SALT LAKE CITY – How big is Utah’s gang problem? That’s the question many are asking after Murray police said Sunday's lockdown and evacuation of Fashion Place mall was due to a shooting involving rival gangs.
“It’s like a roller coaster: it’s up and it’s down; it’s popular and then it’s not,” said Unified Police Lt. Mike Schoenfeld. “Right now it seems to be growing.”
Gangs in Utah. We know they exist but until an incident like the one at Fashion Place happens, it’s easy to forget they’re here.
“We’re very much influenced by California gang lifestyle, and that includes Norteños, Sureños, Bloods and Crips,” Schoenfeld said.
Schoenfeld heads up Salt Lake's Metro Gang Task Force. He said because Utah’s population is growing, so is the gang problem.
He said there are 25 to 40 different active gangs in the Salt Lake Valley, and between 3,500 and 5,000 documented gang members.
The two 19-year-olds arrested in Sunday’s gang shooting at the mall were part of the “Florencia 13” gang, according to police records.
“I know that they are a Sureño group that are active here in the region, not just Salt Lake County,” said Schoenfeld. “They are very much a group that recruits on social media — and they are prone to violence, like any gang.”
The increase in gang activity, however, wasn’t the main issue for law enforcement. It’s age. Gang members, they said, have been getting younger and younger.
“The youngest gang member that we have documented that we have dealt with was an 11-year-old,” said Schoenfeld.
Schoenfeld said the Metro Gang Task Force often deals with 14- to 15-year-old shooters, and the kids gangs are recruiting are even younger, usually in fifth or sixth grade.
“The biggest problem I see with gangs here in Utah is that they’re just getting younger and younger,” said Schoenfeld. “We’re dealing with very violent juveniles.”
Law enforcement said gangs are using social media to recruit younger and younger kids. They also said it’s a good idea for parents to monitor their kids’ social media accounts to see who they’re talking to and what pages they’re visiting.