The Vanguard, in the first of what could be several installments over the coming weeks and months examines, that question more closely.
Said the mother:
“From what I could see I didn’t even know there had been a fight. I definitely didn’t see any weapons. There was no sign of blood or trauma, no yelling or screaming. No one was on the ground. I couldn’t tell there had been a fight. None of the boys had told me there had been a fight.”
The mother only would find out about the fight two hours later when Officer Keirith Briesenick arrived at her home. Officer Briesenick was a former member of the Yolo County Gang Task Force. She alerted the mother to the fight and asked for a statement from her son and friend. She informed the mother that the fight was a big deal and it involved baseball bats.
The minors declined to give a statement and believed that the incident was over. However a few weeks later at a house party in Davis, the mother received a phone call from the police at 12:30 am to inform her that there had been a party and gave her the option of allowing her son to either walk home or to have her pick him up.
“So I drove out to Mace Ranch to pick my son up from the house party that the police had broken up around midnight. When I got there, I saw [his friend] in the back of a cop car. I said wow, why is he in the cop car? My son said there was a warrant out for his arrest. I said for what? And he said, for that fight. I said, are you kidding me? He said, no.”
The friend would end up spending over a month in juvenile detention. The mother does not know what the charges were however, she does know that when he took the deal from the District Attorney he was validated as a gang member, he got a strike, and he remains on house arrest with an ankle monitor. He will remain on probation until he is 25 years old.
Apparently what had happened is that following the fight, some of the kids on the other side got caught with baseball bats, they were going to get into a lot of trouble and so they concocted a story where this kid hit them with a crowbar.
“This is a total lie,” the mother said, “I was a witness and there was definitely no crowbar or weapon of any kind.”
Unfortunately this kid was in no position to fight the charges. He is the youngest of 14 kids. They are a poor Mexican family that lives in East Davis, afraid to confront the authorites, and they just ended up taking the deal.
However, soon her son would get caught up in the legal mess as well. He made the unfortunate decision to confront the second combatant’s girlfriend on MySpace. According to his mother, he was simply asking the girl to tell her boyfriend to tell the truth. But the police took it as a threat and an attempt to dissuade a witness.
“Tell [the second combatant] it would be best for him to tell the truth. If [his friend] gets hella time for this, it’s going to be bad.”
Said the mother, “I was shocked, I was like, I can’t believe this. My son is just telling him to tell the truth. This kid has made up a total lie about this crowbar. Now my son has been charged with ten felony counts.”
Not only did they charge him with PC 136.1(a)(2) attempting to dissuade a witness, but they upgraded it a gang enhancement.
Reads the complaint:
“It is further alleged that at the time of the commission of offense charged in this count, minor committed the above felony for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with any criminal street gang, with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist any criminal conduct by gang members, and is subject to the enhancement within the meaning of Section 186.22(b)(1) of the California Penal Code, Enhancement for Criminal Street Gang Activity.”
In addition to the dissuading a witness, they tacked on receiving stolen property in the form of the bicycle that was in dispute in the fight as well as a previous assault charge upgraded to a felony with a gang enhancement for his own fistfight that he had been in school back in September.
However, the DA is willing to reduce the charges to three misdemeanors.
“She has since been willing to drop all of the gang enhancement charges and he’d be charged with assault for the fight that he got in the first week in school, a fist fight with a black kid, neither one of them were gang members, but they tried to fit that as a gang fight as well. He’s being charged with misdemeanor dissuading a witness and misdemeanor possession of stolen property.”
However, she has decided along with her son’s attorney not to take the deal.
“Just by taking this deal, we’re admitting guilt. You’re going to be on probation and you shouldn’t even be on probation.”
Instead they are seeking informal handling, which if approved by the probation department, could be a way to get all of the charges dropped if he does not get in trouble for six months. Because he has no other record and gets good grades in school this is a possibility.
“My son is having to submit urine tests every Monday and they are checking up on his grades and his attendance see if he qualifies for this informal program.”
The story may not end nearly as well for some of her son’s friends whose story we will be telling in the coming weeks and months.
Gang Members or Simply Kids being Kids?
This mother told the story of another kid who was validated as a gang member, served time at a facility called Faust, where the kid actually did become a gang member to survive. But for the most part these kids are either not gang members or what the mother classifies as wannabees.
“None of the kids at the fight that he was involved in were gang members. A couple of them were wannabes. The kid that he fought claims to be, although he’s not validated, he claims to be… There’s Norteno and Sureno and I think [son’s friend] is a wannabe Norteno and the kid that he fought is a wannabe Soreno. Now [son’s friend] is officially validated as a gangmember and that’s going to stick with him for a long time.”
Part of the problem that we have seen is that a lot of these kids are no position to fight the charges. They come from poor families. Some of their families might not be in this country legally. The District Attorney is throwing out ten felony counts at a time, and most are like the son’s friend, they end up taking a deal, getting validated and ending up on probation which then gives the police and probation department the ability to come into their home at any time and search for violations of probation.
“I never saw any gang activity. Yes, maybe they’re proud of their heritage, but I never heard them talk about drug trafficking or robberies. They would come into my house and play Xbox and listen to rap music. I’m shocked that these little fist fights, fist fighting is against the law, but none of them that I have witnessed or heard of in Davis had anything to do with gangs. I just hope that my son has a good lawyer because there is no way my son has anything to do with a gang. I think the DA realized that that’s why she dropped it from the ten felonies with all of the gang enhancements down to the three misdemeanors.”
The fight turned out to be a fight between wannabe gang member and thus it became a gang fight.
From the perspective of Davis Police Chief Landy Black there is no real distinction between wannabe and gang member.
Said Chief Black:
“My perspective, and I think I share it with a lot of other law enforcement folks, is that the term “wannabe” is something of a community cop-out. Communities and individuals in a state of denial about the fact that they have gang activity in their midst attempt to soften things by thinking and saying things like, “Oh, we don’t have a gang problem, these kids are just ‘wannabes’.””
As he explained, by the time the matter gets to the attention of the police, it’s the conduct not the level or tenure of gang association that matters.
“In fact, often “wannabes” trying to establish a reputation and credibility with their prospective gang, will act more outrageously. From the police perspective, that’s gang activity, not wannabe activity as distinguished from gang activity.”
Unfortunately, since this matter involves the conduct of minors, Chief Black cannot specifically address what had happened. He can only speak in generalities about the Davis gang problem.
“When examining the criteria for being classified as a validated gang member, while claiming gang membership and being named by members of the gang as a fellow member are criterion, there are actually more individual criterion based on presence/participation during gang activity/crime and conduct supportive of gang crime/disorder. From the community’s perspective—and thereby from the police perspective—official, “jumped-in”, gang status is immaterial. It is the criminal and community-disruptive conduct that we desire to curb and control.”
For Davis School Superintendent James Hammond, the problem in Davis is with the “wannabe gang members.”
In October he told the Davis Enterprise,
“Wannabe gang members thrive off attention, and will behave as if they were a gang member, even if they don’t really participate. One thing we have to be very careful of is the ability for recruitment. When you see older gang members who are able to influence junior high students, that’s a real important indicator to watch.”
The Vanguard caught up with Dr. Hammond last week on this issue.
“I think any time you have a large comprehensive high school you always have concerns that there could be wannabe gang members that either have affiliation with relatives or friends that are from other areas that have what I would call more intense gang issues. There is a temptation to basically copy or imitate certain behaviors as a result.”
When asked to elaborate on his concerns, he told the Vanguard:
“I think there’s a range of issues, I think you can start from the way you talk slang words, to the paraphernalia, or even the clothes that you wear. But definitely when you start running in a pack, you tend to assimilate to those behaviors. It escalates from petty crime and you do that enough and it becomes a gateway to much more intense behaviors, much more violent behaviors that are potentially much more criminal behaviors.”
Despite the obvious and justifiable concern about any activity, one still wonders if relatively minor incidents are being trumped up due to the attachment of the gang label to them. As the mother pointed out,
“Back in my era in the 70s, you got in a fist fight, you got sent to the principal’s office and that was it. Nowadays, fighting in public becomes a much more extreme charge. If you get in a fist fight and they consider you a wannabe gang member, they hammer it on you. Only one of them out of ten people thought he was a gang member. None of the other kids have anything to do with gang anything.”
Moreover, there is a good deal of collateral damage occurring. As these kids get into trouble over relatively minor incidents, they end up leaving school, never graduating, and ending up in the system which in turn leads them into further trouble.
“I feel like they are doing more harm than good by the punishment that they are giving these kids. If anything they should be forced to go to school. They should be threatened to go to juvenile hall if they have bad attendance. What they are doing now is ruining their lives, these two boys are right now validated and they get harassed just by the probation department because when you’re on probation the probation department can come by and tear your house apart.”
How big is the gang problem in Davis?
However, the problem may be even smaller than that. In an October Davis Enterprise article Officer Briesenick indicated that there may only be 30 active gang members in Davis.
Briesenick estimated there are “between 20 and 30 active gang members” in Davis , but added that much of the gang activity is focused on about 10 individuals. There are another 20 or 30 people living in Davis who are more loosely gang -related, she said, as well as several dozen others who are “validated gang members” who live elsewhere, but turn up in Davis.
Since 2007, the DPD made 18 unique arrests with a gang enhancement charge.
Chief Black described it as “not a large gang problem when you count the number of “gang crimes” that way.”
To put it another way, the people that the Vanguard has spoken with account for a good percentage of those 18 arrests.
Gang Validation Process
As Chief Black points out, validation isn’t an issue argued in court, it is a tool to assist law enforcement keep track of potential offenders, not a tool for prosecution.
There is a gang database maintained by the California Department of Justice through its CALGANG system. They use a similar criteria to what they use in Davis, except Davis requires three factors and the state requires just two factors.
For Davis PD, an individual may be validated as a gang member based on the following criteria (three must be present):
- Admits gang membership.
- Correspondence identifies as gang member. (Writes and/or receives correspondence about gang activities.)
- Named by another known/validated gang member as member of gang.
- Has gang logo tattoo(s).
- Wears gang clothing/colors.
- Associates on a regular basis with known gang members.
- Is in a photograph indicating gang affiliation.
- Contacted in the field for gang activity.
- Displaying gang signs.
- Displays gang graffiti on personal belongings.
- Involved in gang-related (PC §186.22) crimes.
However, it seems to a good degree that some of the authorities are using these laws designed to protect minors to their own benefit. We could not question the District Attorney’s office to attempt to understand their rationale for what appears to us at least to be the overcharging of fairly minor crimes. When you turn a fistfight into a felony with gang enhancements that raises the level of severity several notches above what would at least appear to be warranted.
The level of gang activity and the severity of crimes would not appear to match the need for such a response.
The term gang member itself seems problematic and in some ways prejudicial as it could describe a whole range of activities that are lumped under a single category and treated in a uniform matter. It is one thing for kids to wear clothing that emulates gang members, listen to rap music, and get into fist fights. It is quite another when they begin to actually engage in activities such as drug dealing and more dangerous forms of violence.
But the moment they are subsumed under the label of validated gang member and get gang enhanced charges those distinctions disappear. The public hears the term gang member and panics.
In Davis at least, some of the response does not seem to fit the crime and we are struggling to understand why that is the case.
In the coming weeks and months, hopefully we will get a better sense for what is happening and why.
—David M. Greenwald reporting