In some ways, Gilroy has become the poster child for an aggressive anti-gang movement over the last four months, highlighted by two celebrated and widely publicized raids that netted roughly 80 total known gang members and their associates.
But with a new year has come a slightly new outlook for regional law enforcement officials, and while they aren’t completely abandoning tactics of suppression and costly, undercover initiatives – like the recent “Operation Garlic Press” – the focus appears to be shifting.
“We can’t arrest them all,” Gilroy City Councilman Bob Dillon said.
Local officials are focusing on a long-term approach that makes a bigger commitment to prevention, halting gang participation in homes and classrooms before it slips into the streets.
“You need to focus more on the ground level, targeting the youth before they get involved in gangs,” said Capt. Kurt Svardal of the Gilroy Police Department. “The true focus has to be on those kids that are starting to turn the corner and show a propensity to a gang lifestyle.”
A regional approach toward prevention
In October, roughly 40 law enforcement agencies collaborated to arrest 115 suspects in what was the culmination of the dangerous, 16-month undercover investigation “Operation Garlic Press,” led by Gilroy police and assisted by officers from Morgan Hill and Hollister. Included were more than 50 known gang members, nearly all of whom were identified as Nortenos, a group that accounts for almost all gang-related violence in the region, according to the GPD.
The series of raids was highly touted and widely publicized, even prompting a visit from California Attorney General Kamala Harris during a wall-to-wall press conference at City Hall while officers wrapped up the arrests.
“That was a pretty good number of gang members. To infiltrate them like that, that’s a very successful operation,” Svardal said.
Less than two months later on Dec. 8 police carried out another series of raids during “Operation Royal Flush,” nabbing more than 30 suspects, many of them suspected gang members involved in narcotics and marijuana sales, according to GPD.
But as much praise and publicity as those initiatives generated, lengthy investigations spawning early morning raids likely won’t become the norm, Svardal said.
“The city has recognized for a long period of time that doing operations like those aren’t long-term solutions,” he said.
How to deal with gangs in Gilroy led off the City Council’s annual two-day goal-setting session Jan. 27. Sparking the public safety discussion, Gilroy City Administrator Tom Haglund announced that, while the city’s suppression efforts had been successful, raids and arrests “also must be bolstered with prevention.”
Haglund laid out several prevention options, which include forming a regional task force among officials in the three neighboring cities and pursuing a gang injunction ordinance, which could declare it a public nuisance for known gang members to associate with one another or display gang signs and colors.
“It doesn’t mean we’re moving away from suppression. We need both of these. There still has to be a suppression effort as well. The two work in tandem,” said Gilroy Councilman Peter Leroe-Muñoz, who has prosecuted criminal cases involving gangs as a deputy district attorney for the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office. “It’s about finding a way to bolster suppression with a strong prevention effort as well.”
When asked about the possibility of a regional gang task force – for which funding has not yet been identified – Gang Prevention Coordinator Al De Vos of the San Benito County Probation Department said he would gladly come on board.
“I look forward to something like that. It’s a regional issue,” said De Vos.
Councilman Dillon agreed a regional approach is the best way to address gang activity, in part because violent criminals often cross between county and city boundaries to commit crimes. Gilroy’s problem today could be Morgan Hill, San Martin or Hollister’s problem tomorrow, he said.
“What you wind up with is, if you kick them out of Gilroy, you just squeeze the balloon and they land somewhere else,” Dillon said.
Addressing the problem early
If these new plans are at all going to be successful, elected officials will have to make time to meet face-to-face with local residents and “be really visible in leading this effort,” Leroe-Muñoz said.
“It’s going to take community buy-in. You have to make sure the community is in support of gang prevention and they’re willing to work with law enforcement, schools, everybody, for it to be successful,” Leroe-Muñoz said.
Violent behaviors learned from schoolmates or at home can sometimes contribute to youth joining gangs, De Vos said.
“What we found, through our studies, is there are a lot of pro-violent attitudes in the community,” De Vos said. “If we can create an environment where they can learn appropriate behaviors, that’s something that will have a big impact on the community.”
Though De Vos can’t say definitively that learned behaviors like school bullying will lead children to join gangs, he allowed, “The relationship between pro-violent attitudes and gang participation is fairly widely known.”
To combat those prevalent attitudes and deter youth from gangs, the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office offers an in-class program to some elementary and middle school students called G.R.E.A.T. – Gang Resistance Education and Training. The program is offered for six weeks each year to fourth- and fifth-grade classes, and for 12 weeks to sixth-through-eighth graders, De Vos said.
Gilroy fifth-graders also learn how to avoid falling into a life of gang activity through the GPD’s D.A.R.E. program, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
“It focuses on their ability to make decisions for themselves, how to deal with peer pressure,” GPD Sgt. Chad Gallacinao said. “Not just about drugs, but gang life.”
A large chunk of the teachings are geared toward pushing children to report possible crimes to police or adults. De Vos said many students grow up with the fear of being labeled a “snitch,” and that attitude has to change. Around the Hollister community, officers hand out brochures detailing gang descriptions and symbols and make residents aware of upcoming community forums to discuss local gang violence.
“We need the community to report, we need the community out helping us,” De Vos said. “When they do report it, there is action taken so they have a role in their own safety. It’s much easier for the majority of people to address the small minority of people involved in these aggressive attitudes.”
Police in Gilroy haven’t zeroed in on a specific age group to monitor, GPD Capt. Svardal said, but high school students “teetering on the gang lifestyle” often require the most immediate persuading. Fixing the problem through prevention, however, can sometimes be frustrating. Some at-risk children come from families where gang participation goes back multiple generations. Others are just hell bent on becoming the next Norteno on the block, Svardal said.
“There are certain members of the gang community who don’t want to rehabilitate, who don’t want to be law-abiding citizens,” he said.
Still, Svardal said the onus is on everyone to turn gang violence around in South County – police, schools, elected officials, faith-based groups and nonprofit service providers. All can bring something to the table, he said.
“It’s the ‘It takes a village’ mentality. You’ve got to have that large broad group,” Svardal said. “There’s just a wide range of folks that are needed.”
Gang injunction another step
Another local option to thwart gang activity is pursuing a gang injunction ordinance, in which a city, with the backing of a district attorney’s office, can prohibit suspected known gang members from associating with each other, wearing gang colors and symbols, engaging in gang recruitment or other actions that could lead to criminal behavior, said Leroe-Muñoz.
“They can be punished with jail time, they can be punished with fines, they can have their probation revoked,” Leroe-Muñoz said. “It gives law enforcement more tools to work with. It allows the city to fully pursue all the legal resources available.”
Nortenos, sworn enemies of the Southern California-based Surenos, can sometimes be identified through overt displays of the color red, the letter “C” (red for northern, “C” for California) or logos and tattoos paying homage to the Bay Area, according to Gilroy police gang histories found in court documents. In contrast, Surenos often don blue colors.
The Norteno moniker is an umbrella term that covers several Gilroy subgroups including the East Side Gilas and Brown Pride Kings, according to court documents.
Large cities such as San Jose and Los Angeles have passed gang injunctions, and despite claims from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union that they can lead to racial profiling, Leroe-Muñoz said injunctions can be successful in South County. Especially because of the relatively small communities here, he said.
“Law enforcement will be able to monitor these individuals. If gang members aren’t respecting that injunction, they are going to suffer the consequences,” he said.
One component of the proposed anti-gang efforts giving Dillon pause is the potential cost, especially if the city has to pony up attorney’s fees to request and enforce a gang injunction ordinance.
“Whenever you talk about civil litigation, my first question is, ‘How much is this going to cost?’” Dillon said.
He said he’s cautious of spending any money from the city’s general fund on the new measures, but, “If it’s reasonable, I’d be happy to take a look at it.”