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Are they or aren't they? 

Sheriff candidates made gangs an issue, but law-enforcement agents debate the actual threat level

Several candidates in the primary election for San Luis Obispo County sheriff declared gangs as one of their chief concerns. Paso Robles and areas in South County were called out as particular potential trouble spots. Michael Teixeira and Ben Hall, both of whom were eliminated from the race in June, were especially vocal about the issue. But none of the candidates—including Joe Cortez and Ian Parkinson, who will be on the ballot in the November general election—wanted to appear soft on gangs.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” Cortez said in a recent forum. He proposed an intelligence-based approach that would target gang leaders instead of small-time taggers and thieves. He also stressed the importance of the school resource officer, who works in middle and high schools to reduce bullying and educate kids about the dangers of gang life and drug use.

“We have issues here,” Parkinson said. He focused on prevention, maintaining that after-school sports programs and quick responses to street crime would eliminate the allure of gangs for juveniles.

But how severe, really, is the threat of gangs in this county?

“It can be very difficult to prove that a crime is gang related,” said Deputy District Attorney Jarret Gran. “First, you have to prove that a gang exists, then that this particular defendant is a member.”

By law, a gang is any group of three or more people who associate under a common symbol and engage in a pattern of crime. Prosecutors must have strong eyewitness reports and expert testimony, usually from an officer well versed in gang culture, to convince a jury an alleged criminal is actually a gang member, Gran explained. Under California penal code 186.22, crimes committed to further a gang can add two to 10 years of jail time to sentences. Such unrelated crimes as spousal abuse can also carry added punishment if a perpetrator is found guilty of being a gang member.

The most current data available show that from October 2009 to March 2010, the district attorney prosecuted 11 adults for alleged gang crimes, most of which involved vandalism or assault. Two cases involved illegal possession of firearms.

Five suspects were convicted of or admitted to gang affiliation.

Detective Michael Rickerd of the Paso Robles Police Department estimated there are about 100 gang members actively committing crimes in Paso Robles and a handful of “OGs” who make decisions and reap the financial benefits. He also estimated 20 to 35 percent of juvenile crime in Paso Robles is gang related. During the past six months, however, only 14 juvenile cases countywide included the gang charge in court.

“They run the gamut. They’re selling drugs. They’re fighting. They’re tagging,” Rickerd said. “We’re seeing them more and more involved in home burglaries.”

Rickerd pointed to a spike in burglaries that occurred between November and January of this winter. The Paso Robles Police Department responded to 48 home burglaries in that time. For the same period last year, there were 22.

A special burglary task force made up of four officers was assembled to deter the trend. One of them was Officer Bob Yarnall.

“There was no correlation that it was gang related,” he said. “It was mostly juveniles skipping school and breaking into houses while the residents were out.”

Of the 48 burglaries, only one was tied to a gang in court. Phillip Antonio Meña, 26, and two juveniles broke into a home occupied by an elderly lady. She immediately called the police, and the trio was arrested after a brief foot chase. Meña was sentenced to nine years in prison for the burglary and his gang connection.

In the South County, three men tied to an Oceano gang were recently convicted of assault and battery charges. Phone calls requesting comment from the sheriff’s special problems task force were not returned, but Commander John Hough of the Arroyo Grande police department said local gangs aren’t a major threat.

“It’s more like a tagger gang than a serious street gang,” he said. “I worked gangs in Inglewood, and the situation here just doesn’t compare.”

Hough said he sees some conflicts at Arroyo Grande High School, where kids from different neighborhoods—and sometimes different gangs—have to come together. Rivalries sometimes flare and fights do occur, but the school resource officer is always on campus. He’s highly visible and his presence helps diffuse violence before it erupts, Hough said.

Since the pre-primary hype has come and gone, the candidates for sheriff are now offering a calmer perspective.

“Most people in the county don’t go to bed with gangs on their minds. They don’t have to adjust their daily schedule,” Cortez said. “But there are severe problems to the north and south of us. We can’t afford to say the status quo is OK.”

Lieutenant Dan Ast of the Santa Maria Police Department told New Times Santa Maria is home to 900 documented gang members and violence has been occurring for a long time. He said his department’s gang enforcement is the most aggressive in the tri-county area. Both Cortez and Parkinson fear that Ast’s efforts might push gangs into SLO’s safer territory.

“[Our gang problem] isn’t out of control, but we need to pay attention to it and make sure it doesn’t get out of control,” Parkinson said.

Cortez said prison is only a temporary solution and talked about the importance of rehabilitation programs that teach job skills. Parkinson wants to develop youth sports programs that can include at-risk children—sports such as boxing and karate that don’t require a full-time, team commitment.

“I can see the concern there,” Parkinson said, “but the confidence they’d get from these sports isn’t about fighting. It prevents the need to go out and prove themselves on the streets.”

Another preventative measure is spearheaded by Pedro Arroyo. He’s the deputy probation officer who runs Youth in Action, a program that targets younger children and shows them positive alternatives to the gang lifestyle.

“Some of these kids come from families that are generationally gang entrenched,” Arroyo said. “If that’s all you’re exposed to your entire life, then that’s your role model.”

Arroyo finds kids who are habitually truant and disruptive or whose parents or siblings have been in jail and encourages them to enroll in a year-long class that focuses on social skills and positive community involvement, giving kids the tools they need to avoid the allure of street life. The program began two years ago, and the classes consist of about half a dozen kids.

“Honestly, it’s a little too soon to measure the results,” Arroyo said. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in problematic behavior from fifth graders in the program, but with the middle school kids, it’s a mixed bag.”

Kids entering adolescence tend to be more experimental and rebellious, he explained, but he hopes that in five years, he’ll be able to check their progress and find that they’ve avoided the gang life.

“We’ve got the framework in place to limit the problem, and that’s definitely a good thing,” Arroyo said.

 

Contact intern Nick Powell through the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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