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Conference focuses on keeping young kids out of gangs

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When Lt. Steve Anjewierden took over as head of the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit a few months ago, there wasn't a lot of time to slowly ease into the position.

"It's been a surprisingly busy season," he said. "Generally, gang activity reduces during the winter. But this year it's continued to go on strong."

Gang violence in the Salt Lake valley has remained steady if not increased over the past year. Those attending the 18th Annual Utah Gang Conference beginning today at the South Town Expo Center hope to share ideas on how the community can work together to combat the problem. More than 1,000 law enforcement members and representatives from groups that help at-risk youth are expected to attend.

"The theme is partnershiping with the community to prevent gang violence," Anjewierden said. "I think the key is to have us all working together in preventative mode as well as suppression mode."

Anjewierden said the suppression effort on gangs by police has been strong. It was the educational and diversionary components designed to teach kids about staying out of gangs that he would like to see increased. Children from high school to junior high need to be mentored by someone who teaches good lifestyle habits, and not by an older gang member.

"I'm surprised at the amount of (gang) activity going on in the junior high schools. If we can reach that group and prevent them from becoming our core criminals, I think we (can prevent them) from becoming the hard-core criminals we chase every night," he said. "I think the kids of that age are basically having a lot of influences from older gang members. It's an opportunity to prevent them from learning the trade."

Even those juveniles who are not gang members are many times affected at school by those who are.

"I'm surprised, disappointed and concerned how much kids trying to get an education have to worry about this gang stuff at that lower level," he said. "So much of the gang stuff is about intimidating other people. They're worried about giving someone the wrong look walking from class to class rather than the next quiz."

Several recent robberies and shootings, including the recent homicide of an employee at the Family Dollar Store, 1145 S. Glendale Drive (1350 West), have put a lot of media attention on Polynesians gangs in the Glendale area. But Anjewierden said gang members are far from exclusive to one segment of society.

"I feel there are other groups of gang members who are active. I would say that gang activity as a whole is active," he said. "I would say the biggest concern right now is the sustained level of violence."

In addition to violence, drug dealing remains high with Utah's gangs.

"It has become a generational problem if we don't intervene with some of these younger kids it will continue down this same path," Anjewierden said.

This year's workshops for the gang conference include presentations on prison gangs, international gangs, how hip hop has influenced the gang culture and what parents need to know about keeping their children out of gangs.

The conference runs through Friday.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com