An estimated 120 people learned new definitions of terms such as “throwing up,” “bombing,” “roll call” and “calling out” during an hourlong community meeting about graffiti and gang awareness.
Hosted by the Sheriff’s Department, the mid-morning session in Ramona Community Center last Tuesday focused on community awareness, education, prevention and strategies to rid the town of graffiti and gang threats.
“You should feel safe to walk to the grocery store to not be harangued by thugs for your wallet or your money, or ‘buy me this,’” said Deputy Tom Seiver with the sheriff’s Ramona Substation.
Seiver and Cpl. Rhonda Fortson with the sheriff’s Poway Copps (Community Oriented Policing Problem Solving) Unit were the main speakers. With them were two young people whose identities were masked by scarves. Kelly Marline, crime prevention specialist with the sheriff’s Ramona Substation, helped moderate.
The difference between tagging and gang graffiti, history and status of gangs and graffiti in Ramona, how Ramona compares with the rest of the county, how gang injunctions in other parts of the county affect Ramona, how documenting a gang affects prison terms, and what the community can do were among meeting topics. The inclination of many parents to insist “not my Johnny” also was discussed.
Gang mentality “is the hardest psychology to beat,” Fortson said, particulatly for a person raised in a gang environment. “It’s the hardest addiction, for lack of a better phrase, to try to get people out of...because that’s your mindset.”
“The people you revere are not the John Waynes, like I did, or other people,” she said. “The tough guys, the people who get respected in your (gang) neighborhoods, are the ones that lived through their prison time, have the fast money...so it’s really hard to get them out of that mindset.”
Going through the tedious process of documenting a criminal street gang makes a difference in jail time. For example, a robbery that normally warrants a three-year sentence could mean six years for a gang member, said Fortson.
“If you charge him with a gang enhancement, it’s a strikable offense,” Fortson said, referring to California’s Three Strikes law requiring mandatory sentences. “...They can’t plead out a strike. Even if they don’t do a day in jail, they’ve got a strike.”
Some communities don’t want to admit they have a gang problem, Fortson said, but “holding them accountable, getting the community and their families involved is key to squashing the problem.”
Ramona is concerned about the rash of graffiti in the past year, she said, “as well as some increase in local gang activity.”
“As soon as this came to our attention, we wanted to squash it, because that’s really what you have to do,” she said. “Every community that has a gang or graffiti at some point had the opportunity to just completely squash it.”
Seiver, who coordinated the documentation of Ramona’s gang, reviewed its history and development. There are about a dozen members with another dozen or more who frequent the gang, he said. Most are hispanic males, said Fortson.
Graffiti told deputies a lot about Ramona gang activity, Fortson said, demonstrating differences between taggers and gang graffiti and explaining how numbers relate to letters in the alphabet.
“Back in 1995, the mid-’90s, that’s when the first generation started coming up,” said Seiver. “But by the mid-2000s, they started calling themselves Ramona Crazy Kids, and 18 20, and the Ramona Town started coming out.”
When Seiver came to Ramona in November 2007, he started investigating what he saw as gang activity, “but there was no gang, there had never been thought that there was a gang, so I went through the (documentation) process.”
“Why Ramona?” Fortson asked.
Gang injunctions in other parts of the county “flushed gang members from other cities into Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Ramona,” she said.
Ramona gang members do not compare to hard-core gang members from other areas, said Fortson, “but it has potential. Some Ramona teens are naive, she said, explaining how an innocent answer to a “Where you from, fool?” from an out-of-town gangster is seen as a challenge. Gang members will not approach just anyone, but they will approach you “if you act hard or like a lot of teenage kids do nowadays, you know, like they’re something.”
Among ways to get in a gang, she said, are to be:
• “Jumped in, which means you’re beat up by other members of the gang.”
• “Sexed in,” how most girls join.
• “Blood in,” either by “drawing blood for the gang” or being related to a gang member.
“But those multigenerational gangsters want to be jumped in anyway,” Fortson added. “Even if they’re related, they want to prove their own merit, so they’ll be jumped in as well.”
In May and June of 2008, Seiver saw a peak of gang activity in Ramona, when members of an Escondido gang started feuding with Ramona’s gang. The Escondido gang started shooting at Ramona gang members, who then started to arm themselves, said Seiver.
“You could see the gang graffiti on the wall,” he said. “You see Ramona Town gets crossed out by an Escondido gang.”
Through a series of arrests, Ramona gang members were jailed and about half are still in jail, said Seiver. “So they’re not defunct, but they’re kind of on a hiatus right now.”
Those who are out of jail aren’t hanging out as regularly on the streets, he said. “You’re not going to see groups of them...What we did is we drove them inside their house.”
Using their probation and parole status, “they’re not even safe in their own house,” Seiver continued. “They can’t possess a handgun to defend themselves from a rival gang, because we come and take it and put them in jail.”
“Half your gang members are in jail,” said Fortson. “What that means is they’re going to have to recruit. When they picked fights with Escondido, they rattled the lion’s cage. They don’t have the hard-core attitude of some of these gangs, so now they’re going to have to recruit. And that’s when you started to see that explosion of graffiti.”
Painting over graffiti as soon as possible discourages repeat graffiti.
“The longer it stays up, the better it is for them,” said Seiver. “If they put it up there at midnight and they drove by at 7 in the morning and somebody painted it out...why would I paint there any more if nobody gets to see it?”
Take photographs for the sheriff’s department before painting over graffiti, and give deputies an estimate of the cost, “or we can’t hold them criminally responsible,” said Fortson.
“Almost everything we’ve told you today we learned from graffiti,” she said. “It started out, all this stuff, the difference between 18 20 and Ramona Town Logos, everything, all of that was graffitied. If everybody just painted over it and never told us, we wouldn’t know half of the things that we know now. So it’s really important for you to get us pictures.”
The pictures may be e-mailed to Fortson at email@example.com or Marline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By law, businesses have 72 hours to paint over graffiti and residences have 10 days, the officers said.
Questions ranged from are skateboarders or teens wearing black hoodies are gang members to how gang aware are teachers and what can be done about groups hanging out at McDonald’s. The audience responded with applause when a man who identified himself as an ex-gang member who now has a job and pays taxes, said, “You’ve got nowhere for the kids to go...You’ve got to build something for the kids here.”
The meeting concluded with a call for volunteers to Adopt a Block or Adopt a Neighborhood or volunteer for the Graffiti Control Program. A group is needed to coordinate fundraising for paint, Fortson said.
“The time to do it is now, while they’re in jail,” said Marline.
People also may sign up for free home security inspections.
At the conclusion of the meeting, attendees stayed to talk with the presenters. A followup evening meeting may be scheduled.
For more information, call Seiver or Marline at the Ramona Substation at 789-9157 or Fortson at 858-513-2834.