San Diego Gang members have a new weapon against the cops in City Heights. Pit bulls. According to police, the teenage own owners walk their dogs on long leashes down such main thoroughfares as University Avenue. It's not just exercise, say police; it's meant to intimidate citizens, rival gang members -- even the cops themselves.
"I've seen a dozen times where they tie up their dog on a six- to eight-foot leash in the middle of a busy sidewalk," says Mid-City officer Jerry Hara, who has taken an interest in the area's dog problems. "And they just sit there. So people are forced to go out into traffic and put themselves in danger while the dog is sitting on the sidewalk barking at them."
Citizens are "being intimidated and afraid to walk down busy commercial areas," says a memorandum circulated this month in the San Diego Police Department's Mid-City division, "because of 'gang members' walking pit bulls on long leads."
These dogs, the memo says, provide an added benefit to their owners.
"Word among gang members is that police will not contact them while walking the dogs. Gang detectives acknowledge that some gang members are transporting concealed weapons and narcotics while walking these dogs. Based upon Mid-City sergeants' observations, [when] gang members are walking dogs...officers are reluctant to initiate field interviews."
Officer James Stevens, a canine handler with the SDPD, says the report is correct. "When [gang members] hang out at known narcotic street-dealing locations," he says, "a lot of officers are going to think twice about going up and contacting somebody who's got an 80-pound pit bull on a leash. It's just an extra hassle that some officers aren't willing to [risk]. Not only do you have to worry about getting up there and talking to them, and getting a feel for them, and determining 'Should I pat these guys down for weapons?' Now you have to worry about dealing with their dogs. If you start to infringe upon the dog's handler -- who is basically God to the dog -- then the dog's going to become defensive, and you could have quite a problem."
Stevens, who suffered a bone-crushing bite on the leg from a pit bull, says things can get complicated when dog owners carry weapons or drugs. "They see you coming and they try to get rid of whatever they have, and you want to make an arrest. Now you're going to have to go hands-on, and you've got to deal with this guy's dog as well. Things could get nasty."
Things got nasty earlier this month when officers were searching a probationer's house for drugs and weapons, according to Jerry Hara. "When the [officers] walked in, the dog came at them. They fired once. They missed. Then the dog ran to the backyard and then came through another doggy door. That's when [an officer] shot him and he died."
Hara tries to stick with batons or pepper spray. But his colleague Stevens says such methods don't always work. "If you've got a rushing pit bull, you pull out your pepper spray," says Stevens. "By the time the spray starts to neutralize him, he's already on you, and if he's on you and biting, he's just going to close his eyes and [lock on]."
"Gang members are not breaking any laws by walking the dog on a long lead," says Mid-City officer Christina Burhans, who wrote the memo addressing the problem. "Just because people feel intimidated by it, the [owners] are not committing any crimes. If the dog has not bitten anybody, there's really not much we can do about it."
The result is more work for police.
"Officers from the Mid-City command notice a growing increase in the number of dog-bite calls for service, citizen complaints of vicious dogs, and gang members using pit bulls to intimidate officers and residents," continues the memorandum. "In the first six months of 1998, officers citywide responded to 438 calls for service. Mid-City [had] 224 animal calls during Fiscal Year '98. Countless other radio calls of fights, shootings, stabbings are a direct relationship with pit bull fights where wagers are placed. This figure includes officers having to kill three dogs in Mid-City alone. Citywide the figure jumps to 20 dog shootings, 11 of which were fatal. Most of the shootings were done during the execution of search warrants or probation searches."
And it's not just on the main streets that gang dogs cause fear and havoc. "[Gang members] walk their dogs up and down where there are enclosed yards with dogs in them, like mine," says Susan Ringo, a City Heights resident. "They kick my fence to start aggression between my dog and theirs. It's usually a pit bull. Pit bulls are the Dobermans of ten years ago."
"Pit bulls are mostly [owned by] younger people," says Lee Houck, one of City Heights' most visible community activists. "They're usually into gangs. They use them as status symbols. Before it was middle class. Everybody had to have their Porsche and their Dobie. Now it's filtered down. All the tough guys have to have them."
Determining who has the meanest dog means a dogfight. Officer Hara says it happens a lot, though cops are sometimes too late to catch the fights in action. "We get radio calls that say that [mainly] Hispanic males are fighting dogs in the middle of the street or in a backyard. But by the time we get there, they're usually gone."
Sherry Bodger, who lives on 38th Street, knows this scenario well. "Our neighbors would keep two or three pit bulls penned up on the side of the house, a very small area," says Bodger. "I noticed there'd be a large group of people over there. One gentleman, who owned a truck, would bring his pit bulls over. I thought, 'Are they breeding them?' But then the barking would start, from 9:00 in the morning until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. The dogs would be tearing each other up. She'd have her kids out there. They'd bring out a table and a cordless phone and be on that phone through most of it. He'd bring two dogs and fight them with her dogs."