I was stunned when I read the headlines that one of the scariest jobs in the United States today would involve protecting my retired schoolteacher mother and about 99,000 of her neighbors, friends and family in remote Hemet, CA. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran major stories recently on how gangs are violently turning on the police force in this sleepy little desert town about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Suddenly, Hemet has gained national notoriety and concern.
It seems that while the Hemet police force has been making an effort to crack down on gang violence, the gangs have been cracking back. It's become necessary to install barricades, iron fences and blast-proof glass to fortify the town's main police station, because within the past four months:
- A pipe bomb was found strapped to the bottom of an unmarked police car used by gang-task-force members.
- Someone attached a homemade gun to to the entry gate of the police headquarters, rigging it to fire when the gate was opened. A police officer narrowly missed injury when the bullet whizzed past him because the gate had not opened completely.
- A natural gas pipeline was rerouted to spew deadly fumes into police headquarters. One flick of a light switch could have ignited the entire building, but arriving police officers smelled gas, backed out and alerted experts before any damage could be done.
- Just before a March 17 raid on alleged members of the motorcycle gang Vagos, police received a call threatening to blow up a police car within 48 hours of the raid. It turned out to be an empty threat, however.
- A bullet was fired through the police chief's mailbox.
- Most recently, four city code-enforcement trucks parked near City Hall were set on fire.
A $200,000 reward has been offered for information leading to arrest and conviction for this violence. The attacks have been described by State Attorney General Jerry Brown and Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco as "urban terrorism." Meanwhile, the chief of police, Richard Dana, told the New York Times: "We go around with a target painted on our backs." This is definitely not what most officers had in mind when they signed up for this job.
Some residents of the Inland Empire town, which has long been a retirement mecca for mobile-home-dwelling seniors, are concerned. "When I was growing up, this was an ideal place to raise a family; but not anymore," said one local mother of two. "I'm afraid to let my kids walk to school or go anywhere on their bikes -- who knows if they could get caught in the crossfire?"
Still others see the situation as the sensationalistic media's attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill. "It must have been a slow news weekend," observed another Hemet resident. "News trucks and photographers are camped out around the police station, grabbing random people off the streets to get quotes. Sure, there are some problems here, but how does all this national media attention help?"
To be sure, it's more negative attention for an area that has already been particularly hard hit by unemployment. The rates in the San Bernardino/Riverside areas, where Hemet is located, are among the highest in the nation at a record 15 percent. The recent violence in a heretofore tranquil town seems to magnify the desperation and despondency of the area.
It makes me wonder: Does media attention help or hurt a town like this? Does shining a national spotlight on gangs encourage them to revel in their 15 minutes of fame and try to grab more, or discourage them? And what does it do for the local population? Do they feel supported and protected, or frightened and exposed?
I was born and raised in Hemet, and I still have family there of all ages, shapes and sizes; but I hate to think of anyone's life, anywhere, being marred by "urban terrorism" -- or 15 percent unemployment, for that matter. You can be sure I'll catch an earful on the subject when I head home for Easter.