Orem will use new state law to fight gang crime
Michael Rigert – Daily Herald | Posted: Sunday, June 28, 2009 12:10 am
OREM — The city of Orem has a new legal tool to fight gang crime — a recently passed state law that allows cities to establish specific geographic areas as gang loitering-free zones.
Under the new law sponsored by state Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Odgen, Orem and other cities can designate areas such as parks, schools, hospitals and even shopping malls — any place police believe criminal gang members hang out to engage in illegal activity — as gang loitering-free zones, said Orem police Sgt. Bill Young, a member of the city’s gang task force.
In more recent assessments of gang activity in Orem, Young said gang members were “congregating in parks, intimidating people, recruiting and using drugs.”
Why include hospitals on the list? Young said task-force officers found that gang fights and crime often don’t end when a member or members are injured in rivalry clash.
“They follow en masse to that location,” he said.
The new law makes it a misdemeanor offense for gang members to loiter in designated public spaces for three specific purposes, said Chief Mike Larsen, Orem’s Public Safety Department director. The purposes are to declare turf, hide criminal activities and intimidate others from using the space.
Police can issue a warning to gang members operating in gang loitering-free zones. If they refuse or return within eight hours, it’s considered a violation and they can be fined $100 or arrested.
Mike Barker, Orem’s assistant city attorney, said Utah’s law is based on a statute used in Chicago that was rewritten in recent years to pass judicial muster over constitutional rights. Ogden also created a similar law two years ago, he said. The idea behind the law isn’t that gang members can’t occupy public spaces for legitimate, legal reasons.
“If a family is having a barbecue, that’s great,” Barker said. “This is not designed to infringe on anybody’s right to assemble.”
Larsen presented the law to the Orem City Council during a work session on Tuesday, including the requirement that the city decide on which areas to include in the gang loitering-free zones. He said the council asked him to come back with recommendations for the proposed zones.
“It’s one more tool we can use,” Larsen said. “It’s not necessarily the first tool.”
The task force also relies heavily on underage curfew and trespassing laws to curb illegal gang activities, police said.
Though the recession, coupled with the many demands upon the Orem police division, has thinned the ranks of its gang task force, more help may be on the way, Larsen said. The department has applied for a Community Oriented Policing grant through the U.S. Justice Department that could provide funding to hire up to eight more police officers specifically for gang enforcement in schools in Orem.
But Larsen isn’t fitting his future officers for snappy task-force uniforms just yet. Nationwide, there are many more grant requests submitted than there are available dollars, he said. Another issue is that the grants cover salaries and benefits for three years; then the city has to figure out how to pay for the extra personnel.
“We’ll just wait until September to see what happens,” Larsen said. “Once the federal government makes an offer, we’ll decide what to do.”
Young said Orem’s active and consistent approach to fighting gang crime has paid dividends since gangs first became a problem in the last few years. Random police walk-throughs at the University Mall have eliminated gang members’ presence there, and gang graffiti, or taggings, is down considerably, he said.
“Last year at this time, we had 252” instances of gang graffiti, Young said. “Right now, we have 139 cases.”
A strong task-force presence at the city’s Summerfest celebration for the second year in row also produced results. Twenty to 25 gang members were asked to leave the event in 2008. This month, only 12 gang members were kicked out of the three-day festival.
“So the word is getting out,” Young said. “So that’s a good sign.”
Still, gang recruiting is becoming more prevalent this year at Orem-area schools, and for a while, gangs were using a local motel room as a gathering place, to “jump in” new members (some as young as 13- or 14-years old), and commit crimes, he said. There’s also been plenty of “move-in” gang members arriving in Orem from California and other areas on the West Coast.
The Orem force has found that an effective deterrent to gang crime is actually the gang member’s own family. If a young person is identified as a known gang member, or is being recruited, task-force officers will make home visits to the parents and family, with their permission, and spell out the negative implications of getting involved in criminal street gangs. They have information printed in English and Spanish.
“We probably do three to four home visits a week, is an estimate,” Young said. “Sometimes it’s two to three a night.”
• Michael Rigert can be reached at email@example.com.