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Putting the pressure on gangs
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Several weeks ago I wrote a column for the Ceres Courier about the Ceres Police Department's enforcement priorities. I wrote about "Parolees and Drugs," and why that is the first priority of this agency, and I stated that I would address the remaining priorities in subsequent columns. To be clear however, in the most general terms, our overall mission is to provide safety and security for the people who live in or visit the community, which results from our enforcing laws, investigating crimes and apprehending criminals. The three specific priorities, however, are: 1) Parolees and Drugs; 2) Gangs; and, 3) DUI/Traffic Enforcement.

The next highest priority is to investigate, arrest and strive to prevent criminal gang activity. The presence of criminal gangs in our communities is akin to have terrorists among us. They are responsible for the vast majority of illegal drug trafficking, the majority of homicides and the many other crimes that make for dangerous neighborhoods, parks and business districts. Some people dismiss gang killings because "it is good that they are killing each other." In fact, gangs are responsible for the injury, maiming and killing of many innocent victims. Their attacks on each other are often reckless and done without any concern about who else may get hit by their gunfire. Gangs possess arsenals of firearms. Many have and use body armor, and with the passing of each year, they become better financed and more sophisticated overall.

Gang members ascribe by a code of silence which keeps them from cooperating with the police when they are "victimized" by rival gangs. They may well know who shot or beat them up, but they are not about to share that information with the police. They prefer retaliation to "settle the score." Gang members intimidate neighbors into not reporting their crimes to police, and by using threats or actual violence, they force unwilling young people into joining the gang.

The existence of gangs constitutes a growing threat to most cities in this region, as they continue to grow in numbers and take over increasingly larger areas of our communities. The growth of the gang population is also being fueled by the state's ongoing program of releasing prisoners back to their respective communities before their sentences are complete. Keep in mind that there is hardly an exception to the fact that criminals who have spent time in prison entered them as gang members or became gang members while in prison. Now these people are descending on our communities and adding to the overall criminal gang problem.

There is now a subtle, yet perceptible change taking place within the California gang culture. They are now starting to shed the more traditional look of being thugs and enemies of society, and trading that to become more like those within the drug cartels. Drug cartel members are in the business of making money and controlling people and geographical areas. They tend to dress and have the overall appearance of business people instead of having the look of thugs. This change is coming about slowly, but it is taking hold as the cartels exercise greater influence over the gangs in this area. Along with this change, we can expect more violence and then a gradual transition to such terror as beheadings, mass killings, acts of torture and the kidnappings that are now common in Mexico and along the southern borders of this country. These changes will not happen quickly, but happen they will. It is a problem that will require extraordinary enforcement efforts by all levels of government in this country.

In Stanislaus County, the various law enforcement agencies work closely with each other in effort to identify gangs, their members, their illegal activities and to arrest them. We have had a multi-agency gang enforcement/investigations unit in place for several years, and there are now special sentencing enhancements for criminal gang members who commit crimes. And while incarceration keeps them off the streets, spending time in prison is not necessarily a bad thing for many of these gang members. For many, it is a badge of "honor," which apparently earns them status and respect among their peers.

There is much more that can be said about criminal gang activity and the threats they pose to our law-abiding population. But suffice it to say that public awareness and intolerance is critical to keeping the gang problem in check as much as possible. It is fair to say that, without public resolve, and without the backing of the courts, the gang problem will become a major crisis instead of "just" the problem it is now.