By JENNA MORRISON
In March of 2006, the beating of a 14-year-old boy in central Provo had police and school officials worried about what appeared to be a comeback in gang activity.
Earlier that month, Provo police arrested a 19-year-old man who they said was armed with brass knuckles, in connection with the beating of the boy near Dixon Middle School.
Police said the fight started over comments about a local gang. The man responded by pulling out the weapon and beating the young victim.
The boy was struck on the back and head with the tool, which had sharp blades that left distinctive marks, according to a police report filed in 4th District Court.
But it’s not just fights that have officials worried.
“We’re seeing a lot more tagging,” said Greg Hudnall, Provo school district’s student services director. “We’re seeing a lot more students who want to be in gangs. You can’t drive anywhere in Provo and not see graffiti.”
Graffiti advertising various gangs is just one of the ways the taggers show off or promote gang affiliation, Hudnall said.
Officials say entry into gang membership often starts out innocently. Kids start hanging out, then get more attached to what they see as a sense of unity because of gang symbols. The kids start spray painting the symbols on walls, challenging other groups and find themselves facing criminal charges, Hudnall said.
Provo Police Capt. Rick Healey described the gang problem in Provo as one that “just keeps inching along.”
Gang activity in Utah County has increased over the past seven to eight months and has caught the attention of local law enforcement and school administrators. What is causing this increase in gangs and related activity?
Darcy Simmons, of the Utah County Major Task Force Division, said the boost in graffiti could indicate a rise in other gang-related activities like drug use and crime.
A gang is a group of three or more people who join together and identify themselves with a common name, sign, or symbol, and then they engage in criminal activities, said Marsha Mark, Provo School District, gang prevention specialist.
“People who join gangs come from every neighborhood, race, religion, culture, age, and economic level.” Mark said. “Many gang members have dropped out of school, but some young people who join gangs have ‘A’ grades. The most important part of identifying a group as a gang is the behavior of its members. Groups who commit crimes are gangs, regardless of their composition,”
Members of the police force do not fully understand the psychology behind gangs, however, common reasons include money, drugs, acceptance or because they have older siblings in gangs.
“They might get involved because of the money involved in selling drugs, pressure or simply the desire to fit in,” she said.
A possible explanation for the rise of gangs is because television glorifies illegal activity, Hudnall said.
“I think a lot kids enjoy what the gangs have to offer,” Mark said.
Middle schools are the biggest recruiting grounds for gang members, she said.
“In the gang world, the younger the kid is in the gang, even when they get charged, it’s like a slap on the wrist,” Mark said. “The older kid might get detention or locked up.”
We are seeing the recruitment of new gang members at an increasingly young age. Recruitment in some middle schools is a bigger focus for some gangs than it was a few years ago, Mark said.
Lt. Del Craig, head of the Metro Gang Unit, said parental involvement and catching juveniles at a young age before they fall deep into gangs are both critical in community prevention efforts.
“Parents need to recognize the danger signs and the risks. They need to know what’s going on in their children’s lives,” he said.
Some years ago, gang members stopped wearing visible gang attire to make it harder for police to spot them. Now, many gang members are making an effort to let people know they’re still around.
Additionally, removing graffiti helps to combat problems with gangs.
“Graffiti removal reduces the chance that crimes will be committed,” Mark said.
Because gangs use graffiti to mark their turf, advertise themselves and claim credit for a crime, quick removal is essential.
Therefore, the Provo Police Detective Division continues to look for gang activity and will continue to work to suppress it in the future.
“We try to make things as hard as possible for them,” said Lt. John Geyerman, of the Provo Detective Division. “Gangs are not a huge problem right now, but we don’t want the problem to increase. It only takes a few to make the lives of many terrible.”