The Anti-Defamation League has honored Southern California law enforcement officials involved in combating street gangs that commit hate crimes.
Residents of Highland Park just north of downtown Los Angeles long knew to steer clear of the Avenues gang as it violently dealt drugs and protected its territory. For African-Americans, the gang posed an even greater threat.
"What we saw was startling," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lowe.
Lowe helped prosecute members of the gang for the killing of a sheriff's deputy. "It wasn't just that they had murdered Jerry Ortiz," Lowe said. "They had engaged in a long term ongoing campaign of racially motivated violence against African-Americans."
The same was true for the Varrio Hawaiian Gardens gang in that Southeast L.A. community. It called itself "H.G." for hate gang. Police say the gang sought to rid Hawaiian Gardens of all blacks, and would shoot at them as they exited freeways.
In a ceremony at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Los Angeles chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recognized state and federal prosecutors and police officers who went after these gangs in major operations over the past two years.
They went "over and beyond the call of duty," ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind said.
Susskind hoped the arrests of hundreds of gang members "sent a message to similarly inclined gangs."
The group also recognized Orange County prosecutors who went after Public Enemy Number One, or PEN1, a white supremacist gang. And it honored an L.A. County Sheriff's program that teaches tolerance in public schools.
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez traveled from Washington, D.C. to attend the luncheon.
“These incidents belong in our history books," Perez said. "But regrettably we see them on the front pages of papers not just here in Los Angeles but north, south, east and west across this country.”
Susskind, whose group monitors hate crimes of all sorts, said hate gangs are growing.
"This instance of whole gangs forming out of this hate ideology is a relatively new one and alarming," Susskind said.
Not all in law enforcement agree.
Mike Ford worked for decades as a gang detective for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. He retired last year.
"I don’t believe its growing," Ford said. "I think it’s always existed. It seems like there’s more attention given to it now – certainly new legislation about hate crimes brings it to light."
Last year, President Obama signed hate crimes legislation that makes it easier for federal prosecutors to seek criminal charges against gangs involved in racial violence.
Ford said drugs, guns and increasingly identify theft remain the primary focus of the vast majority of gangs.
At the same time, Ford said the state prison system continues to serve as a breeding ground for racism that spills out onto the streets. Prison gangs like Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood and various black gangs promote racial divisions.
“If you’re looking for a petri dish of where this racial animus exists, certainly the state prison system is that example.”