Many Pocatello residents say gangs are not a problem in the area. But to former Los Angeles policemen, the signs are apparent.
Bannock County Sheriff's Detective Brent Schei and Chubbuck Police Sgt. Brian Emfield both served in Los Angeles as officers, as did other members of a local gang task force."We've seen it and it's there," Schei said. "Little flags pop up, indicators of gangs. I don't want it to happen and I'll do anything I can to keep it from happening."
One of the most obvious signs is the strange paint scrawlings on outside walls of buildings. The graffiti identifies a gang and often its members or the artist by nickname.
Other signs include young teenagers carrying cellular phones and youths with tattoos. Emfield said the tattoos show a permanent loyalty to a gang.
"There's always those individuals who say my kid is not involved, but the kid's wearing colors, using hand signs and getting tattoos - tattoos on 14-year-olds. They're doing these things for a purpose," Emfield said.
Local law enforcement officers had been tracking gangs in the area for about three years when they decided to combine efforts and form a gang task force. It includes representatives from the Idaho State Police, Bannock County, the Chubbuck and Pocatello police departments, Adult Probation and Parole, Idaho State University Security and the court systems.
Members hope their efforts will keep gangs from reaching the magnitude of Los Angeles - or even Salt Lake City.
"We don't have a gang problem," Schei said. "It's more like a gang situation."
A gang, as defined by the officers, is a group of individuals who call themselves by a common name, wear a common outfit, create hand signs, go by nicknames and conspire to commit crimes.
The criminal activity is the key. The task force tracks gang members through their police records.
The officers said they have a good working relationship with law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake City, Boise, California and Washington, which advise them if a suspect has a prior gang record.
Identified gang members are placed in the local gang file. Schei said only youths who have been involved in criminal activity and found to be gang members are photographed and fingerprinted for the file.
"There's nothing better than documentation, so we do as much as possible," Schei said.
For the most part, the officers also have a good relationship with the youths involved in gangs.
"We give them respect for respect," Schei said. "You can't whip the world. I don't care how big you are."
Pocatello is not yet home to drive-by shootings often associated with gangs. But identified gang members in the area do carry weapons - including sawed-off baseball bats, blades and sometimes guns.
And gang members use scare tactics. The intimidation occurs in the hallways at school and on the streets. Emfield said the gang members do not limit their intimidation to teenagers.
"Most of the stuff we are dealing with are misdemeanors, but they turn into felonies if they keep doing crimes," Emfield said. "We want to get a handle on it before it turns totally explosive."
Gangs in Pocatello are "unique, they don't follow lines of color," Schei said. Whites do not belong to one group and Hispanics to another. Instead, local gangs are composed of teens from all social levels, he said.
Schei said teens join gangs for various reasons. Some come from broken homes and find a family atmosphere among their "homies." Others like the support and protection offered by a gang.
"We do see the kid who has it too good," Schei said. "He wants to be a bad boy for a while. To some it's a thrill, to some excitement."
Gangs didn't just pop up. The officers said gang influence has infiltrated the Pocatello area from Salt Lake City, Washington and Los Angeles. Some local gang leaders came to Idaho because they were tired of being little fish in a big pond.
"The pressure from the L.A. area is so great down there, they're squeezing down, so members are moving out to new areas where they think the police are ignorant of them," Schei said.Comment on this story
Residents can help police keep gangs from being a problem, the officers said. For instance, Emfield suggested that parents take a closer look at the music their children buy.
If it's hard-core gang rap, he suggested taking it away.
Schei said parents should also be aware of other teenagers with whom their children associate. Even "gang associates" can eventually be influenced to participate in criminal activity, he said.
"If you throw a red shirt in with your white clothes, what's going to happen is you're going to have a pink shirt," Schei said. "It won't turn it red, but the influence is still there."