What’s Behind San Diego’s Gang Problem

What’s Behind San Diego’s Gang Problem

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Stacy Butler holds a rally for peace at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues in southeastern San Diego.

Local street gangs are growing and getting harder to police, according to officials from nine out of 11 law enforcement agencies who spoke to SANDAG for a study released this week.

A possible reason, they said, is the state’s prison realignment effort, which shortens sentences for low-level offenders and relies more heavily on local jails and probationers. The hammer of incarceration just isn’t as intimidating these days.

But San Diego State University gang researcher Dana Nurge said “the verdict’s still out” on realignment’s effect.

“I think we need to keep an eye on it and see whether these perceptions are actually true,” said Nurge, who wasn’t involved with the SANDAG study.

The report looks at surveys on gang activity completed by juveniles and adults who were arrested in 2012. The study authors also talked to law enforcement agencies about how gang activity has changed.

Nurge and the study authors suggest local jurisdictions should pay immediate attention to proven causes and deterrents for gang activity. Young teens – usually age 13.5, according to the study – join gangs for a sense of belonging. They’ll often choose a different path if someone intervenes early on.

But the city of San Diego is behind the curve when it comes to institutionalizing early intervention. City reports show the number of new gang members consistently outnumbers those leaving gangs. Nearly half of SANDAG’s survey respondents said they wouldn’t know where to go if they needed help getting out of a gang.

“I would argue that San Diego definitely doesn’t have enough street outreach. We don’t have any organized system of it,” Nurge said.

File photo

File photo

SDSU gang researcher Dana Nurge

She’s referring to strategies embraced by the mayor’s offices in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland. Those cities employ former gang members who entrench themselves in neighborhoods to mentor youth and counsel their parents full time.

“So maybe it’s getting a kid who’s not in school and getting him back in school — helping the parent and the kid do the paperwork,” Nurge said. “It might be connecting an older gang member who wants to get out with a job. It might just be helping the family get their basic needs met for food.”

In San Diego, much of the work is done through an informal web of churches and nonprofits. The city has a gang commission that advises City Council on gang policy, but it’s volunteer-based and lacks a budget.

“I think it would take support from the mayor’s office more than anything, and just a recognition that this kind of approach is effective and necessary,” Nurge said.

The San Diego Police Department did not respond in time to confirm whether it’s one of the nine agencies witnessing increased gang activity. Violent and overall crime through October are down from last year.

But SANDAG’s study suggests all jurisdictions aren’t nudging people out of gangs as early as they should. The majority of participants said they got out of the lifestyle because they got older. The average age of gang-affiliated respondents was 30.

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Megan Burks

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at meburks@kpbs.org or 619.550.5665.

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10 comments
Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson

Drugs are behind San Diego's gang programs. Legalize drugs and you take away 90% of money that funds gun activity. We put sanctions on Iran, why don't we do the same for gangs?

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

Drugs are behind San Diego's gang programs. Legalize drugs and you take away 90% of money that funds gun activity. We put sanctions on Iran, why don't we do the same for gangs?

Megan Burks
Megan Burks

The study does talk about the reach of organized drug cartels and their effect on local gang activity. But SANDAG and law enforcement officials say pimping girls seems to be replacing drugs when it comes to generating income for the gang. You can sell an ounce once; you can sell a girl over and over again.

The study that mentions drug cartels: http://www.sandag.org/uploads/publicationid/publicationid_1801_16883.pdf

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Also, what is your source for the assertion that drugs are behind the gang problem? That's not mentioned in the article.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

What's your citation on the 90 percent figure, Michael?

Megan Burks
Megan Burks author

The study does talk about the reach of organized drug cartels and their effect on local gang activity. But SANDAG and law enforcement officials say pimping girls seems to be replacing drugs when it comes to generating income for the gang. You can sell an ounce once; you can sell a girl over and over again.

The study that mentions drug cartels: http://www.sandag.org/uploads/publicationid/publicationid_1801_16883.pdf

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Also, what is your source for the assertion that drugs are behind the gang problem? That's not mentioned in the article.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

What's your citation on the 90 percent figure, Michael?

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Ms. Burkes: Thanks for this source document. Very interesting. Regarding drugs, which Mr. Robertson cited, it indicates that 12% of respondents reported that they were drawn to the gang for drug dealing/making money. I imagine some of that “making money” is the pimping to which you refer. It also indicates that most arrestees reported that their motivation for joining or associating with gangs was because their friends were members or to obtain a sense of belonging with peers. This, of course, is just a snippet of a much more comprehensive report.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Ms. Burkes: Thanks for this source document. Very interesting. Regarding drugs, which Mr. Robertson cited, it indicates that 12% of respondents reported that they were drawn to the gang for drug dealing/making money. I imagine some of that “making money” is the pimping to which you refer. It also indicates that most arrestees reported that their motivation for joining or associating with gangs was because their friends were members or to obtain a sense of belonging with peers. This, of course, is just a snippet of a much more comprehensive report.