SACRAMENTO, CA - The numbers are much bigger than you might realize: Sacramento County has more than 12,000 validated gang members in 200 different gangs.
Many crimes can be connected to gang activity. But with a new federal grant, that could change.
Close to a year ago, News10 decided to get a first-hand look at the gang problem in Sacramento County. The county's Gang Suppression Unit allowed cameras into their world -- documenting the streets.
PHOTOS: Sacramento County gang suppression officers at work
"Gang lift ain't no joke," said one teenager gang member, sitting on the curb while being questioned by detectives. "Whatever happens happens."
He's 15. He joined a gang when he was in the fifth grade.
"I was around 11 or 12. It was just the people I kicked it with."
Those in his gang were no more than two years older.
The majority of gang members on county streets are subsets of either the Nortenos or the Surenos. Further up the chain are the Bloods and Crypts.
"It's not just the validated gang members," said Detective Brandon Luke. "There's a number out there that we haven't validated."
Luke and his partner, Detective Nick Goncalves, have more than a decade of combined gang experience.
"You can easily drive in 10 different territories that gangs are associated with if you drive from the west end of the county to the east," said Goncalves. "Because of that, everybody in this community is affected."
One example, a rival gang shoot-out at a barbershop parking lot in December, 2010. Monique Nelson was killed in the crossfire. She was an innocent bystander, a single mom who died trying to protect her son.
"They (rival gang members) may be the targets, but they're not always the ones getting hit," said Luke.
The majority of gangs' violent crimes are gang-on-gang. Sometimes though, Gang Suppression Unit members stop the violence before it happens. On one News10 ride-along, officers found a loaded gun in a gang members car. The person in possession of the gun admitted to looking to avenge the death of her cousin who had been shot a month earlier Del Paso Heights.
"There's not one part of the city or anywhere in the county that gang members can't reach out and touch you," said Luke.
Communities like Roseville, Folsom and El Dorado Hills are not immune from gang activity.
Said Goncalves, "They target rich environments. It allows them to prey on people that obviously are not aware of their presence."
Until the first of January, Sacramento County only had six detectives and a sergeant, while also helping communities nearby.
"We didn't have the resources," said Luke, "and we were sent in many directions so we were spread kind of thin."
That changed with the $11 million grant. The funds allowed gang suppression efforts to create a new team called IMPACT with 31 officers. There are three divisions: A youth unit focusing on reaching kids before they become entrenched in the gang life; a traditional suppression unit; and an intel unit that uses software to track gangs. Until now, that software had only been used for counter-terrorism.
The team is also regionalized, made up of county deputies and officers from Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Galt, Rancho Cordova, the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and soon, maybe the FBI.
Each member was handpicked to be on the team.
"I've been a part of a few teams within our unit, and we never thought this would come," Luke said. "When smaller jurisdictions call for help, they don't just get five officers anymore, you may have 20 or 30 officers coming out."
It's early, but gang-crime is down. At this time a year ago, there were nine gang-related murders. This year there are none.
The unit has also pulled 112 guns off the streets and made 124 arrests.
"I'm not going to hang the banner and say mission accomplished, because we have a long way to go," said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. "But in four months, we've come so far. This could become a model outside of this region as well."
The grant funds the IMPACT team for three years; the county must pay for a fourth.
After that, they lobby again.
"I want to be at the front, I want to be at the top," said Jones. "I want other people to say, 'Look at what they're doing, that's crazy,' and then have it shift to say, 'It's working and we want to be a part of that.'"
by Nick Monacelli