“See that?” he said in the car Wednesday. “Six bullets were fired. That’s where one of them went.”
Magee said two men were arguing in the parking lot of the Palace Apartments a few months ago when the bullets were fired from a minivan that quickly fled the scene. One man was hit in the arm and the other in the leg. The trajectory of the bullet that lodged in the building could have also created a third victim of any innocent person walking along the second floor of the complex.
“It’s senseless,” said Magee, who asked that his first name not be used.
Most officers who investigate such scenes that involve gangs often think the same thing.
The Washoe County Regional Gang Unit (RGU) consists of 25 officers from the Reno and Sparks police and Washoe County Sheriff’s departments. The unit’s function is to gather intelligence, provide suppression, offer education to youth and adults and promote crime prevention in the community. Officers who serve in the unit constantly train themselves to stay on top of the most current gang trends to manage delinquent activity and criminal behavior as much as possible. They also facilitate gang intervention and diversion by referring at-risk or hardcore youth to various community services to break the gang cycle, keep the streets safe and apprehend gang members who have committed crimes.
A regional unit for a regional problem
Gangs, as the Regional Gang Unit defines them, have been in Truckee Meadows for more than 20 years. According to Sparks Police Deputy Chief Steve Keefer, gangs are not a one-city problem. They can be in any neighborhood at any time, though gangs typically are “dormant” during the winter and active on the streets during the summer.
“Gangs is not a Sparks issue,” Keefer said. “They’re not a Sparks problem. It is a regional problem across jurisdictions. They don’t know jurisdictional lines. It is an issue we face in the Truckee Meadows region and it is a group effort from many different elements that are combating this.”
Lt. Cmdr. Rocky Triplett, who oversees all investigative functions of the Sparks Police Department, said local gangs can be violent, hence dangerous to the community.
“You’ll have two groups that decide that they are going to confront each other whenever they have the opportunity and you’ll see anything from physical altercation to physical altercation involving bats and knives and you’ll see it escalating to drive-by shootings,” Triplett said. “They can be very, very violent, no doubt.”
Fitting the description
RGU officers identify gang members per the criteria in the Nevada Revised Statutes.
NRS 193.168 defines a gang as “any combination of persons, organized formally or informally, so constructed that the organization will continue its operation even if individual members enter or leave.” The law specifically delineates such groups as having a common name or symbol, particular conduct and customs and commits criminal activity punishable as a felony in order to be recognized as a gang.
Magee said the criminal activity is often “anything that would give them any sort of economic gain.”
“Since they hang out on a regular basis, they generally don’t have jobs, so they have to support their activity,” Magee said.
The standards also help the gang unit reinforce to the public, particularly concerned parents, about what constitutes gang behavior and what doesn’t. Many factors, such as choice of apparel, doesn’t necessarily mean a teen is a gang member, the unit emphasizes. Triplett, however, takes issue with parents who don’t maintain a closer watch on what clothes their teens walk out the door wearing.
“If you’re a parent, why do you allow your child to dress like a gang member when it’s obvious that’s what they intend to do?” he said. “Why do you allow that to take place? “You don’t see people dressing like Hell’s Angels. There’s a difference between dressing individually with the baggy pants style of the day and specifically picking a tie that would associate you with a gang member.”
Magee said the responsibility falls on the parents to look out for indicators that their child is being drawn into a gang.
“Parents need to check their kids’ homework, their schoolbooks, their notebooks, their backpacks, if there is some kind of writing they can’t read or understand,” Magee said. “Are they wearing all red or all blue? You need to pick up on that and contact law enforcement.”
Many pieces make the unit go
RGU members have very specific assignments as gang specialists. Officers are educated through professional training and collect information from gang members and other sources. They are completely dedicated to gang issues.
“All our officers are generally no calls for service,” said Magee, a supervisor within the unit. “They don’t run to a domestic call. They don’t run to a shoplifting call and take reports. Their function is to gather intelligence, to meet with those folks that are possibility involved in criminal activity and get to identify them and build up their knowledge.”
According to its 2008 annual report, the unit obtains information through plainclothes surveillance and interviews with suspects, victims, confidential sources and gang members. The intelligence is kept confidential but if it’s regarding a teen, the gang unit sends certified letters home to parents explaining the situation about their child.
“As far as I know, we’re the only county that does that,” Magee said.
Strong tactics and trust
Gang members and associates have complained that the police are often overly aggressive when confronting them for information, using physical force or even weapons like Tasers when unnecessary. An attitude of mistrust stems from these events, local gang members have told the Tribune.
Magee said that if anyone feels they have been treated with excessive force, they can file a complaint with the police department.
The mistrust in the police is misplaced and misguided, several officers said.
“It’s a totally unjustified feeling,” Triplett said. “Very routinely you have a call of violence — a shooting, a stabbing — where there are groups of people together and they were there together prior to the altercation and it’s blatant that everyone you’re speaking to knows who’s involved, knows how to contact them and could give us all the information we need to hold the person accountable. We receive very little cooperation and quite frequently people lie to us and mislead us.”
Triplett described an incident involving a gun battle between two rival youth gangs that resulted in a young man being shot. One of the victim’s friends refused to be interviewed by detectives and to this day the case remains unsolved.
“There is a societal, cultural, I guess, standard where it’s taboo to talk to and cooperate with the police,” Triplett said. “That has way more to do with it than any mistreatment anyone has received from the local police department.”
Magee agrees the fear of approaching the police is unnecessary.
“Gang members have the same rights as anyone else,” he said. “We’re trained. If you break the law, you’re going to get in trouble. We have to protect the community and when we have large groups of people, it requires more control. On the scene, some family members may be a distraction and we have to make sure other gang members don’t interfere. We may be more stern in verbal command.”
While law enforcement works to uphold the law, many other crucial partners, such as Washoe County Juvenile Services, help the RGU reach out to those who are on the verge of breaking the law. The gang unit often refers youth to these outside agencies that have a special expertise and can take over a particular case.
Concerned parents, for example, can seek help for their child, especially after they’ve committed a delinquent act, according to juvenile services community outreach program staff member Oscar Torres.
“The kids do not have to be on probation,” he said. “Any kid who has any kind of ties with gangs, even though he or she may not be a gang member, their parents can come to me or the police can come to me and fill out a form and I can provide services. … And because it’s not court-mandated, parents can refuse services and I close the file.”
Part of the value of these services, Torres said, is to help with gang prevention, especially in efforts to keep siblings from the influence of a brother’s or sister’s lifestyle.
However, one of the more difficult tasks Torres faces in his job is becoming the teen’s confidante, especially when they reveal information he is required by law to divulge to other agencies.
“I have a little easier time working with kids only because of the expectations they have from me,” Torres said. “Their expectations are different. The gang unit can arrest them and detain them. I cannot. If the kids are telling me, ‘I’m using marijuana,’ that’s going to stay between the two of us. I gain a lot more trust from them and I tell them, ‘You can always refuse help. You don’t have to see me, you don’t have to tell me.’ There is the expectation that I will not go and divulge to anybody, unless we are mandated to tell someone, like if a kid says he’s going to hurt himself.”
Torres said he has heard accounts of physical abuse and drug abuse in the home and that some kids consider these to be normal family behaviors.
“But the more serious things, they won’t talk about,” Torres said, “like, ‘I just shot somebody.’ ”
The RGU also is working with the Children’s Cabinet’s transition specialist program coordinator, Sara Ashley, to obtain federal grants for a new program called the Gang Reduction Alternatives for Success (GRAS). Youth who have been referred to the Children’s Cabinet can take classes to learn about substance abuse, family wellness, art and do other activities to stay off the streets. The amount of the grants vary and Ashley will fill a position with Children’s Cabinet for someone who will work to ensure that there is no duplication of resources or gaps in service.
Continuing the fight
Protecting the community is the RGU’s ultimate goal. But each person, whether they work in intervention, prevention or enforcement, finds some intrinsic value to what they’re doing.
“The personal gains I get from it are really great,” Torres said. “Working in prevention is the best. I’ll always be a prevention type of guy because it’s neat to see a kid who has a change in his or her attitude, coming from, ‘I do not care, I hate the world, I hate myself, I especially hate my parents’ to ‘This is not too bad; you guys are starting to make some sense.’ It’s great. I have one kid who just graduated from (the University of Nevada, Reno). She’s 23 and she hated her parents and she said they were the worst thing in the world and now she’s realized they were the only ones there for her. To see that type of change is worth it. It’s worth my time.”