San Mateo County gangs once stayed on their own turf, operating by world of mouth and using baseball bats as weapons.
Now, gangs travel, text message plans and use full arsenals of guns, machetes and even throwing stars to attack one another, according to the local law enforcement who say they must also evolve to keep the criminals in check.
Part of that cache was on display Friday as the San Mateo County Gang Task Force, a multi-city, multi-agency group, highlighted the 461 arrests, 61 weapons and thousands of grams of drugs seized during its annual 16-week summer crackdown. The county’s gang activity, particularly associated homicides, is quite different now from before the task force’s inception six years ago, according to Sheriff Greg Munks. Instead of the 16 gang-related murders the year before the county launched the task force, the average is now two to three.
Munks said he was publicizing the group’s work now to show that even in these tough budgetary times, it continues operating successfully using its own resources.
San Mateo County has approximately 2,700 validated gang members, said Detective Sgt. Leo Capovilla of the Sheriff’s Office Gang Intelligence and Investigation Unit.
Munks and Capovilla said the county will never be completely free of gangs but the task force is keeping it under control. The task force hits the streets daily for 16 weeks each summer, then monthly for maintenance. The numbers of arrests and seizures are up this year but Capovilla credits that to greater training and policing as much as increased gang activity. The task force seized 33 guns this summer and Colma Police Chief Robert Lotti said “these are not little pea shooters.”
Displayed in front of Lotti were other souvenirs of the task force efforts: blades, handguns, red and blue baseball bats, semi-automatic weapons, swords hidden in canes — even a heavy piece of rebar attached to a handle.
The world of modern gangs is a far cry from two decades ago when Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he prosecuted his first gang case which involved two baseball bats and a golf club. The danger now has escalated and the task force should be commended for facing it, said Wagstaffe, who will take over as district attorney at the end of the year.
One new twist to gang culture is “net banging,” in which phones and texting is used to change plans and arrange crimes, Capovilla said.
After Los Angeles’ gang problem exploded, officials there warned others not to make the same mistake of not addressing it early before future members even hit junior high, he said.
The task force now combines its searches and field contacts with school and diversion programs, Capovilla said.
Wagstaffe said there are statistics available on how many of the summer’s arrests lead to prosecution and conviction but that gang case filings are up. Conviction rates, too, are higher than those of other crimes.
The flip side of the task force’s success is challenges housing the gang members in the county jail. The overall population can include up to 20 percent gangmember which must be separated so that Sureños and Norteños don’t battle. However, if too many of one gang are housed together they try taking over the pod, Munks said.
On top of existing overcrowding at the jail, the gang aspect adds another layer of concern but that does not mean suspects will be turned away or released unnecessarily, he said.
“There’s always room at the inn when it comes to getting violent criminals off the street,” Munks said.