Modesto police officer Felix Roman heads to work with only one thing on his mind — gangs.
It wasn't always this way. He used to be a member of the department's Street Crimes Unit, a team of officers assigned to investigate gangs and street-level drug dealing.
Instead, the officers wound up assisting a lot of criminal investigations that did not involve gang suspects.
"Our unit was the first one that would be looked at to do the leg work on a case," Roman said. "They would dump it on our laps, because we had the most contacts on the streets."
That changed when Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden took the reins of the department about a year ago.
"I think we saddled the Street Crimes Unit with too many responsibilities," Harden said. "I think they needed a new mission."
He reorganized the department's anti-gang personnel, creating the Street Gang Unit and the Gang Investigations Unit. That change let the department keep pressure on gangs even as recession-driven budget cuts thinned its ranks.
The Street Gang Unit provides enforcement in neighborhoods, gathering gang intelligence, responding to gang- related calls and acting as a visible deterrent to gang activity.
The other side of the department's enforcement strategy has the Gang Investigations Unit conducting long-term investigations of gang crimes and finding evidence that produces longer prison sentences for gang defendants.
"If (gang members) are locked up in jail, then they're not out in the streets perpetuating violence and committing crimes," Harden said. "That's what ultimately makes a community safer."
Aside from brazen street violence that captures headlines, Harden said gang members operate in drug-selling, robbery, burglary and auto-theft crews.
He said that amount of crime called for around-the-clock enforcement from officers who would target these gangs "seven days a week, 365 days a year."
In search of a thief
Roman and the Street Gang Unit didn't waste any time on a recent Saturday evening. The shift started with the officers searching a few west Modesto homes for Sureño gang members suspected of robbing a man at gunpoint.
These armed robberies are called "pocket checks" on the street. Roman said gang members approach victims and ask for everything they have in their pockets.
They steal cash, credit cards, cell phones, iPods and anything else of value. Roman said they rob people in gangland neighborhoods, because they think residents are too afraid to talk to police.
"Control the neighborhood is what they're trying to do," Roman said.
Not only did they rob the man, but the gang members encountered the victim later in the week and threatened him at gunpoint.
"They jammed him up again and told him, 'Don't be snitching,' " Roman said.
The victim reported the crime and identified the suspects in a photo lineup. Roman said the victim knows the suspects, but is not associated with gangs.
The street unit had apprehended one suspect during the day that Saturday, and another suspect had been captured a day earlier. A third suspect was still wanted, so the unit continued to look for him.
Like the Street Crimes Unit before them, Roman and his fellow gang officers usually drive around Modesto in dark-blue Ford Crown Victorias.
The cars are well-known on the street and have nicknames. The officers call the cars "metros," but the kids in west Modesto call the cars "blue dragons."
The officers drove their cars into a west Modesto park for a quick briefing before searching the homes for armed robbery suspects.
"Everybody's head is on a swivel," Roman said. "They're all looking to see who we're going to stop."
A visible deterrent
They're supposed to be visible. Harden said the street unit was designed to be a swift response team for gang violence, "but also to let the gang members know, 'You're being watched.' "
The street unit has two squads, each with six officers and a supervisor. Roman has been with the department for about 10 years, starting with the Street Crimes Unit in 2006 and joining the Street Gang Unit in September.
"We respond to any calls that appear to be gang-related; no matter how minor or serious the crime," Roman said. "We know all the players, and we can free up patrol officers to handle other crimes."
The street unit officers talk to gang members. That's how they gain crucial intelligence.
Gangs are constantly recruiting members, so the officers need to stay on the streets to keep up with new names and faces. They also need to keep tabs on gang- related crime trends.
"We're now freed up to hit the streets and make ourselves visible all the time," Roman said. "We're just not allowed to take on long-term investigations that would take us off the street for a long time."
Those lengthy investigations are left to the Gang Investigations Unit, which has two investigators and a detective.
Earlier this year, the investigations unit assisted in a seven-month probe into the Norteños gang's criminal activity in Stanislaus County, which includes drug sales, robbery, home invasions and murders.
The investigation culminated June 9 when authorities served 10 search warrants in Modesto and Ceres and arrested 19 people as part of the operation to disrupt the gang.
"We put some of the highest-ranking gang members in jail with this operation," said Modesto police officer Sean Martin of the investigations unit.
Martin has been with the department for six years. He was with the Street Crimes Unit for nearly three years before he joined the Gang Investigations Unit in September 2009.
"Now, we actually have people who are just focused on gangs," Martin said. "Before, we really were being pulled in different directions."
Focusing on violent attacks
The investigations unit focuses on violent attacks or major property crimes committed by gang members or for the benefit of a gang. The unit's detective handles homicide investigations.
"My job is to ensure that the DA's office has everything it needs to successfully prosecute a gang member," Martin said.
Martin said the investigations unit works well with the street unit, passing gang intelligence back and forth. Their missions, however, are slightly different.
"We're reactive," Martin said about the investigations unit. "(The Street Gang Unit) is proactive."
He said the highlight for the investigations unit, so far, has been participating in the seven-month investigation led by the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force, a federally funded group that includes investigators from local agencies and the FBI.
Both Modesto police gang units assisted in the investigation, along with Stanislaus County sheriff's and Ceres police gang investigators.
Investigators began the probe by tracking a crew of Norteños robbing hotels at gunpoint. The crimes eventually escalated to murder when gang members from south Modesto's Parklawn Avenue area committed a home-invasion robbery.
The March robbery at a home in Modesto's airport neighborhood ended with the shooting death of Julio Jimenez, 32. Five people were taken into custody after authorities pursued them to the Parklawn area.
The Norteños arrested were under direct control of members of the Nuestra Familia prison gang, according to the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.
Creating the newly focused gang units was part of Harden's strategy to combat gang violence. He aimed for a mix of stepped-up enforcement and outreach programs to pull gang members out of the violent underworld.
It's still too early to determine whether Harden's strategy has been effective, said Carole Collins, program manager for the West Modesto/ King-Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative.
She said she spends most of her time working at the center and hasn't noticed a significant change in the neighborhood's gang activity.
"But any (anti-gang) efforts are always warranted," Collins said. "Whatever you do, it has to go for the long haul."
In the first six months of this year, Modesto police report that overall gang-related crimes have decreased 49 percent compared with the same six months last year.
The number of gang-related shootings has dropped 52 percent over that period.
When Harden was named interim police chief, he worked with Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff and the City Council to identify specific crime-fighting goals.
The growing number of violent gang crimes at the time demonstrated that the Police Department needed to change its strategy, Nyhoff said. He wanted the city's new chief to do things differently.
Praise from city official
Creating police teams that would focus all their attention on the problem was the right tactic, he said.
"I couldn't be more pleased with what he and his department have done," Nyhoff said. "It will make us a better community."
Modesto police say diversion programs, focused enforcement, the countywide gang task force and south Modesto's gang injunction -- a court order that prohibits specific gang members from congregating -- are working together to reduce gang- related crimes.
Harden said the ultimate goal of his anti-gang strategy is keeping the city as safe as possible.
"It doesn't matter whether they live on the north side, south side, west side or east side," Harden said. "They want a safe neighborhood where they can raise their families, to allow their kids to walk to school, to make a living and have some tranquillity in their neighborhood."
To report gang activity or provide information on gang- related crimes, call the Modesto police gang hotline at 524-7491.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.