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KEARNS — Christina Robles doesn't want to have to worry that if her children play in the front of her house they will be injured by stray bullets from gang-related violence.
"I want to ensure that my children are living in a safe environment where they can go outside and not worry when they leave me they’re going to get shot,” she told Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.
Robles and many other Kearns residents filled the auditorium of Kearns High School Thursday night to talk about the recent violence in their community that came to a head Tuesday night when residents Tami Lynn Woodard, 50, and Lloyd Everett Pace, 55, were hit and killed by four documented gang members trying to speed away from a drive-by shooting they just committed, according to police.
Dozens of residents lined up and waited for their turn to address the Unified Police Department and Kearns Community Council. Some tried to rally other residents with cries of "Take back our community." Others expressed frustration with police and the justice system, feeling like more should already have been done to prevent gang violence and it shouldn't have taken the deaths of two innocent victims for a call to action to be made.
"This was senseless. They didn’t have to die," said Jenny, a relative of the engaged couple that was killed.
Friends and family members of Woodard and Pace sat in the front rows of the auditorium Thursday, holding a picture of the couple while placing a second copy on the podium where Unified police addressed the crowd.
Investigators believe those arrested Tuesday had been involved in an ongoing dispute with rival gang members. In addition, a 17-year-old Kearns High School student was shot on Sunday near 6200 S. Loder Drive (5155 West). The boy survived but has a long load to recovery. The mother of the victim's best friend said Thursday that he too was an innocent victim who is not affiliated with any gang.
"I ask (the Unified Police Department), why weren't you 'fed up' Sunday when innocent teenagers - my son could have been among them - were shot? Why weren't you fed up Sunday? Why did two people have to die? And why are the shooters (from Sunday) still at large? And why should we feel safe or our teenagers safe?" said a woman named Lisa.
Unified police confirmed Thursday evening they no longer believed Sunday's incident was connected to Tuesday's violence.
"Our community is tired. We are tired of these things happening," Kearns Community Councilwoman Kelly Bush told the audience. "We need to make sure that our frustrations are focused in one direction, and that is the ones who did this. There are people who are coming into this community and they are taking over our community by putting fear in our families."
Other residents expressed their frustration with what they perceived as a revolving door at the jail. According to Salt Lake County Jail records, one of the men arrested in connection with Tuesday's incident had been arrested on Sunday on an outstanding warrant and released the same day due to jail overcrowding.
Some residents said police didn't do enough to prevent Tuesday's violence from happening in the first place.
"I don’t feel safe for my kids to be here," Jenny said. "I don’t see the prevention."
Many of those who addressed Rivera on Thursday were longtime residents or had long ties to the area.
"This isn’t the same place I grew up in," said a woman who graduated from Kearns High School in 1971.
Rivera explained to the audience that the police department had been actively working all the cases in the Kearns area. But she reminded the audience that investigators were still obligated to operate within the boundaries of the law, which meant they could not profile people based on race or the clothes they wear, and they needed evidence and probable cause before they could arrest somebody, she said.
That's why she encouraged residents to view the gang problem as a community problem and not just a law enforcement issue.
"You know who belongs in your neighborhood and who doesn’t," she said.
Profiling is also a fear Robles has. While she wants her community to be safe, she didn't want her son and his friends being pulled over because of how they look.
"My 18-year-old son who has an afro up to here, isn’t going to be stopped simply because he’s a Hispanic male walking down the street, and he’s going to be profiled,” she said.
She encouraged police to interact more with the community so residents will know the Kearns patrol officers on a first-name basis.
Others felt more efforts needed to be made in the schools to prevent juveniles from joining gangs in the first place.
"It breaks my heart for the gang members, because I believe a gang member becomes a gang member because he’s not loved at home," said Alexandra, who is a West Jordan resident but believes the gang issue is not exclusive to Kearns.
Another woman wanted to know how she could be more proactive with her elementary school child to stop the pattern of violence from repeating itself every 10 years.
Rivera encouraged parents to get more involved with the schools and to be more involved in educating their children.
"So you are telling us to reach out to our principals, to our teachers, our PTA and say, 'This is a conversation we need to have in multiple forums often, with our children starting in elementary school?" the woman said to applause. "This conversation you need to be having, off of this stage, into your living room and right into the school bus tomorrow. You need to become your principal's best friend."
The woman said the conversation needed to continue until "Kearns is no longer the laughing-stock of the Salt Lake County and instead the pinnacle of diversity, and a place you choose to live and not a place you live because you could afford it."
One of the speakers invited to address the audience Thursday night was Ken Isakson. In 2001, the longtime Kearns resident's daughter, Kehndra, 19, was shot and killed by a gang member who was angry he wasn't allowed into a house party. Kehndra was shot at random and had no connection to her killer.
"It turned my world upside down,” he said. "I never thought that this could happen to me."
Isakson told the audience that he knows firsthand that tragedies like the killing of his daughter and the recent shootings in Kearns happen "to normal, ordinary people."
That's why he encouraged all residents to talk to their children about gangs, and for parents to get involved in their community and report any suspicious activity they see or anything that appears out of place.
"You have to call. You have to report them. It's your duty, and it could be your child that you save, or your neighbor's child," he said. "We can point our fingers all day long on whose fault this is, the justice system, law enforcement, or bad parenting. Unless you're willing to step up and be involved and be the eyes and ears out there, there's nobody to blame but yourself on a lot of this stuff. Get yourself involved."