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West Valley City Journal

Salt Lake gangs ‘steady’ and beyond ‘West Side problem,’ says gang expert

Jun 10, 2019 01:52PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

April’s Gang Conference marks the 29th year for the annual event. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

“To say it is a West Side problem is an absolute fallacy.”

Make no mistake, Unified Police Department Lieutenant Mike Schoenfeld has gangs squarely in his crosshairs, and with that statement, he chides Salt Lake Valley suburban residents who naively believe that their community is immune to the impact of gangs. 

“You can’t throw that comfort blanket over yourself and say, ‘It’s a West Side problem,’” said Schoenfeld, a decorated law-enforcement professional whose expertise in gang prevention has landed him at the helm of the Metro Gang Unit/Salt Lake Gang Project.

Residents of Murray might be well aware of this, following January’s rival gang shooting outside Fashion Place Mall, leading to injuries and arrests of two individuals.

Salt Lake City gangs – influenced by West Coast gangs but uniquely Utahn

The term “gangs” has been used to refer to groups of outlawed young men since Shakespeare’s time. The term has been, unfortunately, increasingly more common here in Utah since the late 1980s, when first Ogden, then Salt Lake City started being a destination for West Coast-based gangs looking to expand. Schoenfeld’s gang-specific crime unit has been standing strong as a force against gangs since its formation in 1990. Schoenfeld himself started gang-focused work in 2007.

“A West Side gang member might live in The Avenues. An Avenues gang member might live in Herriman,” he said.

To illustrate the ubiquity of the Salt Lake Metropolitan Area’s gang problem, Schoenfeld added, “We have gang members from the Oquirrh Mountains all the way to the Wasatch Mountains. We have gang members [who are] from the poorest of families to very, very wealthy families.

“Our kids don’t really claim a territory,” he elaborated. “We have kids in Salt Lake who may claim to be in a Kearns gang who have never even been to Kearns.”

Salt Lake gangs’ geographical fluidity contrasts with larger metropolitan areas, he said, where gang members—for their safety against rival gangs—are tethered to eight to 10 block radiuses, the social equivalent of ankle monitors. “Gangs in Utah are not very territorial,” he said, noting that the phenomenon of social media expands Salt Lake metro gangs’ reach.

‘I could never imagine the level of violence and the willingness to kill’

Not only are gangs furthering their tendrils into communities, but they are recruiting younger members and are committing darker violence at younger ages.

“What shocks me is the level of violence at that age,” Schoenfeld said. The age he is referring to is young teens, of 13-16 years old, and their willingness to kill others of the same young age.

“Back in my day, we had fist fights. We had disagreements. I could never imagine the level of violence and the willingness to kill – I can’t wrap my mind around that.”

th annual Gang Conference – for law enforcement and community

What Schoenfeld does wrap his mind around are the latest techniques for neutralizing gang violence and gang formation in Utah. It is the heart of the 2019 Gang Conference, recently held as an opportunity for educators, medical professionals, juvenile courts, community members, and law-enforcement professionals to become educated about complex, gang-related issues.

With approximately 600 in attendance, “The conference is our opportunity to teach our partners in law enforcement and the community,” explained Schoenfeld. He says that approximately half of the attendees are from law enforcement, and the other half being from the community. 

The ‘Narcos’ hunters – ‘Very impressed with the work going on in SLC’

This recent conference was headlined by a presentation offered by the retired Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Stephen "Steve" Murphy and Javier Peña, the agents who “took down” Pablo Escobar and serve as the models for characters in the popular Netflix series “Narcos” and a variety of other media tellings of the story.

Reaction to the presentation was mixed, with many to most finding it entertaining and others, being disappointed by the glamorization of criminal “anti-heroes” and the dated nature of the learnings shared.

Salt Lake Area Gang Project employees Iwalani Rodrigues, a gang prevention specialist, and Andrea Atencio-Valdez, a program manager, both had their photos taken with the former DEA duo.

A Salt Lake County employee who preferred to remain anonymous disliked energy and funds spent on potential knowledge assets yielded from such an old case. Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, more than 25 years ago.

“Very impressed with the work going on in Salt Lake City” is how Murphy described the duo’s briefings on the work being done by Schoenfeld and the Metro Gang Unit/Salt Lake Gang Project.

Law enforcement and community learnings – from Gangs 101 to GlenMob

Local law enforcement were informed on matters of ambush or surprise attacks and other officer survival strategies as well as learning from instances where police officers have been shot in the pursuit of gang members.

Law enforcement sessions also delved into more community-oriented issues such as understanding the psychology of young gang members, encouraging positive relationships with youth, and a few different sessions on the relationship of music to gang activity.

One of the sessions took square aim at of the recent GlenMob phenomenon where a dozen people connected with a music group serving as a front for a hybrid gang focusing on narcotics distribution were arrested via a national Justice Department probe. One of the leaders of GlenMob, which is associated with the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake, has also been arrested in conjunction with a rape of a minor. 

Community members were given a look at everything from a course titled Gangs 101 to a look inside prison gangs at the Utah State Prison.

Civilians unfamiliar with gang behaviors and their byproducts may not immediately grasp why, for example, medical professionals would attend the conference.

Schoenfeld clarified: “In an emergency room, if they see stab wounds or gunshot wounds or other traumatic injuries, they might be dealing with gang members or rival gang members.” A serious situation can quickly escalate, with an individual being treated for serious injuries one moment, then having members of the patient’s rival gang swiftly emerge on the scene.

SLC gangs state of the state

As to the state of the state with Utah gangs, Schoenfeld indicates the size and scope of Utah gangs is remaining fairly steady, with the older population either going to prison or leaving the lifestyle, but then being supplanted by young and younger gang members.

“I wish it was declining, but really, it is staying steady.”