Utah police team with FBI to battle against gang membership

Story and slideshow by MARISSA HUNTSMAN

Salt Lake Valley is home to more than a top university; gang membership is at a peak within the valley with more than 50 active gangs, according to Salt Lake City Police.

According to the Salt Lake City Police website, 13 city police departments have teamed up with the FBI to form two task forces that are charged with formulating a plan to combat this growing problem.

Many residents of the Salt Lake City Valley remain unaware of the far-reaching effects of the gangs within the mountain ranges. However, many of these gangs are not from here.

Instead Salt Lake City is dubbed a “Secondary Gang City”  by the Metro Gang Unit, due to the national nature of the gang as stated by the Safe Street Violent Crime Initiative issued by the FBI. The major gangs with influential ties with California include the Sureños and Norteños.

One approach that police are doing is the creation of unified task forces that combine the representatives from local and state agencies along with the FBI. This is a new organization to hit the state of Utah but is not for the rest of the nation. Due to incredible results in other areas of the nation, the unique gang plague that afflicts this state could benefit from a long-term, proactive task force.

Just as with any aspect of the Salt Lake Valley, there is a great diversity of the membership of the gangs. According to the Metro Gang Unit website, not all of the gangs are organized by race or ethnicity. So the task forces also watch for groups such as the motorcycle gangs the Barons and Sundowners.

The Safe Streets Gang Task Force “involves the combined efforts of local and federal resources,” said Task Force Commander Richard Brede in an interview.

With recent efforts resulting in arrests and seizure of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine, the Safe Street Gang Task Force is making headway in the fight against the drug trade within the state.

An important aspect of the task force is the ability of Brede’s 17 officers to go anywhere in the Valley to investigate gang crime. This mirrors the ability of the gang members in Utah who travel from one area to another.

This is a recent change that is allowing residents to witness that the police are working against the gang crime in their neighborhoods.

The effectiveness of this task force is evident in the application of avoiding duplication during an investigation. Time is not wasted explaining the circumstances to police officer after police officer. The process has been streamlined, providing for a seamless application to solve drug crimes, according to the FBI website.

Another advantage of FBI involvement is the experience that the FBI brings to the situation due to its nature of investigating organized crime. According to Brede, street gangs have steadily been increasing their ability to remain under the radar.

Another common trend being observed regarding membership in Salt Lake Valley gang organizations is the recruitment of members young enough to be attending high school. With gang members walking the hallways of schools, the availability of drugs to teens has never been greater.

“The most common drugs I catch students with are marijuana and cocaine,” said Officer Lyman Smith, the resource officer at  West High School in Salt Lake City. Students are often caught in their cars, school restrooms, or behind churches.

Smith states that catching students using or dealing involves a constant officer presence around the school. Constant hall monitoring during classes by the school’s security team assists with keeping the drugs out of the school.

On the other hand, Resource Officer Thurston, who works at Lone Peak High School in Alpine, states that the majority of tips regarding drug deals and students using comes from fellow students.

Students involved in illegal activity brag to their peers about their newest purchase. Word travels through the grapevine and it eventually surfaces on Thurston’s radar.

These types of anonymous tips have assisted Thurston and the American Fork Police with recent arrests of students meeting in the wooded area behind Lone Peak High School.

The difference between these two schools is evident due to the culture of each school. West High School is known as a school that has many members of multiple gangs walking its hallways. The students at this school are aware of this and do not bring unwanted attention to themselves.

On the other side, the culture of the Alpine school is one in which gangs is not a familiarity and thus the culture allows for students to report crimes they see or hear about in class.

Once these students have been caught by the officers, they are cited and both schools suspend students for a period of time based on the number of occurrences per student.

Much of the information regarding teen gang and/or drug involvement stems from the information learned through the resource officer at local high schools. “These officers are the front men on the battlefield,” Brede said. “They provide necessary information that cannot be gained through other means.”

After the citation has been issued, the Metro Gang Unit steps in to provide support for the teen. The unit’s current movement against gangs is the Salt Lake City Gang Project, which police forces are using to decrease the presence of gangs especially within the school system. However, the task force runs into difficulties when convincing a teen to return to high school rather than make hundreds in one night selling drugs, said detective Nate Clark in an interview with the Deseret News.

This unit features a three-pronged approach when dealing with gangs: prevention, education and suppression, said Detective Thomas Loevlie of the MGU. The last five years have featured the unit focusing on prevention and education. The main direction of education is focused toward young children beginning in fourth grade through programs such as D.A.R.E.

Education is also directed toward the parents of these children. “The media and general public blame bad parenting for the rise in gang activity,” Loevlie said. The unit educates parents to get involved with their children. An involved parent is another layer of protection for the child.

The approach is very different from that of past police forces. It features building a rapport with the teen. Spending more time interviewing the teen offenders and understanding why they have turned to gangs and/or drug involvement.

“Teens have perfected the methods they use to hide gang involvement from adults but this combination of agencies brings new methods to stop and identify gang members,” Loevlie said. “Allowing us to step in and educate the teen.”

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