Salt Lake City to use new approach to tackle gang problem

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City plans to use new tools and new approaches to tackle gang violence. This time the city hopes to reap lasting results.

Gang activity has spiked and faded in many of our neighborhoods for years. But after the formation of a Gang Reduction forum last fall, community leaders expect to save more of our youth.

Last summer, Salt Lake Police struggled with a growing gang violence problem. A store manager and a 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca gunned down in separate attacks. Community leaders came together and talked about solutions and started the Gang Reduction Program.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says, "Gang violence is not going to go away. We need to do effective intervention and prevention." The chief is optimistic about the new approaches, but adds by the time police are involved, it's too late.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says, "It means getting to know our neighbors, it means talking to our neighbors and working with our neighbors to address what we see as problems."

Forum members admit outreach obviously won't work for every potential gang member, but for those who refuse to see the light, there's always still a visit from the police and a trip to jail.

Government and law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. "This whole effort is very encouraging," says Leticia Medina, the Gang Reduction Program co-chair. "We want to have some long-term sustainability and some buy in. So, even if we do change mayors, it needs to be permanent."

Sixteen-year-old Pablo Velazquez of Glendale might have chosen the life of a gangbanger; instead he got involved with a community service group called Youthworks. For him, it's about personal pride.

"Ever since I was little, I wanted to work," says Velazquez. "I feel like this is a good experience for me to work and actually do something positive than negative."

The Gang Reduction Program will develop partnerships with schools, faith-based and community-service groups.

Ron Stallworth helped form the first gang task force two decade ago. Now, the retired public safety officer is co-chair of the new program.

"We put too much emphasis on the law enforcement component," says Stallworth. "Law enforcement cannot do this. If it could have, it would have."

He has plenty of experience with this problem, and he's encouraged by the new commitment he sees. The emerging idea is to involve the whole community and tackle the problem together.

Yet, it still takes individual responsibility to achieve long-term success. "For us to be successful, we have to be involved very actively with prevention and intervention with our youth," says Becker.

This is the beginning of ongoing efforts for outreach. They will initially move to hire individuals with "street smarts" who can help them with interventions and building relationships with gang members and their families.

For a list of alternative programs, CLICK HERE.


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Jed Boal


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