Investigations

San Luis Obispo County gangs: a real problem or just politics?

Members of the San Luis Obispo County Gang Task Force and Paso Robles' Special Enforcement Team detain a defendant, who was out on bail, while they search his Paso Robles home for gang-related evidence.
Members of the San Luis Obispo County Gang Task Force and Paso Robles' Special Enforcement Team detain a defendant, who was out on bail, while they search his Paso Robles home for gang-related evidence. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Clarification: The countywide Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission wrote some but not all of the applications that resulted in $148,000 grants for gang prevention programs; in many cases the commission provided local agencies with information on grant opportunities and those agencies wrote their own applications.

Does San Luis Obispo County have a gang problem? It’s a simple question with no simple answer.

A supposed increase in local street gang activity became a talking point during the recent county district attorney election and at a county Board of Supervisors meeting in April when its Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission presented a five-year progress report.

Law enforcement officials across the county and the state say gang activity tops the list of public safety concerns, even in San Luis Obispo County.

Locally, authorities point to the most egregious case, the senseless 2011 drive-by murder of an innocent Oceano teen with no gang affiliation at the hands of a documented Los Angeles gangbanger looking to make a name for himself.

But while gang problems are real in more urban counties, many argue that San Luis Obispo County doesn’t fit the bill. Based on the number of gang-related incidents and prosecutions, gang-related crime is far more prevalent in all neighboring counties. San Luis Obispo County has seen only a slight increase in gang activity in the last decade, statistics show.

Law enforcement and public officials argue that while local numbers may be low, it’s crucial that resources be spent today to make sure they don’t rise tomorrow. Still, some critics say the gang problem can be exaggerated for political reasons and to try to qualify for scarce state and federal grants.

The ‘problem’

Sgt. Keith Scott, head of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Gang Task Force, says gang activity has been growing since the 1960s; the unit identified 28 street gangs in the county, with 944 documented gang members as of the end of 2013.

“We’re feeling it now more than ever,” said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson. “I think it’s challenging for people who feel it’s over-exaggerated. And there’s people that feel that it’s gang-on-gang (violence), so who cares?”

Since 2011, authorities say there have been 30 gang-related shootings and stabbings in San Luis Obispo County, including 13 in 2013 alone. Gang-related assaults, home invasions and other violent crimes not included in those numbers have also occurred in recent years, according to county statistics.

Three homicides since 2011 have been gang-related, according to the Sheriff’s Office, out of a total 16 homicides, according to DA’s Office records. In the first six months of 2014, there were two nonfatal alleged gang-related stabbings and two shootings.

Officials say that Northern California gangs in Monterey County are increasingly clashing with San Luis Obispo County’s traditionally Southern California groups as they jockey for control over illegal activities and get into random skirmishes around the county line.

“The reality is, do people think there are gangs in SLO County?” Scott said. “Well, yeah. It’s great we don’t have the thing Los Angeles has. By then you’ve lost control. We don’t want people to think we’ve lost control.”

David Wales, assistant special agent in charge of the San Luis Obispo County region for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), predicted gang activity in the county will escalate. He called it “the balloon effect,” as pressure is applied to gangs by law enforcement in larger cities, gang members and their activities will be driven into increasingly rural areas.

Though the incidents of gang violence are lower than other Central Coast counties, Wales said, investigations into many of the cases have revealed North-South rivalries.

“They’re all looking to establish their sphere of influence,” Wales said. “There’s clearly a turf war going on.”

An ‘election-year issue’

But many on the other end of the spectrum — community organizations, working-class residents, and some in the faith-based community — say they just don’t see gangs as a real problem in San Luis Obispo County.

Michael Macias was a third-generation member of a street gang based loosely around Paso Robles, he said. Following convictions for battery and drug-related offenses, Macias left gang life and now owns a vehicle detailing business.

While he agrees that local gangs exist, Macias said he knows firsthand that they aren’t really growing in the county. Law enforcement assertions that the county is a battleground between rival Southern-Northern gangs are overblown. San Luis Obispo County is not the kind of place established gang members really want to set up shop, citing high conviction rates and a small-town environment where it is difficult to operate under the radar, he said.

“The big guys don’t want this area,” Macias said. “Here, they’re going to throw away the key on you.”

Mario De Leon, who coordinates the Keystone Program to provide after-school activities to teens in Oceano, shares a similar opinion. He grew up in the neighborhood the program serves and once found himself in trouble with the law, though he never claimed to be a gang member.

“Growing up, this neighborhood was tough. You had to be tough,” De Leon said. “I think to some extent the gang problem is always going to be there, but I think it’s gotten a lot better since I was a kid.”

Others pointed out that the gang issue seems to come up whenever there’s a change in local law enforcement. Some say resources could be better spent elsewhere.

“I’m more concerned about the lack of sidewalks in Oceano,” said Matt Guerrero, chair of the Oceano Community Services District Board of Directors and an attorney with the public defender’s office. “It seems to me they made this an election-year issue.”

Some younger, longtime residents say there will always be crime in the county, but don’t believe gang members and their wannabes are behind most of it.

“It’s a joke. I mean, here?” said Ron Silva, co-owner of Never Enough Tattoo & Body Piercing in Atascadero, who has covered up clients’ tattoos that law enforcement would consider gang-related. Silva said he has rarely seen requests for known gang insignias or slogans — and wouldn’t do them if he did.

“The police build up (the problem) — it’s B.S.”

In Paso Robles, Shawn Penn, head pastor at the Community Church, leads a diverse congregation that he said includes both current and retired police officers as well as a few people who have served time for gang-related crimes — in addition to retirees, teachers and the family next door.

He also questions how much of a role gang members play in the graffiti he sees constantly being cleaned up around the neighborhood, for example.

“We’re told there’s a gang issue, and we certainly don’t want one,” Penn said. “But I think if you came in and asked my congregation, 95 percent would say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

By the numbers

If a “turf war” exists, as law enforcement officials suggest, it is manifesting itself in a slowly rising number of gang-related prosecutions in the last decade — although that remains far below the prosecutions seen in neighboring counties.

County statistics show that the number of gang-related criminal cases filed by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office increased between 2003 and 2010, then dropped dramatically.

That drop is because in 2011, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation changed its practice of reporting gang-related incidents at state prisons. Until 2011, the county statistics included gang-related incidents at the California Men’s Colony minimum-security prison.

With prison incidents no longer in the mix, the county’s statistics on gang-related crime plummeted. In 2003, the county DA’s Office filed gang enhancements against 28 criminal defendants. The number peaked at 60 in 2010; in 2013, the county filed 32 gang-related cases.

Data for how many of those were actually convicted was not available.

Looking at the rate of gang cases by population, San Luis Obispo has a far lower incidence compared to neighboring counties. The rate of gang-related cases is more than twice as high in Santa Barbara County and more than five times higher in Monterey County, based on population.

A three-pronged approach

The sense among county officials of a growing local problem — or one with potential to grow — led to the creation of the county’s Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission in 2008. The commission’s role is to improve communication between law enforcement, community organizations and residents, and to raise funds for anti-gang programs.

The commission and its stakeholders follow a three-pronged approach: Prevention, suppression and rehabilitation.

Since its formation, the commission has secured at least $148,000 in federal and state grants for things such as youth and parenting programs, a tattoo removal machine, training for probation officers, and job-shadowing programs for parolees.

In 2009, the county hired Marci Powers, a former probation officer from Ventura County, to head the commission, which also includes Parkinson, Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio and District Attorney Gerry Shea as co-chairs.

The Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission has made some progress in its mission, but Powers said there’s far more to be done. There remains a serious lack of funding for new and existing programs, she said. Some programs have survived by pooling resources, sharing facilities and cutting services.

“I agree that there’s a lack of prevention and after school programs,” Powers said. “But the gang commission has no funding. We’re basically operating on a wing and a prayer.”

Documenting gang members

Due to the commission’s everyone-at-the-table approach, the county’s different law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts to document suspected gang members with newly designed field interview cards. That documentation can then be used by prosecutors to seek a gang enhancement on any serious offense.

Powers said she uses the documentation and gang-enhancement prosecution information when she competes for grants against counties with bigger gang problems.

“Without those cards, we’re working with our hands tied behind our back,” she said. “We can’t compete with some other areas, so we need to be accurate in our reporting.”

For skeptics like Oakland-based criminologist Douglas Fort, the question is whether it’s in San Luis Obispo County’s interest to have a gang problem, which then justifies grant requests and law enforcement staffing levels.

“It's the new War on Drugs,” said Fort, a court-qualified expert in urban, drug and gang culture who's testified in dozens of gang trials, usually for the defense.

“They're getting federal dollars for things like prosecutors, police officers, equipment. It's a money incentive relationship,” he said. “There's a madness to it.”

But Wales, the ICE agent who warns of a turf war in the county, said the three-pronged strategy helped disrupt a spate of gang violence in Ventura County a few years ago. “The earlier you address the problem, the earlier you can solve it,” he said.

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