Police Chief Janet Thiessen said her department is trying to reach kids who might join gangs through intervention and training its 45-or-so patrol officers to better recognize gang activity.
As the department will possibly be trimmed by one sergeant and two officers, among others, Thiessen said a crime analyst will be on board starting Nov. 16 to help organize and compile gang-related data. She also said that the department will work harder to determine which calls for service really merit sending out an arresting officer, rather than having a community services officer take a report over the phone.
Sgt. Terry Miller, the supervisor of youth services, including the gang unit, said there are more than 600 documented gang members in his database, the vast majority of whom live in Tracy. Miller said that so far this year, Tracy police have taken 160 gang members into custody.
Thiessen said that even though the number of officers could be reduced, police would still work hard to tamp down and prevent gang activity. Patrol officers are receiving more training in gang-related matters, since the gang unit cannot be everywhere. Miller’s three campus police officers will also be trained a bit more for gang prevention.
“With people rotating through assignments, you get a better, well-rounded officer on patrol,” Miller said. “They develop expertise and experience in different aspects in law enforcement.”
Miller’s unit goes to schools and, on request, into homes to talk to kids who are showing signs of gang activity. He said parents should become suspicious if their child asks for lots of clothes in one color or has a noticeable change of behavior, such as crossing out the letter “s” on homework assignments — a common occurrence among newly-recruited Norteño gang members.
Kids as young as seventh grade can be recruited, Miller said.
“(We’re) getting in with kids early, when they’re first misbehaving in the school environment, so that it doesn’t lead to greater issues,” Thiessen said.
The problem appears worse at the moment, police say, because of several recent high-profile incidents, including a fatal shooting Oct. 10 at downtown Tracy restaurant Amore’s and a drive-by shooting Nov. 1 on Corral Hollow Road.
Thiessen acknowledged that October was an unusually bad month and said that in the first nine months of the year, Tracy had just a 2 percent crime rate — the number of crimes committed compared to the population.
Miller said the trouble is largely caused by the Norteño and Sureño gangs, with a couple other subset groups also in the mix. Norteños usually wear red and use the number 14 as a symbol, Miller said, and Sureños use blue as their distinguishing color and 13 as their number. However, some gangs use alternate colors to fly under the radar.
Michael Mau, who is in prison facing charges that he killed one man and injured six others in the Amore’s shooting, is a Norteño, and so were some of the people with whom he associated, police allege.
The shooting on Corral Hollow, Miller said, was likely organized by the Sureños. Miller also said the 16-year-old victim of an Oct. 27 stabbing near Holly and Laguna drives was a Norteño, but there’s no indication that the suspects are gang-affiliated.
“Tracy’s always been heavily a Norteño town,” Miller said. “But recently, probably in the last three years or so, the Sureños have started to move and take hold in Tracy. We’re seeing a growing number of the Sureños.”
Thiessen said that residents, who should generally be aware of their surroundings, can help protect their neighborhood from gang activity. In addition to being cognizant of any suspicious changes their children are making, they can organize with other people. Thiessen commended the work done by Neighbors For Change, who meet monthly at North School and are working to keep El Pescadero Park safe from gangs.
“We’re going to continue and we’re not backing away from taking a strong stance on gang activity,” Thiessen said.