Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, speaking at a luncheon Wednesday, revealed more details about a comprehensive gang sweep last month that resulted in the arrests of 172 suspected gang affiliates, all of them adults.
Sanchez said the effort, dubbed “Operation Gator Roll” — which included aid from the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies — was top secret for a year before the Oct. 15 raids, unknown even to his superiors at City Hall.
“My boss, I don’t think, knew until the night before, when I told him he was getting up at 4 in the morning the next day,” he said. “It wasn’t because I was trying to be sneaky, but I wanted to give my council and mayor the right to say they had no idea what was going on had it gone south.”
The police chief was among a group of top city officials invited to speak to members of the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging and Restaurant Association on the work the city is doing to curb gang violence. In the past year and a half, the violence has led to the stabbing deaths of three teenagers and has become a centerpiece issue in the city and South Coast.
Also at Wednesday’s Hotel Mar Monte luncheon, Marcelo Lopez, the city’s administrative services director, elaborated on what the city is doing to intervene in the lives of youngsters at risk of getting too deep into the lifestyle.
Sanchez’s comments focused primarily on his portion of the city’s multipronged approach to the problem: enforcement. But he also spoke of an outreach effort in which Latino students at UCSB will mentor about 80 students who want to get out of the gang lifestyle. The mentors and students had planned to get to know one another over a Thankgiving dinner, but were $1,000 short on being able to make it happen. Before the event ended, the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging and Restaurant Association cut Sanchez a check for $1,000.
Sanchez said that after the daytime murder of 15-year-old Angel Linares on State Street in March 2007, he solicited the aid of the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“I decided to call on my friends, and I invited them to Santa Barbara and took them out to dinner,” he said. “I said, ‘I need your help.’”
He said Operation Gator Roll was named for a wrestling move in which “you go for the head of the body.”
“We decided to go for the head of the snake, and cut it off,” he said, referring to how the investigation targeted adults who were calling the shots on the Eastside.
He said the federal agencies were summoned partly for the purpose of separating the gang members from one another once they were arrested.
“That morning … as the arrests were being made, a lot of these folks that were being arrested were walking into a room high-fiving each other and laughing at us, and sitting there mocking us, and talking about all the times they were going to visit later that day at the Santa Barbara County Jail,” he said. But when the FBI bus pulled up, and it became apparent they would be going to a federal lockup in Los Angeles, “all of a sudden everyone got really quiet. Imagine that.”
Sanchez also said that in a federal case, there is no parole, which means there is no chance to get out of jail early for good behavior.
In federal court, he said, if a judge says they will do 10 years, they will do 10 years.
“And then they get to do it in a state facility outside of California,” he said. “That’s huge.”
Sanchez also responded to criticism about his decision to bring in officials from the immigration department. He said immigration officials came specifically to pick up four adults who were all felons, and had all been deported years before. None were juveniles, as he said some have alleged.
“(Immigration officials) did go into homes where there were other undocumented people, but they did not even ask them their names,” he said. “They went in for the target, got the target, and got out.
“I will tell you that of the four illegal immigrants — criminals, by the way, criminals — that were here … two of them, when we woke them up had guns underneath their pillows,” he said. “Tell me, please, did we do the right thing? Of course we did.”
The room broke into applause.
Sanchez added that of the 172 adults arrested, 40 were already incarcerated around the state in connection with other crimes, and were woken up in their cells and given another charge.
“The U.S. attorney had a staff person assigned to us for over a year working on this and no one in this room knew that; none of my bosses knew that,” he said. The staff person, he said, wanted to ensure that nobody’s civil rights were violated.
Sanchez said that some of the people arrested were wanted on suspicion of crimes such as murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, rape and armed robbery.
“I’m sure all of us would believe they belong somewhere else other than walking the streets of Santa Barbara,” he said.
Lopez, meanwhile, elaborated on another major component of the city’s plan: intervention.
A multiagency group called the “gang task force” has created a model for embarking on a five-year plan to address the issue, he said.
The idea is to put in place an institutionalized structure — with a full-time executive director — for dealing with the problem. Part of that would involve coordinating the dozens of local nonprofit agencies that already offer services to the at-risk youths in question, but don’t have the time or resources to share much information.
Under the proposal, funding would come not only from the city of Santa Barbara, but the schools, the county, foundations, the business community, UCSB, SBCC and grants. The group wants it to be a South Coast effort, so it hopes to get the cities and schools involved in Carpinteria and Goleta.
Lopez also described a highly praised project that occurred this summer, in which the gang task force underwent a short-term project to gather information on local gang members. Of the 82 it identified, 52 were school-age and attending local schools, and 36 of the 52 were far behind in credits.
The task force members held mentoring sessions with the youths, in which they talked about why they got involved with gangs and what goals they would like to accomplish.
The group found jobs for 10 of the youths, and produced reports on the 52 school-age youths for the administrators at the schools they attend. Seventy percent of the students have improved their grades, he added.
Steve Hyslop, president of the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging Association, said he organized Wednesday’s event because he believes the city is doing commendable work, but that the word isn’t getting out.
“I get a lot of people asking me, ‘What’s been done?’” he said after the event. “I felt it was important that the hotel industry — which has a very vested interest in this issue – be brought up to speed.”
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