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Detectives Talk Gang Awareness
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They could have done with a larger audience than the half dozen parents that turned up but Riverbank Police Services detectives Richard Gonzales and Josh Humble delivered some valuable information during a gang awareness talk at the Teen Center on Wednesday.

Criminal street gangs start in the 12- to 17-year-old age group that countrywide accounts for 4,000 homicides per year plus other crimes, they explained. The older gangsters like to recruit youth because they don't want to do the dirty work themselves and they know the youngsters will draw less jail time if caught.

"What's the definition of a gang? Three or more people who are involved in a criminal activity and use a common name, sign or symbol," Gonzales explained to the small group.

There are scores of gangs operating in California. They mostly have Hispanic names, detectives said, and are divided into two large groups: Nortenos and Surenos (north and south) with subgroups such as the Riverbank Varios Locos (RVL) that is prominent in this community. There are also Asian and white supremacy gangs such as The Aryan Brotherhood, the officers noted.

Teens become involved with gangs for a number of reasons. They feel protected and draw a sense of security and support from the gang. They gain "a street education" and a source of income. They have a sense of belonging and commitment, a camaraderie that other people might derive from being a sports team fan or belonging to a bowling club.

A youth who is willing to commit crime can be quickly promoted.

"I talked to a 16-year-old who was calling the shots for a gang with 700 members. He had killed three people and been bumped to the top," said Gonzales.

There are many signs of interest in gangs that he asked parents to look out for in their child's clothes, hairstyle, pursuits and behavior.

They include declining school grades, a new nickname, a demand for more privacy in his room or backpack, favorite colors in his clothes, big and baggy clothes, an abrupt change in friends, "gangsta rap" music, and a growing interest in tattoos and weapons.

Hairstyles can be extreme ranging from the Mongolian Warrior style where the head is shaved bald except for a topknot gathered into a long ponytail to the spiked helmet crest favored by some professional rappers.

Girl gang members are more difficult to spot than the boys because the schools often have dress codes that control what students wear. The girl gangsters become much more obvious in a social setting such as the recent Cheese & Wine Expo where Humble said he was surprised to spot in gang dress what he previously took to be average, conventional high school girls.

Fights can break out just over the color of clothing when members of different gangs meet, Gonzales said.

"You can see it all the time in the mall," he said." Some rival gang members happen to meet, start dissing, flashing hand signals, pulling out their cell phones to call for reinforcements."

The detectives encouraged parents and people who deal daily with children such as teachers to look for signs of gang membership and report them. They are welcome to call the detectives at the Riverbank police substation (209-869-7162) and leave a message that will be returned by the officers.

Gang membership crosses all economic and social boundaries. In Riverbank there are members in the "States Streets" and in the downtown, in Pacific Heights and in the Crossroads.

Living in a gated community for security, Humble joked about being called by colleagues one night to learn police were chasing a gang member seeking the protection of his boss who it turned out resided near Humble's home.

Gangs are also recruiting younger and younger members even down to the elementary school age.

Parents can help their children avoid drifting into gangs by "staying informed, involved and aware," Gonzales said. "Become involved in your kids lives. Build up their self esteem and work to combat the gang problem in your community."

People work long hours nowadays and adults and children alike give too much time and attention to electronic devices like cell phones, computers and televisions, which detectives note is part of the problem.

"One expert estimated that parents and their children actually talk to each other face to face for only an average of 38 minutes per week," said Gonzales.