Crackdown

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

"The violence knows no boundaries. It's not any section of town. It's everywhere now," Masino says.

Gangs even occupy the sedate suburbs of Scottsdale and Mesa. Gang-related violence has erupted in such unlikely places as the upscale Paradise Valley Mall.

Not all gangs are dangerous crack dealers. Not all gangs are homicidal. Some, it could be said, are part of the neighborhood social fabric.

And obviously, gangs are less prevalent in the places where the median income rises and private security guards patrol.

The worst of the gangs are largely the problem of the poor.
The neighborhoods least equipped to confront the power of these thugs endure the worst of it. And in the silence from the city's leaders and the press, the poor, and the street cops who protect them, are left on their own.

Certain gangs have grown so arrogant that they have ordered the police off their turf--and some police officers have ceded the territory as behind enemy lines.

That was the case in the Woodmar condominium complex, the Maryvale neighborhood in the grip of the West Side City Crips, listed by the police as one of the three most dangerous criminal street gangs in the city.

Then Scott Masino joined with the residents and owners in Woodmar and decided it was time to draw a line of their own. After an intense community effort, the police made nearly 30 arrests in February, smashing the Crips' control of the place and ending years of violence.

Masino served as the police point man in the Woodmar reclamation. He spent many hours alone with the gang-bangers at a time when there was a standing order for cops to enter the complex only in groups. He documented the behavior and made the IDs that would allow the February arrests to stand up in court.

But Marc Atkinson's murder was devastating for Masino. It made him reflect on his own actions at Woodmar. Would he do it again?

"After what happened to Marc, I'd have to seriously consider whether I'd do it again," he says. "My wife wouldn't want to hear this, but I don't know if I'd take the chances I did. After Marc, I don't think I'd do it that way again."

Still, there weren't many other options.
"We didn't have any other ideas, because we'd tried everything else," Masino says. "We tried sweeps, we tried arrests, we tried coming in groups--none of it worked."

This time was different. This time, the raid worked.
Admittedly, Woodmar still isn't perfect, but for the first time in years, kids can play outside without fear of getting shot. Families congregate on the lawns. In Woodmar, the residents have taken back their homes. They won a battle in a war most people don't even realize is being waged.

Lieutenant Chris Gentis watched for several years as the Woodmar IV townhomes at 43rd Avenue and Thomas sank further and further into the gutter. An affable, 26-year veteran of the force, he'd worked his way up the departmental food chain from the street. He can remember when Maryvale was a nice place to live.

Woodmar, a cluster of 150 condos, is adjacent to the Pine Ridge Apartments, which number about 300.

About 500 families make their homes here--including roughly 1,000 school-age children.

But the kids didn't play outside at Woodmar. People stayed indoors and kept their heads down and their mouths shut.

Woodmar belonged to the West Side City Crips. Their names weren't on any titles, but for years, there was no question who really owned the place. They bullied residents, utility workers, handymen, the sheriff's posse and the cops.

The West Side City Crips is a loose affiliation of street gangs in west Phoenix that sells drugs--mainly crack. Named one of the three most powerful gangs in Phoenix by the police, the Crips have been around for years, in one incarnation or another.

Police estimate their numbers at 300 to 400 members. There is no single leader of West Side and little in the way of organization. The gang-banger with the most status commands respect from other gang-bangers, but the hierarchy shifts constantly, as West Siders go to jail, drop out and get killed.

"Even if we took the 'leaders' down, somebody there would step up to take his place," says Detective David Mendoza, an officer with Phoenix's gang unit. Mendoza, along with his partner, Terry Boe, was one of the officers recruited by Gentis and Masino to help out with the Woodmar investigation. "It's just a part of life. You take one out, another one takes his place."

The West Siders are what the police call a "profit-based" gang as opposed to a "boundary-based" gang--they will go wherever the drug sales take them, and they will use violence and murder to protect their business. They moved north to Woodmar about four years ago when police began cracking down on their traditional haunts around Buckeye Road. Like pushing on a balloon, the pressure caused them to emerge elsewhere.

"Over the years, we've targeted West Side City mainly down on Buckeye. As a result, they decided to leave. They took the path of least resistance and came up here," Mendoza says.

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