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Violent gang members getting younger, Utah experts say

Shoppers evacuate with their hands in the air after a shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.
FILE - Shoppers evacuate with their hands in the air after a reported shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SANDY — The gang problem in the Salt Lake area is not getting any bigger or smaller overall, according to the Metro Gang Unit.

But the uptick in youth violence is something that has gang detectives very concerned.

"We are seeing a lot more juveniles involved in gangs and involved in the violence. We are seeing juvenile victims and juvenile trigger-pullers, and that’s fairly new within the last few years." said Unified Police Lt. Mike Schoenfeld, head of the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, also known as the Metro Gang Unit.

"Our violent gang members are starting to get younger. Our older gang members that are growing out of the lifestyle are trying to leave the gang are not nearly as violent.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office is hosting its 29th annual Gang Conference at the Mountain America Exposition Center. The conference brings together law enforcers, school administrators, teachers, mental health experts, probation officers, people from the juvenile justice system and others from across the state.

"It helps all of us. It helps the teachers understand what we’re doing. It helps us understand what they’re seeing in the school. It gives them the knowledge to recognize things they may not have seen before,” Schoenfeld said.

Several of this year's workshops are geared especially toward problems with youth gang members, such as, "Building Positive Relationships With Youth" and "Catch Me If You Can! Understanding Gang Involved Youth."

"We’re very focused on youth right now. The last couple of years they’ve been our homicide victims and our trigger-pullers for those homicides," he said.

The reason for the increase in youth gang violence is due in part to social media and "cyber-banging," as gang detectives call it, or recruiting online.

"The promise of glory, the power of money, the drugs, the girls, the cars, the stuff that they see on the YouTube videos,” Schoenfeld said of how children in middle schools and even elementary schools are being recruited.

The hope of the conference is to give teachers and others the tools they need to promote a gang-free lifestyle among the youth they come in contact with.

Other workshops during the conference focus on drug trafficking and cartels using local gang members to distribute drugs. Steven Murphy and Javier Peña, retired members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who helped take down famed drug lord Pablo Escobar and are the subjects of a series on Netflix, spoke Wednesday at the conference

Other workshops focused on ambushes and surprise attacks on police officers. One of the speakers on that topic is an Oklahoma City police officer who was shot six times with an AR-15 during an ambush and survived, Schoenfeld said.