City Heights gang members use pit bulls

"They are the Dobermans of ten years ago."

— Gang members have a new weapon against the cops in City Heights. Pit bulls. According to police, the teenage own owners walk their dogs on long leashes down such main thoroughfares as University Avenue. It's not just exercise, say police; it's meant to intimidate citizens, rival gang members -- even the cops themselves.

"I've seen a dozen times where they tie up their dog on a six- to eight-foot leash in the middle of a busy sidewalk," says Mid-City officer Jerry Hara, who has taken an interest in the area's dog problems. "And they just sit there. So people are forced to go out into traffic and put themselves in danger while the dog is sitting on the sidewalk barking at them."

Citizens are "being intimidated and afraid to walk down busy commercial areas," says a memorandum circulated this month in the San Diego Police Department's Mid-City division, "because of 'gang members' walking pit bulls on long leads."

These dogs, the memo says, provide an added benefit to their owners.

"Word among gang members is that police will not contact them while walking the dogs. Gang detectives acknowledge that some gang members are transporting concealed weapons and narcotics while walking these dogs. Based upon Mid-City sergeants' observations, [when] gang members are walking dogs...officers are reluctant to initiate field interviews."

Officer James Stevens, a canine handler with the SDPD, says the report is correct. "When [gang members] hang out at known narcotic street-dealing locations," he says, "a lot of officers are going to think twice about going up and contacting somebody who's got an 80-pound pit bull on a leash. It's just an extra hassle that some officers aren't willing to [risk]. Not only do you have to worry about getting up there and talking to them, and getting a feel for them, and determining 'Should I pat these guys down for weapons?' Now you have to worry about dealing with their dogs. If you start to infringe upon the dog's handler -- who is basically God to the dog -- then the dog's going to become defensive, and you could have quite a problem."

Stevens, who suffered a bone-crushing bite on the leg from a pit bull, says things can get complicated when dog owners carry weapons or drugs. "They see you coming and they try to get rid of whatever they have, and you want to make an arrest. Now you're going to have to go hands-on, and you've got to deal with this guy's dog as well. Things could get nasty."

Things got nasty earlier this month when officers were searching a probationer's house for drugs and weapons, according to Jerry Hara. "When the [officers] walked in, the dog came at them. They fired once. They missed. Then the dog ran to the backyard and then came through another doggy door. That's when [an officer] shot him and he died."

Hara tries to stick with batons or pepper spray. But his colleague Stevens says such methods don't always work. "If you've got a rushing pit bull, you pull out your pepper spray," says Stevens. "By the time the spray starts to neutralize him, he's already on you, and if he's on you and biting, he's just going to close his eyes and [lock on]."

"Gang members are not breaking any laws by walking the dog on a long lead," says Mid-City officer Christina Burhans, who wrote the memo addressing the problem. "Just because people feel intimidated by it, the [owners] are not committing any crimes. If the dog has not bitten anybody, there's really not much we can do about it."

The result is more work for police.

"Officers from the Mid-City command notice a growing increase in the number of dog-bite calls for service, citizen complaints of vicious dogs, and gang members using pit bulls to intimidate officers and residents," continues the memorandum. "In the first six months of 1998, officers citywide responded to 438 calls for service. Mid-City [had] 224 animal calls during Fiscal Year '98. Countless other radio calls of fights, shootings, stabbings are a direct relationship with pit bull fights where wagers are placed. This figure includes officers having to kill three dogs in Mid-City alone. Citywide the figure jumps to 20 dog shootings, 11 of which were fatal. Most of the shootings were done during the execution of search warrants or probation searches."

And it's not just on the main streets that gang dogs cause fear and havoc. "[Gang members] walk their dogs up and down where there are enclosed yards with dogs in them, like mine," says Susan Ringo, a City Heights resident. "They kick my fence to start aggression between my dog and theirs. It's usually a pit bull. Pit bulls are the Dobermans of ten years ago."

"Pit bulls are mostly [owned by] younger people," says Lee Houck, one of City Heights' most visible community activists. "They're usually into gangs. They use them as status symbols. Before it was middle class. Everybody had to have their Porsche and their Dobie. Now it's filtered down. All the tough guys have to have them."

Determining who has the meanest dog means a dogfight. Officer Hara says it happens a lot, though cops are sometimes too late to catch the fights in action. "We get radio calls that say that [mainly] Hispanic males are fighting dogs in the middle of the street or in a backyard. But by the time we get there, they're usually gone."

Sherry Bodger, who lives on 38th Street, knows this scenario well. "Our neighbors would keep two or three pit bulls penned up on the side of the house, a very small area," says Bodger. "I noticed there'd be a large group of people over there. One gentleman, who owned a truck, would bring his pit bulls over. I thought, 'Are they breeding them?' But then the barking would start, from 9:00 in the morning until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. The dogs would be tearing each other up. She'd have her kids out there. They'd bring out a table and a cordless phone and be on that phone through most of it. He'd bring two dogs and fight them with her dogs."

Bodger, a school district cook with four kids of her own, says it was the police who told her what was going on.

"I thought those neighbors were just mean people with vicious animals, but the police said [they had] all the signs of people fighting pit bulls for money, for gambling."

Dogfighting is a felony in 46 states, including California. It draws up to three years behind bars and up to a $50,000 fine. For Greg Dietrich, a graphic designer who's on the City Heights Town Council, a similar neighbor problem almost cost him his life.

"Two years ago I had a neighbor who used to lift weights," says Dietrich. "He had two pit bulls. The first thing that got my attention was seeing him get the round 50-pound weights and tie them with chains around [each] dog's neck, and then throw the dog and the weight down into the canyon. He'd stand at the top of the canyon and go, 'Come on, boy! Come on, boy!' and the dog would struggle up the hill with the weight dragging and choking his tongue. The dog would get to the top of the canyon and be all happy to be back with his master, and he would take the dog by the throat and punch him in the face, and knock him back down into the canyon again. He did this repeatedly until the dog almost couldn't move anymore. And then he'd do it with the other dog."

It was all training to make the dogs fighting dogs, police told Dietrich. Between canyon climbs, the owner made the dogs walk treadmills and hang from trees. "He duct-taped around the muzzle of the dog's mouth and had a rope attached to the tape, threw the rope over the tree, and hung the dog six, seven feet in the air, and let the dog dangle there for about 45 minutes. You could hear that dog screaming, shaking, kicking. That was to strengthen his neck."

One day Dietrich was in the canyon looking for his cat. "I was concerned because this guy let his pit bulls have the run of the canyon all the time. And children also went down there. The dogs came down after me. I kept my hands down. I avoided eye contact. The dogs would go like you flush prey from a bush: one on one side, one on the other. I kept facing them and screaming, 'Jane!' That was my wife. 'Get your gun. Get the police!' I was there almost for 17 minutes. And I tell you, it's terrifying. Finally the dogs gave it up and they went back."

Dietrich says Animal Control gave up working with the neighbor because the neighbor threatened their officers and a police officer.

"Fortunately the officer said, 'Greg, don't worry about it. It's now a police problem. He threatened the wrong person.'" The officer, Jerry Hara, has since become a specialist in dog disturbances. And he wants to make changes.

"The old way of doing things," he says, "was [police] handled the criminal problems, and whenever we had dog problems, we'd just call Animal Control. The problem with that is sometimes they only have one or two people for the entire county of San Diego. When you call them, they might [take] an hour to get there. And you can't sit there and baby-sit a dog for that long."

"Animal Control is overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem and are not able to respond to vicious-dog calls or investigations," says Burhans in her memo. She says the San Diego County Department of Animal Control employs a total of 34 officers split between shelters in Bonita, Carlsbad, and Gaines Street. "Their operation covers over two million people."

Hara and his colleagues are now training cops to take some of the burden off Animal Control. They've joined with the City Heights community to address the dog problem. One goal is to change county laws so that owners with animals considered dangerous must carry $100,000 liability insurance, must muzzle the animals when in public, must have their dogs branded with easy permanent identification, and register them as a dangerous dog, in addition to a regular license.

One thing they won't be asking for is a law similar to those in France, Switzerland, and Puerto Rico, which ban certain "dangerous" breeds like pit bulls altogether.

"Our feeling," says Christina Burhans, "is it's the owners are the problem, not the dog. They teach them to love or hate. Pit bulls can be loving and kind dogs."

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