When Salt Lake Police Sgt. Mike Fierro talks about street gangs, he speaks from experience.

He grew up in East Los Angeles, where the gangs are a way of life. Each year, nearly 400 people die each year in gang-related incidents.Since his recent assignment to lead the police department's newly organized gang intelligence task force, Fierro has spent a lot of time reflecting on his youth and how he nearly got pulled into a gang himself.

"The gang influence was very prominent in my life," said Fierro, who tagged along with his brothers and cousins as members of "Varrio Nuevo," one of East L.A.'s largest gangs at the time. As a tag-along, he did the usual gang stuff - theft, vandalism, an occasional fight with a rival gang member.

"I remember vividly one night. My parents and I were sitting around watching TV. My oldest brother came home and we could tell something was wrong. He went into the bathroom and my mom went after him and screamed."

His oldest brother - the gang leader - had been stabbed in the stomach during a gang fight.

"I'll never forget how proud he was that he was stabbed. It was like he'd received a medal. As they wheeled him to the ambulance, he was just beaming."

The brother recovered. Fierro, though scared at first, later thought it kind of "cool" that his brother was tough enough to get stabbed and live to tell about it.

The "cool," however, soon warmed when Fierro borrowed his brother's car one night and was pulled over by police, who mistook him for his brother.

"It was so unpleasant being thrown to the ground face down and having guns pointed at me. I didn't like that experience."

Fierro was able to find other interests - baseball in particular - and managed to steer clear of hard-core gang membership.

A baseball scholarship brought Fierro and his wife to the University of Utah. In 1975, he joined the Salt Lake Police Department, where his most recent assignments have been as sergeant in the patrol and robbery divisions.

Fierro is confident that he can help keep the gang situation - which he believes is far from epidemic - under control in Salt Lake City.

"It's a major challenge. I don't claim I have all the answers or that I'm going to go out and break up all the gangs. But I hope I can help to retard their growth or at least keep some kids from joining gangs.

"We want to make gang membership unglamorous, uncomfortable and uneasy. That's one of my objectives. We're simply not going to tolerate it."