Ask Police Chief Dennis J. Nordfelt how many more officers he needs to respond to the growing gang problem and he will reply, "You can't give me enough officers because police alone are not the answer."
The solution, he says, may lie in the formation of a county or statewide gang commission that would involve all segments of society and develop a practical, long-term strategy."The longer we let this go without dealing with it, the more serious the gang problem will become and the more difficult it will be to address," the chief said.
Nordfelt's proposal for a gang commission comes in the wake of vicious inter-gang assaults and drive-by shootings that have brought the issue home to West Valley City in recent months. In the latest incident, a suspected gang member shot a bullet into Granger High School Jan. 22 during an apparent altercation between members of the Crips and Bloods gangs.
The violent skirmishes in West Valley City have focused media attention on gang activities in Utah's second-largest city, but Nordfelt said it would be a mistake to conclude that any city along the Wasatch Front is immune.
"No single police department or community can solve this problem," Nordfelt said. "It will take the participation of all the affected agencies and institutions. A police department can't take the lead; it will have to be elected officials."
The West Valley City Council agrees, and council member Margaret K. Peterson will present the idea for a gang commission to the Salt Lake County Council of Governments. If the plan gains support there, it may be brought before the Legislature.
In an outline submitted to the City Council last week, Nordfelt suggested that a "problem statement" be developed prior to the formation of a gang commission. The preliminary study would examine the extent of gang activity in Utah and compare it to other states, and it would assess applicable laws.
Nordfelt said the commission should include representatives from police agencies, prosecuting and defense attorneys, adult and juvenile courts, elected officials, corrections, rehabilitation, education, clergy, ethnic minorities and the public at large.
It's too late to "nip it in the bud," Nordfelt said, because gang activity in the state has already gone beyond that stage.
"It hasn't raised its ugly head high enough to alarm the community yet, but as it gets worse - and it will get worse - the community will take notice," he warned.
Nordfelt is convinced that the primary focus must be on the family. "If there is a key to this, it is the strengthening of the family," he said, noting that most gang members come from broken homes.
He also stresses that the countermeasures must be applied to the very young. Junior high schools are at the center of gang recruitment efforts, Nordfelt said, but even elementary schools are seeing more "wannabes" who mimic gang members.
"Gang membership seems to fulfill a societal need, so society needs to come up with something better," the chief said.
If the proposed gang commission is rejected, Nordfelt says he will recommend to the West Valley City Council that the city develop what countermeasures it can within the existing criminal justice system.
But street gangs are not a West Valley problem or a Salt Lake problem or an Ogden problem, Nordfelt said. "It's Utah's problem, and it will get worse before it gets better unless Utah solves it."
West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt suggests the formation of a gang commission that would:
- review a previously developed "problem statement"
- split into subcommittees that would develop specific plans
- submit a draft report to a series of public hearings
- publish a final report of findings and recommendations
The findings might suggest new laws, beefed-up enforcement, changes in attitudes or other alternatives.