CANYON COUNTY — The problem of gang violence is multifaceted, and so are its solutions. And while law enforcement and local prosecutors have made tremendous progress over the last decade, it’s a constant game of co-evolution.
As officers adjust their tactics to deal with gang threats, Nampa Police Cpl. Jason Kimball said, the gangs alter their activities to compensate. That, in turn, forces law enforcement to continue adjusting to the ever-changing threat.
And over the past several years, Kimball continued, that means progress — gangs are no longer as brazen as they once were in Canyon County. Gone are the days of members dressed head to toe in full colors, openly intimidating members of the community.
Exact numbers are difficult to compile, because violent crimes are all counted together, whether they’re gang-related or not. But not long ago, Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor said, the area would see multiple drive-by shootings every week. Last year, there was only one.
But that doesn’t mean they’re gone altogether, he said, only that they’re keeping a lower profile. You might walk right past a gang member on the street and never know it.
“You could probably pull up old clips of when we put people in prison with ‘I’m a gang member’ across their forehead. Literally, their affiliation tattooed on their face and stuff like that,” Kimball said. “We don’t see that anymore. It called a lot of attention to them, and they found it was not productive for their ultimate goal.”
Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor agrees. Gang members in the western Treasure Valley once took pride in representing their affiliation, he said, even directly to law enforcement.
And police used that to their advantage. They’d simply ask suspected gang members — who may not even be under investigation for specific crime — who they represented. And, Taylor said, they’d get surprisingly direct answers.
And once they were documented as gang members, prosecutors had a whole new set of tools in the 2006 Criminal Gang Enforcement Act when they were charged with crimes.
“Gang members were very proud to identify themselves as gang members. They would wear their colors, they would wear their numbers, they’d be very happy to display their tattoos,” Taylor said. “And when law enforcement would go up and say, ‘Hey, what gang are you representing,’ you’d be very proud, you’d flash your signs, and boom — we would document you, which we were entitled under those statutes.”
On the law enforcement side, agencies from all levels of government — city, county, state and federal — joined forces to form the Metro Violent Crimes Task Force. They all have the same goal, Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said, and inter-agency turf wars don’t help
By pooling their resources, Donahue said, Treasure Valley law enforcement has collectively created one of the most powerful anti-gang groups in the country.
“It’s unique, and this area gets the benefit of that,” Donahue said. “You ask any one of those federal agencies — ATF, FBI, DEA — every one of them, we have a tremendous, daily working relationship with. We’re all after the same goal, which is to provide a safe community and get illegal drugs and illegal guns off the streets.”
With increased vigilance from police and prosecutors, gangs have been driven into the shadows. That means Canyon County’s streets are safer — but it also means gangs are harder to spot.
Authorities depend on the community to alert them to potential problems — and Taylor said that’s simpler than it sounds: Just trust your gut. If something seems out of place, it probably is.
“If your gut is saying that something isn’t right, it doesn’t hurt to call law enforcement,” he said. “They have the training, the experience, to really go out there. Usually, from my experience in life, is your gut’s usually pretty accurate. If something just doesn’t seem right, it’s not.”
Despite the progress law enforcement and local prosecutors have made over the past decade, Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor said, one challenge looms: The earliest gang members sentenced under the 2006 Criminal Gang Enforcement Act will soon return be eligible for parole — and no one is sure what to expect when they return to the streets.
“Once they come back, how will that change the landscape?” Taylor said. “Will those who are currently in our community say, ‘Hey, you’ve been gone, this is our turf now,’ or are they going to accept them coming back, and adhere to their kind of leadership?”
Either case — increased infighting or more structured organization — could impact the community in unpredictable ways, he continued. But authorities know it’s coming, and they’re doing their best to prepare.
Gang problem curtailed by programs in Canyon County
CANYON COUNTY — When Gabriel Perez was in middle and junior high school, he said there were places in Caldwell where he couldn’t go — “open grounds” he said, where people often shot at each other.
“Back then, it sounded like the Fourth of July,” Perez, 25, Caldwell, said. “Now that’s definitely changed.”
Perez was never a gang member, but said he “represented” — carried the name of a gang, trying to make a status, or a reputation, for when he would join.
“I associated with guys in gangs, but never fully became a member,” he said.
In 1997, Perez joined the Gaining Responsibility After School Program, or G.R.A.S.P., a program in the Caldwell School District led by Heather Ramos. The program was mandatory for Perez to stay enrolled in school because of his general disregard for school authority and patterns of trouble.
Ramos said she started the program in 1996 because so many of the students that were in trouble, failing classes and getting suspended, were the same students time after time. It focused on positive after-school activities to show the members that there is more to Caldwell and Canyon County than the life of a gang member.
Ramos believes that about 75 percent of the 700 students that went through the program in the 11-year span graduated from high school or got a GED and went on to lead healthy, productive lives — and that’s what Perez did.
He obtained a GED, went to Carrington College and is now a pharmacy technician in Nampa, is married and has two young children.
“(It kept) me from making a lot of dumb choices,” Perez said. “Heather took us out, let us know that there was a bigger world... Made me want those things for my life.”
Not all students were as successful as Perez. Ramos said at the height of the gang problem in Canyon County around 2004, the program lost about 12 students to gang violence in three years, and that took a toll on Ramos.
“I quit doing G.R.A.S.P. because we lost so many kids that were killed to gang violence,” she said. “A piece of me died right along with them. I had to step away and re-find myself.”
The program ended in 2007, but Ramos, now the truancy officer for the district, said gang problems have reduced greatly, in part because of programs like G.R.A.S.P., a zero tolerance policy for gang activity in the district, the street crimes unit with the Caldwell Police Department and the prosecutor’s office, all taking a stricter stand.
Students involved with gangs “talked about the street crimes unit, how much they hated them,” Ramos said. “And that’s great. When those kids hate them, they’re doing their job.”
In 2004, Steve Torrano started a nonprofit to combat the gang problem in Nampa’s northside. He created the Original Gangster’s Basic Academy of Development, or OGBAD.
It has called a few locations home, but most recently, through a sizable grant in 2007, has been at a location on 16th Avenue North. It provides the opportunity to study for GED exams for students who dropped out of school or were expelled. In addition, the academy teaches students how to get and hold jobs.
Torrano said the academy began to address gang hierarchies. A leader of one gang sentenced to federal prison told Torrano he was concerned the academy could not make good on the promise to turn the community around for the youth in the area.
“He wanted people’s and kids’ problems addressed and said he’d be coming back in four years, to find me, look me up and see that I did what I said I was going to do,” Torrano said. “He did come back. Got a little help himself.”
Torrano said the amount of chatter about gang activity has reduced, and knows the academy isn’t the sole reason, but believes it has been effective.
“My goal is not to eliminate gangs,” he said. “My goal is to give the younger youth another choice.”
Torrano said a gang leader told him, “The way you’re going to break the back of this problem, is to take fuel from the fire. If you remove the fuel — the younger group — you will put the fire out.”
That is what Torrano and the academy did. He said about 500 youth have gone through the system, and the Idaho Community Foundation, the Whittenberger Foundation and the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission have consistently funded OGBAD.
He said in the last two years the gang problem has curtailed enough that the academy is moving to a smaller facility across the street.
“There was a point where I thought (the problem) would never change,” Torrano said. “Thought we’d be here forever.”
YMCA PROVIDES OPTIONS FOR YOUTH
Scott Curtis, the executive director of the Caldwell Family YMCA, said it is hard to prove that the Y has reduced gang violence in Caldwell, but believes at the least, the Y provides another option.
The Y opened its doors in 2005, around the time of the height of violence in the area.
“It’s my belief that one of the fundamental needs of their (the gang’s) young members, is a need to belong,” Curtis said.
In the first few months he said some visitors to the Y wore gang-affiliated colors. The goal of the staff was to engage them, and offer the many opportunities at the Y, fulfilling the desire to belong.
“We told our staff, ‘We’re not just going to focus on whether someone is wearing a certain color, we need to go up and say, what’s your name?’” Curtis said.
Those youth quickly became involved and the problem took care of itself, he said. Many of the elementary-aged children who went to the Y in its first few years, frequent the Y now as junior high and high school students.
DRESS CODE AT CHS
Caldwell High School Principal Anita Wilson said when the problem was realized in Caldwell, the school adopted a stricter dress code policy.
“We banned typical gang dress such as bandannas, color on color clothing, gang related tattoos, sagging pants and professional sportswear,” Wilson said. “The district also banned gang related behavior such as graffiti writing on school work and tagging.”
She said the key is that administrators, the district office and school board continue to follow through on policies and enforced punishments.
Crimes stats once a negative factor for recruiting business, now a selling point
CANYON COUNTY — In the mid 2000s, Nampa and Caldwell earned bad reputations for a streak of gang violence, particularly drive-by shootings, that became known even outside the state.
Nampa Mayor Tom Dale said when gang-related shootings reached a peak of more than 150 in a year, he received a phone call from someone in Florida who had learned about Nampa’s gang problem and found it surprising.
That reputation had a negative impact on the economy of both towns.
“It was very damaging to business attraction as you can imagine,” Dale said. “The perception of safety to our citizens was not good.”
Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas said his city also had to overcome that perception when trying to recruit medical professionals and professors to The College of Idaho.
“We would hear that this is not a very safe community and people would ask, ‘are these rumors really true?’” he said. “I was asked to come and meet with professionals to ensure them Caldwell was a safe place.”
After a concerted effort from city leaders, law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office, after-school programs and the Idaho Legislature, gang violence in Nampa and Caldwell has declined significantly, to the point where it doesn’t get brought up in conversation like it used to.
“You just don’t hear about (it) anymore,” Nancolas said. “... It’s really nice to go into a meeting and have it not be the topic of conversation. That tells me that there has been a significant change in perception.”
And businesses are taking note of the cities’ new reputation. Dale said he recently had a good visit with a company looking to move into Nampa and the city’s lowered crime rate is now a positive selling point.
“With much safer neighborhoods and a much safer city we’ve had a lot more positive results,” Dale said. “... We couldn’t say that seven years ago.”
The city’s tax dollars are buying a safer community by maintaining a strong police force and that is something that will continue in order to keep gang violence and other criminal activity out, he said.
LOOK AND SEE
Amy Perry opened the Rubaiyat bookstore in downtown Caldwell in 2011. She heard from people even then that Caldwell could be unsafe, but in her experience it has been just the opposite.
“Caldwell is one of the most peaceful places I have ever lived,” she said. “... I feel very safe here.”
She invited her neighbors to come to downtown Caldwell and see how it has changed with new businesses moving in. She said that’s the way to change people’s perception of the town.
“People are starting to look around and say ‘maybe I was mistaken,’” she said.
Cliff Long, Nampa’s Director of Economic Development, said people within the Treasure Valley have a negative perception of Nampa’s crime rate, when in reality it is a very safe community.
“When businesses compare our crime rates here in Nampa and throughout the valley with other places in the nation they consider our area to be a safe community.”