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SANDY — When the Utah Gang Conference started in 1990, it was an effort to get the community to work together to find solutions to the gang problem in Utah.
As the conference marked its 25th anniversary on Wednesday, Unified Police Lt. Marianne Suarez, head of the Metro Gang Unit, said the focus this year is getting back to basics.
"Really, what we're looking at is we can't arrest our way out of this. We have to work together as a community, and that's the key here," she said. "If we can make a difference in one child's life and help him stay out of a gang, not be recruited by a gang, finish school and be a productive citizen, then we're successful."
The annual two-day Utah Gang Conference brings hundreds of police officers, community activists and educators together from all over the state. Suarez admitted that when the gang conference was first proposed, there were some who felt it should be for law enforcement only.
But in order to stick to the goals of prevention, intervention and education, it will take more than just police officers, she said.
Many of the workshops offered at this year's conference dealt specifically with youth and intervention. The keynote speakers were Erika Cohn and Tony Vainuku, the creators and producers of "In Football We Trust," a film that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Really, what we're looking at is we can't arrest our way out of this. We have to work together as a community, and that's the key here. If we can make a difference in one child's life and help him stay out of a gang, not be recruited by a gang, finish school and be a productive citizen, then we're successful.
–Lt. Marianne Suarez, UPD
The documentary followed the lives of four high school Polynesians from Utah and how they balanced cultural and family expectations with their hope that football would keep them out of poverty and gang violence.
Workshops this year included gang prevention programs for educators and helping youths succeed with after-school programs. According to one community leader who has been involved in after-school programs in Utah for 15 years, more than 17 percent of Utah students in grades K through 12 are left to care for themselves after school. Juvenile crime rates triple in the first hour after school lets out for the day, said Bobbie Ikegami of the Utah Afterschool Network.
"We just started our new 'Choose Gang Free' campaign. So we are really, seriously looking at gang prevention and intervention," Suarez said, noting that the gang unit is "even more focused" than before on intervention programs.
Workshops were also being offered on drug trends in Utah, something that Suarez said goes hand-in-hand with gang issues, especially among the older gang members.
According to retired police Lt. Phil Murphy, former director of the Utah Major Crimes Task Force, there have been significant increases recently in methamphetamine and heroin distribution in the area, which can be directly related to prescription drug abuse in Utah.
The conference was held Wednesday and Thursday at the South Towne Expo Center.