Gangstas in Paradise

Galveston has beautiful beaches, the Strand and Moody Gardens. North of Broadway it has the projects, crippling poverty and big-city problems. And now the bad guys are back.

In a moment, though, all that disappears in a blaze of testosterone. Don't come at him wrong or try to patronize him, he warns. "If you do, I'm going to charge you up, I'm going to get in your face."

Officer Jim Bitner is a 28-year-old widower with a ten-year-old daughter and a fiancée. He's been in Galveston for two years, after serving as a Harris County constable. He's a self- proclaimed hard-liner about crime; thinks there should be harsher punishments, more prisons. He doesn't believe the problems can be blamed on race or poverty. He says "missing family values" is the culprit.

Crips won't meet in Bloods' territory and vice versa, says gang specialist Frank Bankston.
Deron Neblett
Crips won't meet in Bloods' territory and vice versa, says gang specialist Frank Bankston.
Even with a police presence, gang signs sometimes flash on the dance floor. Robert Quintero, bottom photo, says the Boys and Girls Club keeps things as safe as possible.
Deron Neblett
Even with a police presence, gang signs sometimes flash on the dance floor. Robert Quintero, bottom photo, says the Boys and Girls Club keeps things as safe as possible.

He works the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, and as he drives along on a recent Saturday night, he shines a harsh spotlight from his car onto people sitting on their front stoops. A few wave. Most either retreat back inside their houses or stare silently. He takes a back route, and three men standing in an alleyway melt into the shadows. He spots a car moving slowly down the street, no license plates. Could be a drug dealer or a gangbanger hoping to avoid being caught.

He drives by Cedar Terrace, a Crips area in the projects. Recently rehabbed, the units don't look bad on the outside. He says they're the scene of major narcotic activity.

"There are a lot of extremely nice people who live here, and a bad element is mixed in." He was part of a team investigating a gang shooting at 28th and Seawall last year. He has little use for gangs, prefers writing traffic tickets because "it's clean, it's handled."

The gang fighting, most of it is retaliation, driving and looking for anyone wearing rival gang colors, he says. "Younger gangsters won't fight with their hands. They fight with guns. The older guys are encouraging the younger guys to shoot."

His objectives have changed from when he first became a cop. To really stop gangs and drugs, he says, "We would have to just destroy the Fourth Amendment. You'd have to be able to search anybody at any time, any place." Demand for drugs is so enormous, he says, that taking out a dealer just gives another enterprising gang the chance to move up.

So his philosophy has become a simpler one. "My goal is to make sure no one is hurt when I'm in the area."

Bitner readily admits that to be inside a gang member's head is beyond him. Most will run when an officer steps out on them; most police will then give chase, he says. But the fact is, his high school cross-country days are long over. "I'm 200 pounds with 20 pounds of gear on me…They're in Nikes and windbreakers." Plus his reward if he catches them is three hours of paperwork and they're back out on the street before him, selling dope to raise money to pay a lawyer.

To deal with the problems, the city has enacted certain laws. It's illegal to impede the sidewalk (two suspected prostitutes get written up for that on this night). It's illegal to have an unregistered bicycle. Bitner says that for a while dealers were selling all their dope on bicycles.

He's very concerned that the public understand that police are working very hard to solve this thing. Nine new officers are in training, he says. A tactical response team has been put together. There are heightened patrols in the bad spots.

Captain Benavidez, a former Galveston SWAT commander, has $20,000 for the gang response team and stretches it as far as it will go. He pays four-officer teams overtime four times a week. The money is gone after December 31.

The housing authority also hires off-duty officers to patrol, and Benavidez coordinates the assignments. If those arrested can be identified as gang members, police notify the district attorney's office, which usually results in a higher bond and stiffer punishment.

Benavidez sends regular reports to the Texas Attorney General's Gang Resource System, building an information database.

What everyone counts on, though, is just old age. "Eventually they get old enough, they don't want to be gangbangers anymore," Bitner says.

Officer Robert Owens works the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at his own request. He likes to be where the big action is. While there may be fewer calls than the earlier shift, late-night happenings are usually more serious.

At first, he wasn't interested in dealing with gangs. But he was interested in investigating drug cases, and in Galveston the two are often, though not always, linked.

What you find out, says the Boys and Girls Club's Bankston, is that often gang fights aren't so much about territory as they are about drugs. As he puts it: "This is my turf. This is my turf. No, this is my dope turf."

Owens believes more proactive intervention, more social programs would help. "These kids who get in gangs don't know anything else. In most cases, their daddy was locked up." Still, he's not ready to blame everything on the parents, either.

"A lot of the parents I've talked to, they're trying hard," Owens says. There is a nighttime curfew, which gives police probable cause to write citations. This "detains them a little bit," according to Owens.

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