How bad is gang problem on South Shore
Gangs aren’t what they used to be. Despite their presence throughout human history, the past three decades have brought them to the forefront of the “war on crime.”
For the first time, urban schools have metal detectors and more teens are being tried as adults in the courts.
Experts say increased violence on television, cultural alienation, the widening gap between rich and poor and a general lack of community all seem to exacerbate the adolescent crisis.
But just how bad could the gang problem be in this small resort town under the pines?
“It’s not as bad here as bigger cities,” said Manuel Jimenez, a mental health clinician for a local juvenile crime intervention program called Family Solutions. “But there have been shootings and a gang-related death. Now is the time for prevention.”
Law enforcement officials say gang activity that exists in South Lake Tahoe tends to spill over from larger urban areas. A more aggressive approach in the past three years – including collaboration with cities like Reno and Carson City – has vastly curtailed both gang recruitment and criminal activity.
“But we still get kids coming here from big gang areas,” said South Lake Tahoe Police Officer Bob Camara. “Parents often want to move kids up here away from gangs, but the kids bring the mentality with them – then they introduce it to the local population.”
“Gang activity here is sporadic,” said SLTPD Cmdr. Rich McGuffin. “It pops up here and there – graffiti has been our main concern recently.”
SLTPD Officer Pete Van Arnum said a 1993 Stateline murder known to be gang related caused law enforcement to step up surveillance.
“The homicide woke the town up – people realized there was a problem,” said Van Arnum, who is a school resource officer. “Since then we’ve taken a much more aggressive stance and things have calmed down. Now we track the key players carefully. Ex-gang members have been a tremendous help to us.”
Summertime is always the worst, said Camara, citing a drive-by shooting and “retaliation stabbing” last summer which did not result in serious injuries.
“Summer is when we’re really on our toes,” he said. “Our biggest danger is big gangs who come up from larger towns like Reno or Carson – they’re the ones that have access to weapons.”
Despite the fact that there is a gang presence here, South Tahoe law enforcement officials insist their suppression strategies are working – that criminal activity has gone down locally – in schools and out.
“There are really only a handful left up here,” echoed Van Arnum. “By the time they’re 18, most have been arrested, are in jail or just got tired of it and married. In the schools, there are really only a few who are considered ‘affiliated’ with gangs. We can name them – we know them on a first-name basis,” he continued. “We’ve built up a lot of trust, so many tell us what’s going on. They know we’re not going to burn them.”
At South Tahoe Middle School, considered by officials to be the “cradle of gang recruitment,” Vice Principal Kathi Jensen said this year they’ve only had one gang-related incident.
“That’s a real sign that things are getting better,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to identify the at-risk kids here. The schools are now working closely with law enforcement agencies.”
South Lake Tahoe High School Assistant Principal Jack Stafford said support from local police as well as from the school board and administration has made a world of difference.
“It’s made my job a lot easier – I feel supported in enforcing zero tolerance,” he said. “No one is in denial that there is the potential for problems, you have to be proactive and constantly aware. I’m regularly in touch with both county sheriffs’ offices as well as the city police.”
Stafford said the most notable gang incident at the high school occurred this fall, when a scuffle between two rival gangs resulted in five students being expelled from the district.
Douglas County Gang Intelligence Officer Ted Duzan – known to patrol several casino arcades under cover – claims gang problems on the Nevada side also have decreased.
“There are no structured gangs now on this side of Douglas County,” he said. “Just pee-wee wanna-bees that claim to be affiliates to big gangs. They have limited power and influence.”
Most local young people are simply mimicking gang behavior – “sagging” or “flying the colors,” said Van Arnum, however some are doing it as early as the fourth grade. “Now instead of saying, ‘My dad is going to beat you up,’ kids will say ‘I know the South Side 13,'” he added. “It’s often just a scare tactic with no validity.”
But are these authority figures just blowing smoke?
No, say teens interviewed for this story who have been identified as in gangs, recently out, or otherwise affiliated. Most opted not to use their own names.
“Two or three years ago it was worse – now there’s not as much of a need for protection,” said Hector, who is now on parole and used to be in a gang. “And here the town is small enough that word gets out when you’ve been jumped out (beaten up to get out of a gang). In bigger cities you can’t get out without getting killed,” he continued. “I’d like to see how many of the members of MS or South Side 13 would come back alive if they went to to L.A.”
“A few years ago older guys tried to recruit me, but they’ve all moved. They invited me to a party and said I wouldn’t have to get jumped in,” said Jason. “Things are small and pretty calm here and you don’t need protection, it’s not out of control – in a bigger city you don’t feel safe unless you’re in one.”
“There were some bad fights at the Crescent V carnival and Bijou School after school,” said Daniel. “But now it’s not as bad – but there are still some older guys in gangs that don’t like us and try to pick fights.”
Although everyone from social workers to teachers to police officers said they believe progress has been made in decreasing criminal activity, they also agreed there’s a great deal more work to be done.
“We can’t do it alone,” said Van Arnum. “This has to be a communitywide effort.”
Tomorrow: Gang prevention strategies – what’s being done?
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