Is race an issue when it comes to gang suppression?
Gangs tend to reflect the ethnic makeup of their communities, said Manuel Jimenez, a mental health clinician for a local juvenile crime intervention program called Family Solutions.
“Here in Tahoe we have people affiliated with white gangs, including skinheads, Asian gangs and Latino gangs,” he said. “But being a member isn’t always based on race – I know a 12- or 13-year-old white girl that was recently jumped into a Salvadoran gang. And sometimes kids are just from the same neighborhood.”
Although the teens interviewed agreed that they’ve felt safer and less pressured to join gangs in the past few years, some Hispanic young people say the town’s gang suppression strategies have come with a price.
Most elected not to use their real names.
“We got kicked out of a store for no reason,” said Carlos. “Then the store owners called the cops and we all got searched with our hands up right on the highway – they didn’t find anything because we weren’t doing anything wrong. We’re not a gang, we’re just friends.”
Notably, most said they felt they were generally treated as individuals at school – including by school resource officers – but felt they were often judged unfairly out in the community.
“I think a lot of it is about race – it would help to have more Hispanics as business owners, cops and judges,” said Juan. “Skaters and hippies are into drugs and do all kinds of damage, but they don’t seem to get bothered as much.”
But South Lake Tahoe Police Cmdr. Rich McGuffin insists police respond to the clothes, not the ethnicity.
“Our beat cops don’t know these kids the way the school resource officers do,” he said. “Initially, they might make the assumption that certain kids are in gangs based on their clothes.”
“Movies make Hispanics look stupid,” said Maribel. “We’re always portrayed as criminals being chased by the cops.”
“I’m trying to do good things,” said David. “But all these people are waiting – expecting me to do something bad. I get mad, they don’t understand me.”
SLTPD Officer Pete Van Arnum says teens should speak up if they feel they have been searched or bothered unnecessarily, however gang resistance strategies do include regular interaction and questioning of young people.
“One of the things we have to do is look at profiles of potential gang members, and that includes dress,” he said. “If they fit that profile, they will get more police attention. Some kids are only dressing that way to look cool – but they should know that they can expect that kind of attention.”
Jaime, who has never been in a gang, wrote to the Tribune about an incident that happened on the way home from South Tahoe High School.
“Ask yourself, how would you feel if for no reason you got pulled over, and without probable cause, and had your car searched in front of your friends and elders?” he wrote. “All my teachers have a lot of respect toward me. Now I wonder if they saw what happened and if I will lose their respect.”
“If we don’t have a lot of presence, gangs are like locusts,” said Douglas County Gang Resistance Officer Ted Duzan. “We don’t have a big gang problem now, but it takes constant vigilance.”
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