpower
While the number of gang members has held fairly steady, he said, anti-gang units have seen an uptick in brutal, violent incidents involving MS-13 gang members.
Anti-gang units recently arrested and charged two MS-13 gang members, tying them to a shocking murder last month of a young woman. The two men, Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22, and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, 18, committed the murder as part of a satanic sacrifice, police said Friday.
“It’s not just a murder. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to shoot someone for a beef,’ it’s ‘I’m going to chop their heads off with a machete, or stab them 22 times and light them on fire and laugh at them while they’re crying for their mother,'” Sabol said. “When I say brutality, that’s what I mean. It’s just incredibly violent and we’re seeing more of that.”
Besides the most recent murder the gang has been tied to, MS-13 gang members have also been blamed in recent years for the execution of Jose Meraz, a 14-year-old north Houston boy, after he tried to disassociate from the gang and start going to church. A year before, gang members killed a 16-year-old Klein Forest high school student and left his body in a state forest near Huntsville.
The gang’s brutality stems in part from the desensitization of its members, many of whom come from violence plagued cities in El Salvador, where more than 6,000 people were killed last year, and where children as young as 9 can be forced into joining gangs, Sabol said.
Among local gangs, anti-gang officers are seeing “a moderate increase” in aggravated assaults and murders, he said.
One area where authorities have noticed such an uptick is in southeast Houston, where a spate of gang-related shootings and murders has forced police to move units from other areas of the city to bring the violence under control.
On Feb. 23, for example, one drive-by shooter hit three people outside a convenience store near Southlawn and Faulkner. It was just one of the 10 to 15 shootings the area has seen in the last two months, said Southeast Patrol Capt. Kevin Deese, who oversees the district where much of the violence has occurred.
Police are still trying to figure out what provoked the recent mayhem, he said.
“We’ve been trying to figure out the catalyst on why things increased,” he said in a recent interview. “The hardest thing in these shootings is that they’re not happening in any specific location. We can’t really predict where the next will take place.”
Police have also been challenged by a shift in local crews, he said. Previously, many local American gangs fought over turf, colors, and flags or symbols, with well-known rivalries, most notably with groups like the Bloods and Crips.
But in Houston, police say, those local rivalries and deep loyalties have faded as gangs work together to make money.
“Here, criminals can be in whatever gang but can get along,” he said. “It’s all about making money.”
With the willingness of different groups to work together, it can make it harder for police to identify gang members.
“One of the biggest things is that gangs don’t look like gangs anymore,” Deese said. There’s much less structure, so it’s harder to track.”
On the other hand, he said, many gangs or cliques do not have the structure or mentorship they might have in years past.
“It’s more fly by the seat of their pants,” he said. “It’s more sloppy.”
Despite the fact they are less infamous than transnational gangs like MS-13, they are still a serious public safety problem, said Lisa Collins, chief prosecutor of the gang unit in the Harris County District Attorney’s Gangs and Organized Crimes Division.
“Don’t underestimate the lower level cliques,” said Collins. “They do just as much as damage, and sometimes more so.”
Anti-gang efforts have been complicated, however, by the police department’s lack of manpower and by gang members’ ability to return to the streets soon after being arrested, law enforcement veterans said.
Previously, each patrol station was staffed with both divisional gang units and a gang task force.
Public support crucial
Over the past years, gang task force members have shifted to tactical operations units, leading to fewer officers working gangs, less intelligence gathering, and wariness by residents in cooperating with police and prosecutors.
“We definitely need bodies and people to do that,” said Ponder, the HPD gang sergeant. “If you’re really working gangs and doing it correctly, it’s not about statistics … It’s about intelligence, so when you have a big pattern of crime or a big series of crimes you already have that gang intelligence to put them in jail, that’s really what we’re lacking here.”
Police say another problem reining in illegal gang violence is the quickness with which some criminals are able to return to the streets.
That was one issue police pointed to after the shooting of Houston police officers Ronny Cortez and Jose Muñoz this week. Earl Donnell Riley, the 25-year-old shooter, had recently completed a three-year sentence after being convicted of on felony burglary and illegal weapons possession charges. In the last seven years, he had been arrested for multiple burglaries, marijuana, driving while intoxicated, felony possession of a weapon, criminal mischief, trespassing and evading arrest.
“We investigate crimes, we put them away,” Ponder said. “The DA does something else, granted we’re upset they’re not getting the time we believe they’re due and they deserve, but that’s out of our control.”
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg vowed recently to crack down on gang violence with harsher prosecutions and stiffer penalties for gang members sowing mayhem across the city.
“We are going to seek stiff penalties against violent gang members: heftier charges, higher bonds and harsher sentences,” said Ogg, who previously worked as Houston’s Anti-Gang Task Force Director and wrote a book on community efforts to fight gangs. “Regarding gang members, these are the people we need to pull out of the pack. Gang members pose a greater threat together than they do as individuals, because of their collective strength, access to bail money, weapons, and the ability to intimidate witnesses.”
Both police and prosecutors say the public’s help is their best tool fighting gangs and the mayhem they sow.
“We want to help. We want to make these situations better, but we’re only as good as the info we receive,” Collins said. “And it does take the community cooperating with us to hopefully start to see a downturn in these types of offenses.”
Source Houston Chronicle
Texas Department of Public Safety says there are an estimated 100,000 gang members in Texas, with the highest concentration in Harris County.
Many gangs operate from within penitentiaries, according to the newest gang threat assessment that the DPS released on Wednesday, and Tango Blast, with more than 19,000 members, is considered the greatest gang threat in the state.
“Harris County contains the highest concentration of identified and suspected gang activity in Texas, which is our Region 2. The most significant gangs for the 2016 reporting year is Tango Blast”, says Lonnie Haschel with DPS.
Harris County accounts for 17 percent of the confirmed and suspected gang members in Texas prisons. Other gangs in the Houston area include Houstone — a Tango Blast offshoot — as well as all sets of Bloods and Crips, and the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Haschel says gang members actively use social media to communicate, boast and recruit.
“The popularity of social media is very prevalent in the gang society. They do use social media and it has not been lost on the criminal side, as well”, Haschel adds. Many groups even use encrypted messages to thwart law enforcement.
Haschel says the threat assessments help law enforcement agencies determine how to deal with the gang problem.
A gang called Texas Syndicate downgraded as a threat on the list, due to law enforcement disruption and other gangs diminishing influence outside of prisons.
Back in April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced an anti-gang initiative to fight Houston gang violence.
Source Houston Public Media
It is not uncommon for people, think jurors, to believe that security guards are like the Secret Service and have the rights of police officers and the obligation to save people from the bad guys. We have all seen the movies where the security guard throws someone out of a restaurant for making a fuss like in Beverly Hills Cop. But is this real life? The simple truth is “no.” The reality is security guards are not Supermen; They are actually ordinary citizens, no more, no less.
Powers of Arrest
An “arrest” includes the actual restraint of a person. But the restraint must be reasonable. But who can make arrests? Well, any police officer or person may arrest another person by restraining them, but only under certain circumstances.
A police officer may arrest a person when the police officer has reasonable cause to believe the person has committed a public offense or when he has an arrest warrant. If the public offense is a felony, the police need not have seen the offense occur to make an arrest. But if the offense is not a felony, the police officer must have seen the offense to make the arrest. It becomes much more complicated for the police officer in the case of domestic violence.
A security guard is merely a private person even though he wears a uniform. The security guard may arrest a person when that person has committed a felony, but only if a felony has actually been committed. If the offense is not a felony it must be committed or at least attempted in the presence of the security guard before a citizen’s arrest can be made. Whereas, the requirement is not so demanding for a police officer who can arrest a person for a felony as long as the officer has probable cause to believe the person committed the felony, whether or not the felony occurred.
Assistance in Making a Citizen’s Arrest
Interestingly, the security guard can ask for assistance from other security guards or other persons in making the citizen’s arrest. A security guard can also call the police and ask the police officer to make the citizen’s arrest for the security guard.
The “Magic Words” in Making a Citizen’s Arrest
In making the citizen’s arrest, the security guard must tell the person being arrested that he is being arrested, the reason for the arrest and the authority to make the arrest. Does the security guard always have to go through this verbal list? Not if the person to be arrested is in the middle of the crime or the attempt to commit the crime or is being pursued immediately after the crime. But once the criminal is caught and being restrained, he must be told what offense he is being arrested for, if he asks.
How clearly must the security guard articulate the basis for and nature of the citizen’s arrest? Not very. In a case where an intoxicated driver exiting a parking garage the wrong way breaking the entrance gate and hitting a security guard, a parking attendant signed a citizen’s arrest form indicating the arrest was for malicious mischief and vandalism only. The driver’s blood alcohol was over the permissible limit. When the driver challenged the arrest and the suspension of his driver’s license, it was held that the substance of the attendant’s actions constituted a valid citizen’s arrest even though he did not utter or write the “magic words.”
What to Do With Weapons in Making a Citizen’s Arrest
What if the person being arrested has a weapon? Can the security guard take it away? Yes, the security guard making the citizen’s arrest can disarm the person being arrested.
What to Do After Making a Citizen’s Arrest
Once the security guard has made the citizen’s arrest what does he have to do? The security guard must call the police immediately and turn the person arrested over to a police officer as soon as possible. The security guard must also inform the police officer of the offense the person committed and file a formal criminal complaint. If the police officer decides to release the person arrested by the security guard, the arrest is considered a detention.
What Do You Have to Do to Become a Security Guard?
A private patrol service/operator is a person licensed to provide security services. A security guard is an employee of such a private patrol service. A security guard must complete a course of training in the exercise of the power to arrest in security officer skills. The provider of the training course will provide a certificate to the security guard upon completion of the course. The private patrol service is to then provide each security guard in its employee a review or practice of security officer skills on an annual basis and keep a record of its completion for two years.
A security guard employed by a private patrol service/operator must be licensed by the State of California. An application is submitted to the State Department of Consumer Affairs who obtains the applicant’s finger prints which are submitted to the Department of Justice who in turn informs the State of any criminal convictions.
A new law that goes into effect as of January 1, 2009 requires an employer of a proprietary private security officer to provide a review or practice course in security officer skills and keep a record of completion of the course for two years. A proprietary private security officer is an unarmed individual who is employed exclusively by any one employer whose primary duty is to provide security services for his or her employer, whose services are not contracted to any other entity or person, wears a security officer uniform and is likely to interact with the public.
Can a Security Guard Be Armed?
Yes, but the security guard must first complete a course of training in the powers of arrest and in the carrying and use of firearms and then get a certificate from the State Department of Consumer Affairs Department. The security guard may not carry a concealed weapon.
A security guard can also carry a baton and/or chemical agents but only after completing a course in its use and obtaining a certificate.
What If a Security Guard Discharges a Firearm?
The security guard must prepare a detailed report for the Director of State Department of Consumer Affairs within seven days.
Is Liability Insurance Required?
Yes, the private patrol operator who employees the security guard who carries a firearm must maintain an insurance policy with a minimum limits of $500,000.00.
Of course there is a caveat. This is not for the purpose of providing legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the lengthy and details laws that relate to security guards and their employers.
Source Gray Duffy,LLP