Gang activity is increasing on Santa Barbara’s streets. Arrests are up 51 percent, from a total of 189 in 2002, to 369 gang-related arrests in 2004, said Sgt. Ralph Molina, who gave a special presentation to the Santa Barbara School Board on Feb. 8.
“The good news is that when it comes to schools, we have seen very few isolated incidents during this past year,” Molina said, attributing this to the strong relationship between the schools and the police.
One of the reasons for the upswing in activity is that there are a lot of older gang members who were incarcerated and are now back on the streets. “They begin to go out and recruit and their numbers begin to increase,” he said.
Molina estimated that there are 3,000 gang members in Santa Barbara County, with approximately 1,000 of them in the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta and the unincorporated area in between. In the city of Santa Barbara he estimated there were about 600 gang members, with 40 percent of them under the age of 18 and about half of that group in junior high.
Board members requested the presentation after a recent expulsion of a student involved with gangs.
“My experience is that about 90 percent of these kids that are gang members, are pretty good kids,” said Molina, who has worked in the gang unit for the past 13 years.
” They just have a lot of serious problems and they turn to that lifestyle without knowing an alternative. But when we get one on one and we talk to them and establish that relationship…you’ve got to find out what they’re all about if you’re going to deal with them, you can’t just arrest them and put them in jail,” he said.
In addition to the increase in the sheer numbers of known gang members, Molina said he is also seeing a big connection between gangs and drugs. “A huge connection. All the other cities outside of Santa Barbara have had that problem for years, where it’s been gangs and drugs. … The last couple of years we’ve seen a huge increase with gangs and selling of drugs.”
Molina said he is also seeing a lot of large gang fights, especially among the younger members. “The kids between 13 and 17 are keeping us busy. … That seems to be the core of the activity.”
There is also some evidence of increased gang activity among girls, but it’s harder to document, Molina said. “They’ll portray themselves as the girlfriends … we know that they are associating. … We’ve seen an increase on the girls and there’s been a couple rumors that they’re trying to form their own gang, but that we haven’t seen yet.”
As a result of the increased activity, in January of last year Santa Barbara Police brought back the youth services unit and increased the enforcement level, which may explain some of the increase in number of arrests, Molina said. He added that he would like to see the district reinstitute a program in which officers taught classes on gang violence. Funding for the program dried up a few years ago.
When asked by board member Nancy Harter whether there was a correlation between loss of funding for these types of programs and increased gang activity, Molina said he wasn’t sure.
“There’s always more we can do. The schools do a good job. There’s a lot of community-based organizations that really get involved. (We need) everyone working together to deal with this.”