Several members of the community met at the Riverbank Community Center on Thursday, July 30 to hear Police Chief Erin Kiely and members of the police department’s street crimes unit discuss city gang awareness.
The program, organized by Vice-Mayor Darlene Barber-Martinez, is part of the city’s strategic plan for public safety.
“Although we don’t have overt gang activity, we do have a gang presence,” Kiely said. “It’s more preventative because we have a problem that’s not boiling over.”
Sergeant Josh Humble and Detective Eric Torres discussed the department’s recent Facebook page and its advantages for getting word out into the community on who local offenders were and their criminal activity.
“It shrinks the village down,” said Chief Kiely, pointing out that it reduces a particular criminal’s anonymity. “Now you know what this guy’s doing out there.”
According to the sheriff’s department, Stanislaus County has over 5,000 documented gang members with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 undocumented.
“Sadly, they are often between 12 and 24 (years old),” Detective Torres added.
Sgt. Humble and Det. Torres presented the types of gangs in the area from Asian, White, Black, Hispanic and even female gangs.
The Norteno and Sureno are the most widespread in Riverbank with the white gangs also active but not as territorial.
Several factors were presented on Norteno and Sureno identification by the gang investigators including the association with their “colors.”
The Norteños, or Northerners, form the oldest and largest Latino street gangs in the state. Norteños identify with the color red and by “N,” the 14th letter of the alphabet, which they often mark with graffiti in Roman numerals as “XIV” or “ENE,” Spanish for ‘N.’
On the street, the southerners, or Sureños, identify with the color blue and the letter “M,” the 13th letter of the alphabet and use Roman numeral “XIII” or “EME.”
The painted ‘XIV’ or ‘X4’ and the ‘X3’ or ‘Sur’ tags are becoming more and more visible in the city, including across from schools and at the city borders as notice of claimed territory.
“When I first came to Riverbank in the summer (of 2012), the gang problem was horrible,” said Humble, recalling when he was a deputy for the street crimes unit.
Humble spoke about “taking back” Castlewood Park which had become a major hangout for Norteno members and coming with it, the associated crime.
“We have to disrupt their lives to make it uncomfortable to get them to lay down low,” Humble explained.
Determining the presence of gang members in a community is an inexact science, with people affiliated with gangs to varying degrees and some members inactive. It can also be difficult to determine whether crimes are gang-related.
He urged citizens that if they see groups they feel are gangs to contact police services so they can contact them and determine the activity.
Information was presented on black gangs in the county, but according to Humble they are more prevalent in Modesto.
“These guys go everywhere which is why we’re presenting the information,” Humble said.
The officers offered information to parents on what to look for if their child may be involved in gang activity including clothing, hair styles and displaying hand signs.
“There’s a style of dress change, associating with different groups of friends and even being more stand offish or violent,” Humble explained.
Detective Torres told the group that their unit would go talk to children and intervene to prevent gang membership.
“We’re not looking to lock everybody up, but to stop them from joining gangs,” Torres said. “That’s why I talk to them before they’re in trouble.”
The investigators said they go into the homes to gain trust rather than “lower the hammer.”
A high level of gang membership is often from a lack of family support or violence within the family.
“A lot of this is family responsibility or factors and out of the hands of officers,” Humble said.
The individual thus finds acceptance and identification with the gang and then goes out and commits crimes for the gang.
“We are turning the tide on street gang membership and we will not tolerate gang violence,” Chief Kiely concluded. “Gang members who choose violence have chosen the undivided attention of the sheriff’s department and will be pursued and captured.”