Focus strictly on the numbers, and San Luis Obispo County’s gang problem appears insignificant — some might say almost nonexistent — compared to what neighboring Monterey and Santa Barbara counties face.
Yet we doubt the statistics are any comfort to local residents forever harmed by gang violence, such as the family and friends of Gabriel Salgado of Oceano — the teenager randomly gunned down by an L.A. gang member two years ago. Salgado’s murder may be an anomaly in our county, but it’s also evidence that San Luis Obispo County is vulnerable to gang violence.
With that in mind, we believe that local authorities must continue to take a hard line in investigating and prosecuting egregious gang crimes committed by outsiders. We also support efforts to prevent gangs from becoming entrenched in our own communities.
As Tribune writer Matt Fountain reported in his excellent three-day series on gangs in San Luis Obispo County, authorities have recently stepped up antigang efforts.
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Over the past couple of years, law enforcement has been systematically tracking evidence of possible gang membership by filling out forms in the field that document such things as tattoos, suspicious statements and associations that indicate gang affiliation. In criminal cases, the District Attorney’s Office can then use that information in deciding whether to file a gang enhancement — an allegation that, if proven, can add time to a criminal sentence.
The strategy has not been without controversy; some believe law enforcement is unfairly applying a heavy-handed, war-on-drugs approach. There also have been claims that law enforcement is attempting to lure in grant dollars by inflating the magnitude of the problem.
We don’t doubt that there have been instances when local authorities — and citizens in general — have been too quick to judge. For example, as pointed out by a local tattoo artist quoted in Fountain’s series, assuming that anyone with an “805” tattoo is a gang member goes too far. And automatically blaming gangs every time a new bit of graffiti goes up is a stretch as well.
For the most part, though, we believe the county has acted appropriately, and we’re skeptical of claims that officials here are exaggerating the gang problem to qualify for grants. If they are, the technique hasn’t been particularly successful.
Consider: The county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission has so far secured a modest $148,000 in grants, including $88,000 for atattoo removal machine and a little more than $40,000 for youth antigang programs.
That’s not enough. Local programs that motivate kids to stay out of trouble are struggling to keep up with the demand for services and one — Generation Next — had to close its doors.
Marci Powers, who leads the county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission, believes the most important step the county can take to combat gang membership is to support under-funded youth programs.
We can continue to debate the magnitude of San Luis Obispo County’s gang problem, but it’s hard to argue against the value of youth programs, including early childhood education, after-school recreation, mentorships and job training and placement for teenagers.
If we’re serious about preventing crime — be it gang, drug, property or any other class of crime — it’s time to step up and support youth programs that have been proven to be one of the most powerful anti-crime tools at our disposal.