Culture shock

Sacramento’s gang-prevention efforts may not work on Asian kids

Best intentions aside, the city’s gang-prevention strategy may have a blind spot when it comes to the area’s unique Asian gang population.

Sacramento’s rich, diverse Asian communities include an equally diverse element of gangbangers. It’s a perverse take on melting-pot America, a bubbling stew that scalds.

Unlike their more prevalent Hispanic and African-American counterparts, gang experts say Asian-American gangs are generally more clandestine in their illegal activities, more methodically violent in their retribution, and less likely to respond to the typical gang-prevention strategies.

The city of Sacramento’s draft gang-prevention plan will get a big media push during a press conference Tuesday, December 20, at the Boys & Girls Club in south Sacramento. Those involved in the yearlong effort have begged, borrowed and stolen from various other communities waging their own regional battles with gangs. The draft plan leans heavily on school assistance, work training and community building, typifying what Mayor Kevin Johnson says is a “paradigm shift” from a focus on suppression and enforcement to one of prevention and intervention.

The irony is that many Asian gang members already attend school, hold down jobs and are members of intact nuclear families.

“That’s not where the breakdown is,” observed Sacramento Police Department Detective Chris Starr, who spent years embedded in local Asian communities as a member of the department’s now disbanded gang unit.

“They are students, they’re kids who go to school, they work. … They have a strong family structure,” Starr said in highlighting the difference from your prototypical gangbanger. “What do you offer these kids to stay out?”

That could be a question for Alexander Vadzue Lee, 19, and Lue Seng Thao, 22. The two Sacramento men are currently serving lengthy prison terms for shooting up a rival’s vehicle at South and Altos avenues in April 2008. According to police documents, Lee was at a gas station on Norwood Avenue when he spotted a man he and Thao had reportedly beaten up at a Hmong New Year’s celebration at Gibson Ranch five months prior. Lee picked up his fellow Hmong Nation Society gang member Thao and tracked the victim to a residence on Branch Street. The victim, who they believed to be a member of the nationally known Tiny Rascals Gang, got back into his car. Lee told police that he pulled his green minivan up alongside the victim’s vehicle at an intersection and watched Thao riddle the car with gunfire from the passenger-side window. The target, not a gang member, it turned out, was miraculously unhurt. Lee and Thao were convicted of the attack this past February.

Starr says both perpetrators came from good families, and that only one had gotten into any trouble before, for a fight at school. That’s not unusual.

“The first time we contact these parents, their kid’s in the backseat, cuffed up, and they’re not going to see them again,” Starr said of his experience cracking gang crimes in Asian communities.

A lack of contact with law enforcement doesn’t necessarily mean Asian gangs are tamer than their ethnic counterparts. Starr says they’re generally better at operating under the radar and benefit from having immigrant parents who aren’t as familiar with the culture as their first- or second-generation kids. Sheriff’s officials have validated somewhere between 700 and 800 Asian gang members in the county, but believe those numbers to be low.

“Keep in mind that those are validated gang members, and we all know that the true number is significantly higher due to the population of gangsters that have simply not yet had sufficient contact with law enforcement to result in a gang validation,” Sacramento Sheriff’s department spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos said in an email.

The term “Asian” itself is woefully inadequate. The major cultural forces in this world break down into very different quadrants—Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao and Hmong, among them.

James Hernandez, a Sacramento State criminal-justice professor with an expertise in Asian gangs, says each distinct cultural group exhibits its own features when it comes to the loosely controlled chaos of street gangs. Chinese-American families tend to be more intact and affluent, he says, and their gangs are often more able to “afford top legal talent.”

Hmong gangs, he said in an email, present the most serious complications. “While families are intact, there are significant cultural differences between kids and parents.”

That generation gap between what the children do and what their parents know presents another stark difference from Sacramento’s more common gang archetypes.

“The parents don’t know what to look for,” Starr said. “It’s all alien to them.”

That makes targeted outreach all the more important. Starr and his partner used their time in the gang unit to engage and educate community members along with chasing bad guys. That has stopped since budget cuts eliminated the unit this past summer, though a recent federal grant will be used to create a five-person investigations team to exclusively follow up on gang crimes and two five-person teams of uniformed officers tasked with targeting gang members.

That may cover the enforcement angle, but what about the city’s newfound focus on prevention and deterrence? The usual suspects when it comes to explaining gang involvement—broken homes, lack of economic opportunities and gaps in education, including high illiteracy and drop-out rates—don’t necessarily apply to Asian gangs.

And so far, discussions by the folks working on the city’s strategy haven’t focused on that particular group.

“No, the plan doesn’t put a focus on any specific ethnic group,” acknowledged Khaalid Muttaqi, a point person in the city’s gang-deterrence strategy. “The focus on prevention realizes that any youth can potentially get ‘caught up.’”

Muttaqi and others say the plan does discuss a need for “culturally competent resources” that, ideally, would link gang members and at-risk youth with experts in their particular environment or culture.

Melissa Bain—one of the coordinators for The Effort Inc., a health and social-services nonprofit that offers programs to the perpetrators and victims of gang violence—says the question of how best to reach Asian gang members will need to be answered at some point.

She said the prevention strategy her nonprofit has participated in drafting notes the importance of specialized, bilingual services and intervention practices. “These are all factors that we are currently working on,” she said.

One approach might be to start with the similarities among the various ethnic groups. Bain says shifting cultural expectations and advances in technology are variables in every gang equation. “It’s a whole new game all the time,” she explained. “You have to make an effort to stay on top of the trends.”

Then there are other constants.

Some Hmong gangs formed because its members were being picked on at school, Starr says, and gradually evolved into criminal enterprises. Similarly, modern black gangs emerged in 1950s Los Angeles in response to attacks suffered during the early days of integration, according to the 2006 documentary Bastards of the Party. Back then, these gangs were essentially just loosely organized groups assembled to defend themselves from “spook hunters,” an umbrella term for the packs of white kids targeting black students.

Hernandez says this may be where bullying collides with what he characterizes as an emerging “gang-based youth culture,” particularly in suburban communities. In that light, understanding the ways in which groups feel powerless could be the start of a powerful conversation. After all, there is one troubling similarity experts note in the current gang climate.

“As you talk to them longer and longer, you realize, yeah, they’re just kids,” Starr said. “But they’ve done a very dangerous thing. It’s not always figuring out the who. It’s more the why.”

The veteran detective isn’t immune to wondering what lives they might have led under different circumstances, free of streets where the colors and bullets fly. “If you had just had a different opportunity, a different environment, a different time,” he said.