Santa Barbara police say gang activity is on rise

School board hears good news, bad news in latest report

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, a Santa Barbara police official told the Santa Barbara school board Feb. 8.

“The good news is that when it comes to schools, we have seen very few isolated incidents during this past year,” said police Sgt. Ralph Molina, attributing that to the strong relationship between schools and police.

According to Molina, one of the reasons for the increased activity is that older gang members who were incarcerated 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 Santa Barbara, Goleta and the unincorporated area in between. He estimated there were about 600 gang members in Santa Barbara alone, 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. … 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.”

Molina said he is also seeing a connection between gangs and drugs.

“A huge connection,” he said. “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 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 2004 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 school 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,” he said. “The schools do a good job. There are a lot of community-based organizations that really get involved. (We need) everyone working together to deal with this.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on March 17, 2005.