Not long ago, drive-by shootings, gang fights and other gang-related activities were limited to stories coming out of such places as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or some other out-of-state locale. Utah was seemingly immune to the ravages of gangs and the associated strife.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Gang violence clearly has come to the state.In the past eight months, news stories have told of a bullet being fired into Granger High, of two Kearns High students being shot at and wounded, of a man seriously wounded in a shotgun shooting, of a man being sentenced to life in prison with a 20-year gang-related sentencing enhancement for a stabbing murder, of seven juveniles arrested following a gang-related robbery of a pizza store, of a 17-year-old bicyclist being shot by gang members and of a scuffle in a courthouse hallway during a hearing involving a gang-related incident.
To counter the growing gang problem, West Valley Police Chief Dennis J. Nordfelt is urging formation of county or statewide gang commission involving more than just police and politicians.
Nordfelt rightfully recognizes that this is one of those problems that does not respect city, county, state or social boundaries. It is no respecter of race, religion or any other classification that would make dealing with the problem simple or easy.
"You can't give me enough officers because police alone are not the answer," Nordfelt responded when asked recently about increasing police manpower.
What is the answer? No one knows for sure. But ignoring the problem will not provide any solutions. Violent incidents are becoming more common and they are clear evidence that it already is too late to nip the problem in the bud.
The gangs are here. Whether they stay will depend largely on what society has to offer gang-members as an alternative to gang involvement. For many gang-members, especially those from broken homes and poverty-stricken backgrounds, gangs provide a feeling of family and foster a sense of loyalty. Those are compelling emotions and overcoming their enticement will not be easy.
Effective anti-gang efforts will have to include alternatives that provide social, emotional and educational support and foster a sense of self- esteem, all while providing a family-like support system. Such programs do not come cheap and they require people, not just money.
Nordfelt's call for a commission is both timely and prudent. And involving a wide range of participants, including social workers, religious leaders, ethnic minority representatives, educators and the public at large, as well as elected officials and police, is a must.
Prudent intervention and action now may prevent the problem from reaching crisis proportions, like those that forced Los Angeles police to conduct massive sweeps aimed at preventing continued gang violence.
The Salt Lake County Council of Governments should actively support the plan and do whatever is necessary to make it become reality.