Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

Salt Lake County to launch regional gang reduction initiative

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

Published: Tue, March 11 10:02 p.m. MDT

 Detectives of the Metro Gang Unit in South Salt Lake.

Detectives of the Metro Gang Unit in South Salt Lake.

(Deseret News Archives)

SALT LAKE CITY — Law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake County have units dedicated to suppressing gang activity.

But neither Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder nor Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank believe their departments are the sole answer to preventing youths from joining gangs, let alone dealing with the consequences of their activities.

As such, both law enforcement officials appeared before the Salt Lake County Council Tuesday to endorse the launch of a regional gang initiative. Under the plan, the county would use funds from its regional development coffers to hire a coordinator and researcher to develop data on gang activity, research proven prevention and suppression methods and evaluate how the strategies work once they are implemented by law enforcement and community partners such as school districts, courts and local governments.

Burbank said community partners tend to coalesce when gang violence results in a tragedy such as the shooting death of 7-year-old Maria Del Carmen Menchaca, who was killed outside her Salt Lake home in July 2008 by gang members who had targeted her older cousin.

But, while well-meaning, efforts such as that tend not to last, he said. An office that could coordinate community partners on an ongoing basis would enhance prevention strategies and other interventions such as diverting gang members into community-based programming, Burbank said.

"Once they get to the law enforcement side, we are not the best solution. In fact, we are the last solution," he said.

The Unified Police Department's Metro Gang Unit and the Safe Streets Task Force, of which the Salt Lake Police Department is a key player, are both dedicated to suppressing gang activity, Winder said.

Both would benefit from an independent office that can provide guidance regarding proven strategies and create a mechanism to evaluate the success of those approaches.

"If we're not going to work under the same roof, at least we should be working under the same sheet of music," Winder said.

The council voted to approve the two hires, even though some members said the proposal was vague.

"What is the job description for these two people?" queried Councilman Richard Snelgrove. "That's a bit of a bit of a concern when were spending $190,000."

David Litvack, director of the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, said the gang initiative would be housed with his council. The coordinator and researcher would organize the activities of the executive committee made up of elected officials and policymakers as well as an operations committee comprised of people responsible for "ground-level" implementation of strategies in schools, courts, juvenile justice programs, human service agencies and municipalities, Litvack said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the program will be launched with regional development funds but the positions would be time limited. The County Council would have to decide whether to support the initiative on an ongoing basis, preferably with other partners funding the initiative, he said.

Salt Lake County Council Chairman Mike Jensen said the fledgling initiative will be thoroughly reviewed as part of the council's budget deliberations.

"It's not going to be a rubber stamp come November," he said.