If Salt Lake City truly wants to address its gang problem, city leaders and the community need to develop a plan and then continue to follow up on it.
That was one of the conclusions reached Thursday in a meeting among Mayor Ralph Becker and more than a dozen law-enforcement and community leaders, including Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, head of the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit Lt. Steve Anjewierden and former state lawmaker Duane Bourdeaux, now with the Colors of Success program.
On the heels of the tragic drive-by shooting death of 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca and the killing of Family Dollar Store manager Wally Knapton in March, Becker called the group together to discuss the city's recent gang activity.
Concerns ranging from incarceration to deportation to education and intervention were discussed during the meeting, which lasted a little more than an hour. But one of the key points the group agreed on was that whatever was decided, there needed to be follow-through.
"I can't tell you how many of these meetings I've been to over the years," said Salt Lake Police Capt. Rick Findlay, head of the department's gang unit.
Once the city comes up with a game plan on how to address the gang issue, "we need to push and push and push until it rolls on its own," he said.
Bourdeaux agreed that too many times in the past, the community let programs addressing gangs slip through the cracks during low periods of violence.
"We have to work on this 365 days a year," he said. "When crises like this happen, everyone jumps on the bandwagon."
Outcry over gang violence in the city is nothing new. In the early '90s, Gov. Mike Leavitt called on lawmakers to address the gang issue during a special session of the Legislature. Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini reacted similarly by proposing several new city ordinances to curb gun violence and in 1992 formed the Midnight Basketball League in an effort to keep at-risk juveniles out of gangs.
Findlay said what's needed is a one-stop shop for gang members and at-risk kids to go to if they have questions or concerns or need help escaping gangs. He pointed to programs such as West Valley's Project 180.
"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," he said. "We don't need to go thousands of miles away to find (a model plan)."
Bourdeaux also called on the different community leaders and councils to work together, noting that gangs aren't just a Hispanic problem or a Tongan problem.
"We can't compartmentalize the effort," he said. "It's a community effort."
But while programs such as community watch are beneficial, Bourdeaux said the gang problem won't be solved by volunteers alone. Resources are needed to support law enforcement and its efforts.
Both Burbank and Findlay said while their office is good at responding to a crisis after it has already happened, the city needs to do more with intervention and prevention. Part of the problem, Burbank said, is finding a way to compel at-risk youths to participate in gang-education programs before they are arrested and not when a judge forces them to get involved.
"We're going to have another shooting. We don't want that, but it's going to happen," Bourdeaux said. "Somehow, some way, we've got to get people out of (gangs), not tomorrow but today."
Burbank addressed the recent Glendale homicide during Thursday's meeting while talking about intervention. He stressed while Menchaca did not deserve what happened to her and in no way was responsible for the shooting, the fact is that members of her family have had an "extensive history of gang involvement."
Other community leaders familiar with the shooting agreed the crime was not random and that the Menchaca family bears some of the responsibility over what happened.
The issue of illegal immigrants also was addressed during Thursday's meeting. In the case of Frank Benavidez, the alleged driver and orchestrator of the drive-by shooting that killed Menchaca, he had already been deported previously and had been involved in four drive-by shootings in the city prior to the homicide, Burbank said.
The problem, Burbank said, is there is no room to keep illegal immigrants in the Salt Lake County Jail for second-degree felonies because of overcrowding. It actually works out better to deport them as part of a plea deal, he said.
Becker said his office would spearhead the effort to make sure there is follow-through on Thursday's meeting and that a long-term game plan for addressing gangs is developed.
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