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Case study

Operation Thumbs Down

The Californian city of Los Angeles has one of the most entrenched gang problems of any American metropolis. Hispanic and black gangs have long dominated the city, and the police department’s website admits that the county and city are the ‘gang capital’ of the country, with over 45,000 gang members and more than 450 active gangs. On average Los Angeles gangs commit over 5,000 verified gang crimes each year.

Most gangs have a propensity for community intimidation and violence, so disrupting or dismantling gangs is a challenge for law enforcement. Like many federal law enforcement agencies, the FBI can use a multitude of investigative techniques to identify and gather sufficient evidence to target and prosecute the leadership of a gang. For example, in return for ‘proffering’ information about more serious targets, a suspect under federal criminal investigation can reach a formal immunity or plea bargain agreement with federal prosecutors (McCaffrey and Oebker 2013).

A variety of techniques were deployed during Operation Thumbs Down, an extensive FBI-led operation that targeted the Rollin’ 30’s Harlem Crips, a set of the Crips who operated in the LAPD’s Southwest Division in South Central Los Angeles. The goal of the intervention was the arrest and prosecution of Rollin 30’s members, with the aim of violent and property crime reduction in the gang area. After an extensive intelligence-led investigation and surveillance operation, an initial gang ‘take-down’ resulted in 23 federal indictments, 16 federal arrests on the date of the takedown, 24 federal and 2 state warrants issued, 4 probation/parole searches executed, and 18 state arrests on the date of the take-down. In addition, several gang members were either arrested by both federal and local authorities or turned themselves into authorities after the take-down.

The investigating officers learned a great deal about what opportunities the gang exploited in the Rollin 30’s area. It was believed that the gang fed off a sense of community neglect and the belief among the community that the city didn’t care about their area or their problems. As a result of this insight, gang task force officers initiated a number of civic initiatives, centred on community outreach and neighbourhood beautification such as the clearing of streets and alleyways of debris and graffiti removal. Forty alleys were cleaned and trash was removed from the area by three graffiti removal crews, bulk trash removal, and weed removal teams. The task force also organised a community resource day, involving 40 organisations drawn from community and government groups, healthcare and behavioural health organisations.

The home turf of another gang nearby was used for comparison purposes so that an evaluation of the crime reduction effects could be examined (see Figure 1.1). The analysis compared crime changes in the Rollin 30’s turf with the territory of the similar gang that was not targeted. Operation Thumbs Down was successful in reducing violent crime. After the take-down, violent crime in the Rollin 30’s territory was reduced to approximately 4.2 per month, a violence reduction of 22 per cent. After one year, there had been about 50 fewer violent crimes than expected, in an area of less than two square miles. A 10 per cent reduction in property crime was also identified, and there was no evidence of any significant displacement of crime into the local (buffer zone) area.
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