Gang conference focuses on keeping kids out of gangs

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SANDY -- Police agencies from around the state are meeting together for a two-day conference to discuss the growing problem of gang activity. From a shooting near Kearns High School to the case of a 7-year-old girl killed in a drive-by shooting, there's plenty to talk about.

It's the 19th annual Utah Gang Conference, and police from around the country are usually in attendance. "There's people from around the Midwest states that come out here, occasionally get some people from the East Coast states. But it's usually around the second largest gang conference west of the Mississippi," said Detective Rick Simonelli, with the Salt Lake County Metro Gang Unit.

This year, organizers hope to teach preventative methods to keep young kids from getting involved in gangs. "The main focus is basically on street gangs, and the young kids, and how we can work to get these kids out of the gangs, and some preventative programs that we have out there," Simonelli said.

Pete Walters, an investigator with the Utah Department of Corrections, said, "The gang members are having kids, bringing their kids up with what they know, which is the gangs.".

It starts even before their kids can walk and talk. "I've seen some of the kids as infants. If there's a primary color for the gang, that's all they'll have them wear," Walters said.

By the time they can walk and talk, they know enough to be part of the gang themselves. Because they don't know anything different, the chances of them choosing anything but the gang lifestyle are slim. "That's all they know. It's accepted," Walters said.

There's been a huge push for prevention programs in schools. "There are so many anti-gang or educational resistance training programs out there. It's nice to see," said Detective Thomas Loevlie, with the Salt Lake County Metro Gang Unit.

Loevlie is presenting on youth gangs at this year's conference. He teaches the Gang Resistance and Training Program at Beehive Elementary School in Kearns.

The G.R.E.A.T. program is designed to get kids and their parents educated, but when parents are in gangs themselves, it creates a problem.

"It's a lot harder dealing with these kids. Their role models, everything in their life revolves around a gang, and it's something at home. Their parents aren't going to say, ‘This is something you shouldn't do,'" Walters said.

So far, this is a problem without a good solution, but Walters and Loevlie hope to continue to focus on families, not just on the kids.

Officers will also discuss the increasing trend of Polynesian gang activity. "Our main Crip gang in Salt Lake City is predominantly Polynesian, it's one of the largest Crip gangs that we have in Salt Lake," Simonelli said.

There will be 20 different workshops and eight break-out sessions. Topics include firearms trafficking, gang related homicides, female gangs, social networking and music influences, among many others.

The conference is designed for professionals, but it's also open to the public. The Utah Gang Conference started Thursday at 8 a.m. at the South Towne Convention Center. It runs through Friday.


Story compiled with contributions from Courtney Orton and Paul McHardy.

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