Got'em

GITEM, the state's $12 million antigang task force, storms Casa Grande and shoots a smalltime scofflaw in the back

Gabe Beechum was one of those people.
Beechum is a former NCAA track standout who returned to Casa Grande several years ago after graduating from Arizona State University. He had just gotten off work at the city's Parks Department, where he runs recreational programs for kids, when he stopped his car and got out to watch several GITEM officers make an arrest.

"I just stood there and watched, just to see what would happen," he says.
Beechum, who is black, says one of the officers marched over. "He came up and said, 'Why are you wearing sunglasses? Why are you wearing your hat on backwards?'" Beechum says. As soon as Beechum told the officer who he was and where he worked, the officer backed off, he says.

"It just gave me a strange feeling," Beechum says, choosing his words carefully. "It just didn't feel right, you know?"

After the operation, a group of angry parents met with Sheriff Reyes, GITEM's host that weekend. Prior to the sweep, Reyes had announced that the operation was to be "a public statement . . . that the levels of violence and criminal activity related to gang presence is no longer to be tolerated."

The parents told the sheriff the operation had made the entirely wrong kind of statement. "We felt they were singling out minorities," says Michael and Christian's mother, Dora Vasquez, who attended the meeting.

Reyes acknowledged that tactics employed by GITEM in Phoenix and Tucson could probably use some refinement in a smaller city. But the sheriff, who is Latino, denied that minorities were unfairly targeted.

Reyes explained that the 110 officers who took part had been told to stop any car with any violation as part of a "zero tolerance" strategy.

But records show the sweep netted almost zero white people. Except for one instance, all suspects booked into the Pinal County Jail on charges brought by officers involved in the October operation were Latino, African American or Indian, the vast majority of them young men.

Gonzales, who became GITEM's commander shortly after the operation in Casa Grande, is not surprised. Because 96 percent of Arizona's gang members are minorities, those questioned and ultimately arrested during a typical GITEM sweep most likely will not be white, Gonzales says.

"Unfortunately, that's just the way the numbers very often shake out," he says.

Gonzales says he has spoken to his share of angry parents since taking over GITEM. "A lot of the time, they're only getting their kids' version of what happened," he says. "Well, when we tell them where their kids were hanging out, or what we found them doing, they're usually a lot more understanding."

"To us, there is no such thing as a 'wanna-be,'" he adds. "If kids are dressing this way, it sends a signal that they might just take the next step."

Despite the sound and fury, GITEM's initial operation in Casa Grande was unimpressive. The Pinal County Sheriff's Office announced that the operation generated 78 adult bookings. But New Times' analysis of court documents indicates that of those 78, only 12 were nabbed by GITEM, even though its members made up a plurality of the force.

One veteran Pinal County prosecutor believes he knows why GITEM made so few arrests. "You've got all these guys coming in who don't know a thing about the area, and who've only got two days to learn it. The simple fact is, they get lost," says the prosecutor, who requested anonymity.

"They're relying on the local cops to show them where to go, but there's only so many of them [local cops] to go around."

A Casa Grande police officer says he made a point to stay out of GITEM's way. "All they do is slow us down," he says.

Records also reveal that several arrests attributed to GITEM were unrelated to the sweep. For example, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office said two felony warrants had been served by officers assigned to the task force. Records show that the only people booked into jail on felony warrants that weekend were a couple that had been charged with beating their foster daughter to death several months earlier. The warrants, served by Casa Grande police, undoubtedly would have been served even if GITEM had not been in town.

The Sheriff's Office also credited the antigang effort with making a felony narcotics bust. But the bust, which netted 330 pounds of marijuana, was actually made by a DPS officer patroling Interstate 10 as part of his routine duties.

The majority of the people booked into jail were held on outstanding warrants, mostly for failing to show up at traffic court. The rest are a mixed bag of low-end felonies and misdemeanors--and other than their skin color, their connection to gang activity is dubious. Three women were booked for allowing minors access to alcohol at a Casa Grande home; one man--the only nonminority booked during the October sweep--was arrested for kicking a Casa Grande cop who had responded to a domestic violence call; two people were arrested on drunken-driving charges; and seven men were hauled in for fighting at a party.

In almost every case, these offenders were released the next day after paying off fines or agreeing to appear before a justice of the peace.

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