Gang Crime Is on Decline in Salt Lake: Other cities in West see similar



   Major gang crimes are going down in Salt Lake City and some other Western cities as well.
   "In some localities, mostly rural areas and smaller towns, gangs are continuing to emerge and
getting bigger," said John Moore, senior research associate for the National Youth Gang Center.
"But in the bigger cities, according to a 1997 law-enforcement agency survey, gang crime
appears to be going down."
   Moore expects the downward trend to continue.
   It may be because bigger cities across the nation, including Salt Lake City, are using similar
methods to fight gang crime, such as community education, youth programs and gang
enforcement units, officers say.
   In Salt Lake City, reports of major gang crimes for the first quarter of 1999 are the lowest
since 1993. In Los Angeles, gang homicides have gone down from a high of 800 to a low of 350.
In Las Vegas, drive-by shootings dropped from 433 in 1997 to 196 the following year. And in
Denver, police report gang homicides remain a consistent 17 percent of all homicides, which
went down 50 percent from 1996 to 1997.
   Shootings for the first quarter of this year totaled 21 in Salt Lake City, compared with 31 the
same three months last year and 53 the same period in 1996. And there have been no
gang-related homicides, compared with four in 1997. Drive-by shootings also have dropped,
with 16 so far this year, compared with 19 the first three months of 1998.
   "It could be that we've locked up all the shooters," said Salt Lake gang unit Det. Robin
Howell. "The pressure from the prosecution, along with the police, has helped, as well as
community education and programs such as Neighborhood Watch. A lot of people just won't
tolerate it."
   In 1990, Salt Lake developed the gang project, but concentrated only on crime as it
happened.         When Howell, a veteran homicide and narcotics detective, joined the unit in
1996, he realized more could be accomplished with a gang investigations unit. Just eight months
after Howell joined the unit, solved drive-by shootings went up 200 percent.
   Now, 14 enforcement officers work the streets making daily contacts with gang members for
minor crimes, and 10 investigations officers follow up on drive-by shootings and homicides. The
investigations unit also keeps current files on gangs.
Los Angeles and Las Vegas run their gang units in the same manner. And Denver's homicide unit
works closely with their gang unit when there is a gang-related murder.
   "Before, our work was more suppressive than investigative," Howell said. "We were attacking
crime as it happened, rather than gaining knowledge of the gang itself."
   Now he knows statistics of individual gangs that have been tracked. In one gang, for instance,
14 of the 95 members are in jail, he said.
   "I know who's active, who's on parole, who's in prison and who's on probation," Howell said.
   And police have photos of many of the estimated 4,500 gang members in Salt Lake County,
so officers can keep track of them.
   Officers make contact when they see gang members going two miles over the speed limit,
drinking beer in the park or smoking underage at a convenience store.
   "We look for any legal excuse to stop them and let them know we're watching," Howell said.
"They know to keep their heads down."
   Because of that increased enforcement, minor Salt Lake City gang crimes have risen from 90
to 214 in one year.
   In Las Vegas, Metropolitan Police gang crimes section Sgt. Don Sutton said gang crime
reached an all-time low in 1998, but he's worried about the high number of crimes so far this year.
   "We're still the fastest-growing city in the nation," Sutton said. "But I expect it [gang crime] to
drop again as the year continues because they're going to make more field contacts, do some
heavy-duty enforcement and some heavy community education -- things that have worked for us
in the past."
   Sutton said Las Vegas concentrates on putting the involved gang members in jail after all
drive-by shootings. That effort has paid off.
   Drive-by shootings dropped to 196 last year from 527 two years before.   
   In Denver, drive-by shootings and homicides also are going down.
   "As general crime goes down across the nation, our gang crime is going down," Denver Police
homicide Sgt. Jon Priest said. "The economy's good and drugs are down, and that keeps crimes
of passion and emotion down."
   In Los Angeles, officers report 57,000 gang members this year compared to 64,000 last year,
and suspect their gang homicide rate -- which used to be more than 50 percent of all homicides
-- correlates to shrinking gangs.
   "Our gang-homicide rate is still one-third of our homicides, and we need to work on that,"
LAPD Officer Eduardo Funes said. "But there are good signs that it is not growing."
   Funes said the district attorney's office has come up with innovative abatement laws that help
keep repeat offenders off the streets, and many in prison. Salt Lake's district attorney's office has
a similar program that involves lawyers assigned to work with gang crimes, as well as similar
gang-abatement laws.
   But it takes more than police and prosecutors, Funes said. Gang crime rates would not have
gone down without community programs designed to prevent children from joining gangs.
   Moore at the National Youth Gang Council said gangs have traditionally gone through spurts
of activity going back as early as the 1880s with groups of immigrants. Gang activity historically
reoccurred during depressed times.
   "When things get bad, we call out the cops and take tough measures," he said. "And that's
good. But we also need to be looking at the little brothers and sisters coming up behind today's
gang members. We can't ignore that over the past eight to 10 years, there have been a very large
number of gangs on the streets. And it could happen again."

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