Sacramento struggles to understand its ‘hybrid' gang problem as social media sparks local beefs

A look at the recent spate of gang violence, its unique causes and law-enforcement response

Sacramento rapper Donald “Lavish D” Oliver in a still from a 2012 YouTube video misleadingly titled, “Lavish D gets beat by Elk Grove police in front of President Obama.”

Sacramento rapper Donald “Lavish D” Oliver in a still from a 2012 YouTube video misleadingly titled, “Lavish D gets beat by Elk Grove police in front of President Obama.”

Photo courtesy of YouTube

Nine days before allegedly participating in an ambush of a music rival inside of Arden Fair mall—one that sparked a series of gang shootings across the city—south Sacramento rapper Donald “Lavish D” Oliver granted a rare interview to the Siccness, a website dedicated to hip-hop and the beefs that feed it.

The March 6 parley with Siccness Radio co-host Coop D’Vill is revealing. Over the course of nearly 54 uninterrupted minutes, the 29-year-old Oliver whipsaws between defiance and agitation in describing his ongoing problems with local rappers, police and basically anyone who doesn’t rep his gang-plagued Mack Road corridor.

“You can’t be right here unless you know somebody,” he told D’Vill. “And don’t say you know Lav, ’cause everybody know Lav. Nigga, you better name one of the homeys.”

The obsession with respect—and our 21st-century way of communicating it—is at the center of a reawakened gangland feud between south Sacramento and Oak Park groups that’s run bullet-hot and cadaver-cold since the mid-1980s, according to Sacramento Police Department officials.

“These two gangs have been a problem for our city for a long time,” police Chief Sam Somers Jr. told the Sacramento City Council last week.

What’s different, however, is the rapid speed at which social media drives inter-gang strife to a tipping point, until it spills into real-world gun violence.

“We’ve moved into an area where we don’t know what the hell is going on,” said James Hernandez, a Sacramento State University criminal-justice professor who testifies as an expert in gang cases.

The online quarreling serves a specific purpose, he added. “There’s nothing really within the gang to hold them together,” he said. “And if you have an enemy, it basically does that.”

From March 15-22, Sacramento police recorded eight shootings in total, with 11 victims. Three shootings and six victims were linked to the Arden Fair mall beating of a reported member of Oak Park rapper Mozzy’s crew. On March 15, police believe Oliver and six others attacked a young man they pegged as a rival inside the north Sacramento mall. Video of the assault hit YouTube, and sparked the deadly week in which gang gunfire dropped six bodies, one of them permanently.

In his April 1 presentation to the city council, Somers said investigators traced the antagonism back to an online beef waged on YouTube. “They were just doing it in the virtual mode,” he said. “But those were the things that led up to the incidents that occurred on the 15th, where we had those shootings throughout the city of Sacramento.”

The following week, Oliver posted on Twitter, making light of the wanted photos of him and four others distributed through media outlets and Sacramento Crime Alert, a tip-gathering website. “#STARS my face all im the news. So im on the run,” one tweet reads.

Just as quickly, the violence halted, and those believed responsible went underground, Somers said. “Which is part of the problem that we have when we’re dealing with gangs today,” he added.

Police are still searching for suspects in the beating and clues in the shootings.

It’s not an entirely new problem.

At last week’s council meeting, longtime advocate Rhonda Erwin reminded elected officials of a summit they organized in the troubled Valley Hi neighborhood in 2006, where an at-risk youth came asking for a job. Last week, that young man’s mugshot was one of five plastered on the front page of The Sacramento Bee in connection with the Arden Fair mall incident.

“It seems as though we’re not really putting the efforts forward that we should be to address this,” she said. “I don’t know. This is really discouraging, because we have lost a lot of young people, both to death and to arrest.”

A couple of years ago, Somers said police teamed with community partners to quell these two Sacramento gangs through its Cease Fire gang-prevention program. A panel of faith leaders, neighborhood residents, former gang members and law-enforcement authorities explained the consequences of continued violence and were able to triage the situation for a while, Somers said.

Cease Fire wasn’t built to sustain a permanent peace, however, authorities say. The city council defunded the program late last year, and it’s been replaced with Cops and Clergy, which teams police and influential pastors in the community. The teams drop in on at-risk youth and adults at their homes, schools and, sometimes, jail, where they link them up with resources and try to develop personal relationships.

“We are letting these kids know that we are all partnering together to help them fly straight,” said police Lt. Roman Murrietta, who spearheads the program. “It’s a partnership that should have happened a long time ago.”

More than anything, the year-old partnership is about getting troubled neighborhoods to look to the police as partners, rather than as an occupying force. “It’s about developing trust,” said Officer Michele Gigante, a Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman. “And that’s huge. Trust is huge.”

It can also be a hard-won commodity for a city that has validated some 4,700 residents as gang members.

Sac State’s Hernandez cautioned that law enforcement is sometimes overeager to place a “gang” label on anyone from a tough neighborhood. Over the past two decades, the “hybrid” term has gained favor in the criminal-justice world to define gangs that don’t behave like typical gangs. “It’s anything you want it to be,” Hernandez said of the term. “The hybrid gangs are mostly made up of people who have left other gangs and have started again. There is a question if they are gangs or just groups of violent friends.”

Somers told the council the two hybrid groups at the middle of last month’s violence would be “the target of our investigations long-term.” He said the Sacramento County district attorney’s office had agreed to pursue sentence-increasing gang enhancements and that the department was hoping to steer more gang cases to the U.S. attorney’s office, “because you get real time at the federal level, as opposed to what’s occurring here at the local level.”

In the meantime, the hunt for Oliver and friends continues.

The Oakland-born rapper told the Siccness he moved to Sacramento at a young age, and that authorities forced him and his fellow gang members out of their G Parkway neighborhood a decade ago to a place he refers to as “South Sac Iraq.”

“We still outside, we still rockin,’” Oliver said during the interview. “We a different kind of breed.”

The district attorney’s office filed one felony assault count against Oliver on March 21. He has yet to appear in court for an arraignment. The charge carries with it a maximum sentence of four years in state prison.

His most recent music video, “Mac Blast,” with DB Tha General, had more than 100,000 views on YouTube as of this week.