Gang violence is on the upswing in the Salt Lake area and law enforcement officers, educators and even parents need to continue more than ever to work together to prevent it from spreading.
That's the message being conveyed at the 15th annual Utah Gang Conference this week at the South Towne Expo Center. The theme of this year's conference is "Protecting Our Turf."
There were approximately 4,300 documented gang members in Utah in 2004, up from the year before, said Sgt. Bill Robertson with the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. There were also a couple of new gangs that showed up on the radar, he said.
But Robertson said the biggest concern to gang cops wasn't so much the increase in numbers but rather the increase in violence, especially gang-on-gang rivalries.
"With as many guns as we're taking . . . the violent aspect has definitely increased," he said. "We have a gang problem here. Not on a L.A./Chicago level, but we have a problem."
There are also early signs that some gangs are starting to establish their own turf, something unique to Utah. Turf issues had never been an issue with Utah gangs in the past. Robertson said however that gangs in the state still remained very mobile.
Utah isn't alone with its growing gang problem. Surrounding states such as Idaho, particularly the Boise area, have reported huge increases in gang activity. Police in both Boise and Reno, Nev., police have reportedly seen increased activity in particular with straight-edgers, Robertson said.
That may be one reason why Day 1 of the conference Thursday was one of the most heavily attended sessions in recent memory. All application slots were filled and the Gang Project still had about 100 people trying to do walk-up registration at the door.
Police from all the states surrounding Utah as well as New York, Arkansas and Louisiana were in attendance. This is the first year that all of the workshops are open to conference-goers, even those not in law enforcement.
To keep gangs in check, Robertson said gang units and communities across the state need to continue what they've been doing.
"The minute we don't focus, we'll lose some of these neighborhoods," he said.
One area that has been a huge success for the Salt Lake Area Gang Project over the past two years is its Public Enemy No. 1 program. Of the 57 people designated as Public Enemy No. 1, 54 had been arrested as of Thursday. And the other three are not believed to be in Utah any longer.
The program has been such a huge success that some of the recent Public Enemy No. 1's have simply turned themselves in rather than waiting for police to find them.
"They say, 'I don't want the exposure.' The media attention brings the focus on their friends and family as well (as) them," Robertson said.Aside from those who surrendered, the average time to catch a Public Enemy No. 1 has been about one week, Robertson said.