Local News

Law enforcement always on lookout for gang activity

Gangs: Less organization in schools observed.

Date: 9/11/2009

Posted by Garden City Police Department on 11/17/2009


Author:    Rachael Gray

rgray@gctelegram.com

Earlier this month, Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said crime tends to increase in the summertime. Young people have more free time with no school, the weather is nicer and the city as a whole is more active both day and night.

But, during the school year, a lot of the organization to eventually commit some of these crimes may take place.

Sgt. Steve Martinez, crime prevention gang deputy in the Finney County Sheriff's Office, said gangs may form more in the fall when youth are back under one roof -- at school.

"We see an increase in organization, especially at the beginning of the school year when people start getting back together," he said.

Garden City Police Department Master Patrol Officer Brandy Unruh works as a school resource officer at Kenneth Henderson Middle School and Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center.

She said, so far this school year she has seen a decrease in gang organization at the middle and intermediate schools.

"That doesn't mean the gang problem is gone. Kids are just learning to take it off of school property," she said.

Unruh said the high school may see more gang activity because of the older students, more students and a larger mixture of people. Both Martinez and Unruh said groups are labeled gangs when three or more people associate with a common name, common identification such as signs, colors and symbols, and they engage in criminal activity.

"Schools aren't breeding grounds for gangs," Unruh said.

She said just as much organization happens in neighborhoods and during summer months.

"In the summer, students don't have to get up for school each day. They have more free time," Unruh said.

Martinez said gang activity began to increase in Garden City in the late '80s, with local youth starting gangs, then adding members as more people moved to town.

Gang violence has escalated over the past five to 10 years, Martinez said. He said older gang members are starting to get out of prison.

"When they come out, they're more hard core, smarter and try to come out and reorganize," Martinez said. "They take what they learned in prison and bring it back to the street."

Older gang members, Martinez said, tend to commit the more serious crimes, such as assaults. The older gang members range in age from 19 to 26, he said. The younger gang members are usually responsible for criminal damage, graffiti and breaking into cars.

Martinez said currently seven to 10 gangs are active in Garden City, with about 100 to 150 total members. Ten years ago, about 50 gang members were active in Garden City. He would not name the gangs, as naming them gives glorification.

"If one gang is named and the rival is not, they're likely to act out and make us notice them," Martinez said.

He said some of the gangs resemble or originate from known gangs in El Salvador and Mexico, but the gangs in Garden City aren't racially or culturally specific.

"In almost every gang, it's a racial mixture. The way our population is now, no one is really segregated. The gangs are hybrid gangs," he said.

Ten years ago, some predominantly Asian gangs were active, but Martinez said that has passed.

Ages of youth who get involved in gangs in Garden City are usually 14- or 15-year-olds, he said. Martinez said that in some larger cities, people deal with 9- or 10-year-old gang members. It's not the norm here, but it does happen, he said.

Gang activity isn't concentrated in one area of town, Martinez said. He said activity occurs on the west side, east side and in some trailer park areas.

A sense of belonging, the "cool" factor, protection in numbers and rebellion all can be reasons people join gangs, Martinez said.

To combat gang activity in Finney County, the sheriff's office has a street gang unit of three deputies who gather intelligence and establish who gang members are in order to contain and suppress them.

"We put away as many as we can to try and disrupt activity. We don't let them get a foothold," Martinez said.

If the gang members can't establish organization or commit crimes, they may end up moving to areas with less policing, Martinez said.

The street gang unit has been active for three years in Finney County. Before, Martinez said, regular patrol deputies put in extra time to police gang activity.

Unruh, who is on GCPD's 16-member street gang unit, said some parents who are notified their child may be involved in a gang may ignore the warning signs. School officials notify her when students' behavior indicates possible gang involvement. She weighs the factors and then occasionally makes home visits to talk with parents.

"We encourage parents to go into their children's rooms and look for signs of gang involvement," Unruh said.

She said indicators could be wearing only a specific color, gang posters, drugs and guns. Parents should take notice when their children get tattoos, and read what those tattoos say, she said. Gang affiliations often are written in large tattoos from the wrist to the forearm, or on the hands.

Behavioral factors such as extreme change in rebellion or defiance, sudden change of friends, and refusal to let parents meet certain friends also can indicate possible gang involvement.

Unruh said second- and third-generation gang members are active in Garden City. She said some children, at young ages, may not know their family is in a gang.

"They grow up thinking the members are family members, and don't know otherwise," she said.

Each year, Unruh takes at-risk youth to places around town she said they may visit if they are involved in a gang. She takes them to the jail, to the hospital, and then to the graveyard, where they could end up because of drugs, violence, or maintaining a risky lifestyle.

Unruh stands between the graves of two rival gang members who were buried side-by-side.

They study the indicators at the cemetery: bandanas in the color of gang affiliation, and flowers. "Who brought the bandanas?" she asks. The homies, they say.

"Who brought the flowers?" she asks. Their mothers, they say.

"How do the bandanas look?" she asks. Old and faded, they say.

"How about the flowers?" she asks. They're fresh, they say.

She said she uses the exercise to teach the youth that the gang members won't always be there, during arrests, during hospital visits and after death.