Crackdown

After years of neglect, a Maryvale neighborhood and the Phoenix police evict the West Side City Crips

Officer Scott Masino began CPR even though he knew his friend was dead. Masino tried in vain to push breath into the chest of fellow cop Marc Atkinson, to get his heart to beat after it had been stopped by the gunshots.

Atkinson was killed in an ambush on March 26. While pursuing three drug suspects in his squad car, he rounded a corner only to find he was looking down the barrel of a .357. Two bullets struck Atkinson in the head.

Atkinson's murder ripped through the city. The first shooting of a Phoenix police officer since 1991 blared from the evening news and headlines for weeks. Complete strangers left flowers and thank-you notes at the grimy street corner where Atkinson was killed. For days, people kept a vigil over the spot as if awaiting a visitation.

Masino had worked with Atkinson to take down one of Phoenix's most violent street gangs, the West Side City Crips, without injury. Now brazen drug peddlers had murdered Atkinson.

Masino and another officer were the first on the shooting scene at 30th Avenue and Thomas Road. Masino talks about the details of Atkinson's death for the first time to New Times.

Masino is usually calm on calls, he says. He kept his voice steady even as he described the bullet hole in the windshield of Atkinson's cruiser. But when he looked inside the squad car and saw Atkinson, he screamed for the fire department's paramedics to hurry to the scene.

The dispatcher's voice came to Masino then, asking him how Atkinson was. Masino recalls how he wrestled with a proper response.

"You can't say he's dead," Masino says. "You can't say he doesn't look good. You can't say he was shot twice in the head. There are officers on the way, you don't want them to hear it, they're already pumped up with adrenaline from an officer-needs-assistance call. The media are on the way, they've got their scanners on. Overhead, there was a media chopper, you know they're broadcasting live, and you just think, he's got a family, and you don't want them to hear it this way. So I just said, 'We need fire here now.'

"It's one of those moments you never want to go through again," he says after a beat.

But gang and drug-related violence are not uncommon events in Phoenix anymore. Masino has confronted this reality firsthand.

A month before Atkinson's death, the Maryvale cop had faced the newest evolution in gang tactics: Instead of occupying street corners in their neighborhood, the West Side City Crips took over an entire condominium complex and nearby apartment units; more alarming than the gang's unusual turf claim was West Side City's willingness to openly challenge and physically threaten law enforcement.

Gang violence, once reserved for rivals or those unlucky enough to get caught in a drive-by, now targeted the police themselves.

Although Atkinson's death was not gang-related, his shooting forced Masino to acknowledge the danger both officers confronted when they went after the West Side City Crips.

"This [gang violence] has been going on a long time," Masino says. "People don't realize it, but this isn't new. It's just reached the point where the bad guys are hurting the good guys now."

Twenty days after Atkinson's death, Masino's viewpoint on gang violence was underscored when Officer James Snedigar, a member of Chandler's SWAT team, was killed. Snedigar had charged a room where the suspects in a heist of a jewelry store had holed up; two were documented members of the New Mexican Mafia, a powerful and violent gang. Police say it was one of the gangsters who fired the SKS rifle that ended Snedigar's life. People from all over the Valley mourned again.

There are civilian casualties as well. In February, the media spotlight blazed on south Phoenix, near 24th Street and Broadway, where five neighbors left their homes in body bags in less than 72 hours. Three others, including a 2-year-old girl, were wounded in the two shootings, which New Times ("Life and Death in a Crackhouse," March 18, and "Larry Jack's Second Shot," March 25) linked to gangs.

Although the most grisly episodes like the killing of the police officers and the carnage in south Phoenix are trumpeted in the press, gang-related violence has proliferated in the Valley in the dark. Gang activity goes largely unreported. Following police recommendations, the press fails to accurately identify gangs.

A community has to identify its problems before it can fix them, and in the absence of civic attention, gangs have become an epidemic.

State and municipal authorities say they have documented about 600 street gangs in the Valley, more than 300 of them in Phoenix alone. They say the majority of these gangs do not pose immediate threats, but that anywhere from two to four dozen of them are "hard core" and dangerous.

While gang violence is down from its peak in 1992 and 1993, the police say gang membership is on the rise. The most dangerous of these gangs deal drugs, run protection rackets and enforce their will with intimidation, assault and murder.

In interviews with New Times, police officers and residents of the city's most battered neighborhoods have stepped forward to name the struggle they face on a daily basis. Today in metropolitan Phoenix, gangs control entire neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Alleys and courtyards have been turned into open-air drug markets, operating around the clock. Market share is protected with 9 mms and shotguns. Mothers instruct their children to sleep on the floor for fear of flying bullets.

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