Thursday, May 13, 2010
It was a quiet Sunday night. My wife and I were having dinner at Pho King, the Vietnamese place on Fremont Boulevard, when four teenage kids started getting into it on the corner.
I don’t know what the beef was about, but something was clearly up, as the tense body language and rhetoric made clear.
“I don’t know what your problem is, bitch,” a Hispanic youth said to one of three other guys.
As they advanced on each other, there was brave talk of knives and retaliation. It looked like it might escalate, when, for whatever reason, the other kids backed off, sullenly walking down Francis Street and banging on the side of an oncoming car.
It was probably just testosterone kicking in, but there’s been enough publicity about gang violence in Seaside these days that I called 911. “The last thing I wanted was to turn on the 10 o’clock news and see another example of street violence, especially if it was preventable.
The officer answering the phone asked a few questions and told me they were on the case. He was right. As we headed home on Broadway, I saw two squad cars headed to the scene.
I hadn’t identified myself as a member of the press, and had mixed feelings about being a potential informant to what may have just been an example of youthful machismo, but I was impressed by the quickness of the response.
I was even more impressed when I talked to Cmdr. Chris Veloz, who runs the gang investigations unit of the Seaside Police Department, to find out what had happened, and to see if it had any relationship to the gang violence that has apparently been on the rise in Seaside lately.
“TRUST ME, IN THE MID-’90S, YOU PROBABLY WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE HERE.’’
He knew what I was talking about right away, and was happy to set the record straight.
“Those were just some kids who were kind of wannabes, acting up and hanging around,” Veloz said, adding that the current gang problem in Seaside is nothing compared to what was going on in the early ’90s, when there was a major war in town between two different Crip gangs: the Seaside Fam and the Seaside Mob.
“It was really an unusual situation – a lot of the kids went to elementary school, junior high and high school together, and then split off into one gang or the other,” explains Veloz, who has been on the force for 23 years and grew up in Seaside.
He said the violence back then didn’t originate in a drug or turf war, but as “sort of an oddity – a fight between two individuals at Del Monte Manor… People started choosing sides because the victim’s side believed members of the other side were the ones that had killed them. It wasn’t the case at the time, although the shooter later did join up with one of the gangs.
“That homicide was in ’93, and for four or five years, we had our hands full with fighting or shooting,” Veloz recalls. “It was more a Salinas-type gang problem than we have today. People were shooting each other on sight.”
It went on that way for a few years, with eight or nine homicides and multiple shootings, until the feud ended.
According to Veloz, it was a bygone time in gang history.
“The Seaside Mob used to wear blue-and-yellow University of Michigan hats,” he says. “Now you don’t identify gang members by the way they dress, because it’s all become part of hip-hop culture.”
Although Seaside is different than Salinas because there are far fewer inter-generational gangs, with family affiliations going back years, Veloz says issues remain.
“Currently, we’re having a problem with gang members and associates congregrating at Cutino Park on Noche Buena,” he acknowledges, adding that the Seaside P.D. has directed special enforcement efforts to let gang members know they’re on the case.
“They have the right to be in the park – we’re not going to violate that [unless they break the law],” he says. “But they don’t like police contact, so usually us approaching them is enough to move them along.”
The department has also had ongoing outreach with the Seaside school system to minimize trouble.
The publicity about gang violence in Seaside recently may have been overhyped. “In the last five or six years, it’s basically been the same crime stats across the board,” the veteran cop says. “Trust me, in the mid-’90s, you probably wouldn’t want to live here.”
Why the change?
“Self-preservation. There are not lot of opportunities out there for gang members, except getting killed or winding up in jail, and a lot of them come to see that for themselves.”
Hopefully, that’s how the kids outside Pho King will see it, too.