Utah gangs more covert, more focused on money

Social media becoming the new graffiti for gang members

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Sgt. Duane Jensen of the Metro Gang Unit works the streets during a ride along with the Metro Gang Unit, Sunday, March 29, 2009.rn

Scott G Winterton Deseret New

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SANDY — Natalie, a high school senior in the Granite School District, is getting ready to graduate from high school and go to college.

It's a far cry from when she was in sixth grade and was a self-proclaimed Juggalo, dealing drugs and once getting into trouble for biting a school resource officer.

The difference for Natalie was the school district's Step program. She now considers those teachers and counselors members of her family.

Natalie was one of several high school students who spoke during a workshop at the 22nd annual Utah Gang Conference Wednesday at the South Towne Expo Center. They spoke under the condition that their last names would not be released because of potential for gang retaliation.

Darrion, a junior, talked about how he had smoked his first joint in sixth grade and how he one night, at the same age, drank a fifth of vodka by himself. He, too, was able to turn his life around thanks to programs offered by the Granite School District, namely Skills for Success. But he also felt the need to change after a night of getting into trouble and seeing the reaction from his mother.

"It's not cool to see your mom cry and not cool to hang out with people who don't want to see you succeed," the teen said.

The gang conference, which runs through Thursday, is one of the largest in the western United States with about 900 people in attendance.

Unified police detective Ken Hansen, a law enforcement veteran and the person responsible for writing the grant in 1990 that started what would become the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, gave one of the keynote addresses.

Hansen compared gangs of today versus gangs in 1990. He noted that they are still racially mixed along the Wasatch Front, mobile and for the most part still not turf-oriented.

Gangs today are more violent, more organized and are driven predominantly by money. Almost every time police make a raid on a gang house today, they find stolen checks and IDs inside, Hansen said.

Another difference between 1990 and today is that 22 years ago, approximately 80 percent of documented gang members were juveniles. Today, Hansen said, that number is just 8 percent.

But what's not clear is how much of that is due to actual decreasing numbers, and how much is due to younger gang members trying to stay more covert. While gang membership is aging, Hansen said younger gang members have not gone away.

"I think that gangs are a little more covert because of money and drugs. That's really changed a lot of things. They don't want to be (noticed) because they want to be out there making money selling drugs. They want to make money doing fraud," he said.

University of California Irvine professor Al Valdez, who delivered another keynote speech on West Coast Latino gangs, said the Hispanic gangs of California no longer require their members to get tattoos so they can blend in more with society.

"It's all about money," Valdez said.

"These kids don't present the same," Hansen added. "They don't have the presentation in terms of colors and so forth. A lot of them look like regular kids."

Although gang members are becoming harder to document, they can be found if the right places are searched. Many have turned to social media sources, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Hansen said if a person knows where to look, gang members have a strong presence on Facebook.

"It's almost the new graffiti," he said. "Instead of spraying paint on a wall, it's easier just to go to Facebook or MySpace and you can put a lot more information up just in pictures. … A lot of the gangs are really putting it out there."

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