March Tahoe Mt. News
Editor’s note: In the coming months the Tahoe Mountain News will be looking at a variety of social issues affecting the South Shore – primarily its young people -- from gangs to the judicial system to social agencies and everything in between.
By Kathryn Reed
“There are more than 420,000 gang members statewide. Gangs are responsible for crimes including money laundering, extortion, narcotic production and sales, prostitution, human trafficking, assassinations for hire, theft and counterfeiting. In spite of an overall decrease in crime in most California cities since the 1990s, rates of gang-related violent crime remain steady.”
This information was released by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office March 3. Some individuals on the South Shore are included in the 420,000 figure.
While South Lake Tahoe does not have the gang problem that urban areas do, it is an issue. Southside 13, Nortenos, Trust No Bitches (which has female members), Eastside Familia – they all operate here. The Lima Street gang originally out of Compton has a large presence in Carson City and has shown its colors here – lime green.
Blue, red, 13, 14, TNB, ESF – see those colors, numbers or letters to know it’s gang related. Thirteen comes from M being the 13th letter in the alphabet. M is for Mexico and the Southerners. The letter N is the 14th letter and represents the Northerners.
Before the winter holidays Eloise and James streets were hit hard with graffiti. The evidence remains. It costs money to repair what taggers do -- more than $50 to replace one 16 inch by 24 inch sign. Property owners must paint over the vandalism. If city property is tagged, community service officers do the job at taxpayers’ expense. Cold weather and snow can prevent cleanup from occurring right away.
“(We had) over 200 reported cases of tagging in 2007. It was up about 100 percent from 2006,” South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Terry Daniels said.
The side of Pine Wood Inn is splashed with just about every gang marking known to this area. It’s hard to see from Highway 50, but accessing the property off Osgood Street is easy. A path over the snow bank is well traveled.
“It’s nearly impossible to catch them unless you put someone in the woods with binoculars,” said Officer Brandon Auxier as he surveyed the wall.
Writing across another gang’s symbol is tantamount to a challenge. When 187 is written it means someone is going to be killed. That number is the penal code for murder. That threat isn’t on this wall.
Gangs have a code that cops know. This allows them to be on heightened alert for possible threats or escalated violence.
Auxier travels these streets during his 12-hour day shift. On Pioneer Trail he spots three boys. The two on the outside have red T-shirts hanging below their jackets.
“Not a lot of people buy plain read T-shirts,” Auxier notes.
Simply wearing gang colors is not a reason to be detained. It is, however, a reason to be concerned. Even the color of one’s shoelaces is being watched.
Gangs are an issue everywhere – to the point that police chiefs throughout the world convened this month for a gang summit. El Salvador and Los Angeles agreed officers will trade places to study how each locale deals with street gangs.
Schwarzenegger awarded $16.5 million in grants this month to combat gang violence. The California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention initiative was formed in May 2007 to eradicate gangs in urban, suburban and rural areas.
Types of crimes
Officer Auxier believes the 24-hour community, parents working multiple jobs and kids being left alone for hours are components of the problem. The biggest problem he sees on the streets is drugs – meth in particular.
He said at one time South Lake was ranked second in the state for the number of DUI and domestic violence arrests based on population. Although those are not traditional gang activities, it shows a side of Tahoe often swept under the carpet.
Primarily locals are being locked up – not tourists. Kids are in these dysfunctional homes. Drugs, alcohol and smoking are part of everyday life.
Gangs can offer solace, camaraderie, a different type of family.
Pellets from a shotgun nailed an 18-year-old South Lake boy in the face and neck on Feb. 22 when he was in the parking garage at Harveys. The victim graduated from Mt. Tallac last year. At the time he was classified as homeless. The victim told officers he believes the shooter was from a Carson City gang.
A year ago there was a drive-by shooting in the city limits.
“If we continue on this pace of type of gang activities we’re seeing in the community, we could see moderate to serious gang activities in the summer,” Hewlett predicts.
Gang violence increases as the weather warms. Like everyone, these people are outdoors more when it’s nice out and the days are longer.
Who’s involved in Tahoe?
City cops keep a gang book. Pictures – some obtained during searches, others provided by family members – show guys flipping gang signs, wearing colors, a gun in a waistband. Profiles on known gang members are tracked.
The book is off-limits to the media.
“Locally, we are seeing girls more involved in gang activities,” Capt. Martin Hewlett said. Mostly it’s fights.
Six girls were suspended for a week from South Tahoe High School because of a fight last month at the school.
In cities, gang turf is usually geographical. Here, territories exist, but gang members might live on the same street, in the same trailer park, the same neighborhood. Friendships and families make the local bond.
Younger kids follow in older siblings’ footsteps. Hispanic gangs dominate here. Filipino and black gangs used to have more of a presence. Members of Nazi Low Riders live here, but aren’t organized.
With people doing hard time in Carson City, this brings an influx of dangerous criminals to the region. Their families move to the area. Some have family at the Lake.
But stereotyping who a gang member can back fire.
“There are a lot of doctors and PhDs out there with kids involved in gangs,” Chief Daniels said. “A lot of these young people will tell you they join a gang for respect. There is a certain sense of elitism. It is a core value, a core family issue that needs to be resolved. The government isn’t going to fix 16-year-olds getting involved with gangs.”
Even though gang members come from all walks of life, Daniels said, “There is an economic side to these things as well.”
What can be done?
Officers are making a concerted effort to reach out to parents. Some can’t believe their child would be involved in gangs, some don’t know what to look for and others are ready to whoop their child or have an officer do it.
“You would be amazed about how many parents are naïve about their children’s behavior,” Daniels said.
Tahoe Youth & Family Services, Family Resource Center and Latino Affairs Commission are involved. Meetings have been conducted in English and Spanish.
Most crimes are committed by 14- to 23-year-olds, according to Capt. Hewlett. Gang affiliation has nothing to do with this stat.
He said it’s important to reach out to kids at the elementary level before peer pressure takes hold. Retired police Officer Paul Huard works with elementary kids from January-June trying to infuse them with skills to make good choices.
The department through its Lunch Buddies program encourages officers to mix with kids, chat and even play basketball.
“At the middle school we can intervene,” Hewlett said. “At high school you are running defense. You are responding to them instead of being proactive.”
Even though the local police force doesn’t have a bilingual officer, Hewlett said this is not a problem because most of the kids speak English.
Daniels said his goal is to have a school resource officer at the middle school like STHS has.
Once a week officers form South Lake, Douglas and El Dorado counties sheriff’s departments and the El Dorado County DA’s Office meet to discuss gang issues.
Business owners have been told about laws governing the sale of spray paint to minors. But cans are often found in people’s garages and don’t need to be purchased.
SLTPD staffing situation
The lack of officers within the South Lake Tahoe Police Department is a problem. Fully staffed means 43 sworn officers. The department has 36. One is on medical leave.
“Normally we would take someone out of a specialty position or off patrol and assign people to that task,” Daniels said. “If physically you don’t have anyone to do that, you are left to deal with it as it comes up case-by-case with people on patrol. When it’s a secondary job, it doesn’t have the impact and it doesn’t get done.”
Eight officers work the streets in two 12-hour shifts. The detectives are working patrol. The narcotics officer is on patrol. The officer assigned to the FBI is on patrol.
“It’s a challenge. It’s very difficult because people are tired,” Daniels said. Overtime is the norm. No longer is South Lake able to attract veteran officers.
One officer recently went to San Bernardino, another to Escondido and one will soon join the district attorney’s office.
The chief is trying to hire people, but many opt to go where the pay is higher. It takes about a year to get an officer capable of being solo on the streets. This includes time at the academy and on the job training. A handful of officers are scheduled to start training soon. Once on the streets the department is still down two cops.
South Lake Tahoe is not alone. Daniels said statewide a 10 to 15 percent officer shortage exists, which equates to nearly 15,000 vacant positions.
“In Lake Tahoe the issue has been pay. We pay substantially less than other areas and our housing market … it’s very expensive to live here and not everyone loves the snow. It takes a special person to live in the mountains,” Daniels said.
For the past 15 months the city has been in contract negotiations with police officers. Daniels expects the issues to be resolved soon. Higher salaries, he said, would help him with recruiting and retention.