Sheriff's office looks for boost in gang enforcement

For the past 15 years, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office has practiced zero tolerance for gang activity, and Sheriff Ron Pierini has no plans to let up on the philosophy.

He is to appear Thursday before Douglas County commissioners to request filling three vacant positions in the department to be paid out of salary savings or general fund contingency effective Jan. 1.

The sheriff is asking for $175,000 to hire two deputies and an investigator for the department.

"My philosophy toward gangs has always been it's OK to live here, but you can't play here. We're not here to violate anybody's constitutional rights, but we are enforcing the law," Pierini said Monday.

The sheriff plans to use the positions to create a full-time gang enforcement officer, a position now filled on an informal basis by Investigator Greg Rooney and Deputy Ron Miller.

The two officers have created a PowerPoint presentation to offer commissioners a look at gangs in Douglas County.

"Since 1994, we've had zero tolerance for gangs, and it's worked well," Pierini said. "But if we want to stay that way, we've graduated to the point where we need to be more aggressive and proactive in the gang arena."

Rooney said Douglas County has 257 street gang members, starting as young as middle school students.

In addition, there are 60 known motorcycle gang members in Douglas County.

Rooney said there are strict federal guidelines in identifying gang members and associates.

"If I see a guy walking down the street wearing blue, we can't say they're a gang member," Rooney said.

In some cases, a suspect will admit gang membership or will be identified by other associates.

Officers are allowed to identify gang members through corroborating evidence such as tattoos, dress associated with gangs, displaying gang signs or pictures on gang members' Web sites such as MySpace.

Like other entrepreneurs, gang members have learned to use the Internet to their advantage.

Miller said Web sites are devoted to selling gang clothing and accessories and videos turn up on YouTube or MySpace.

One video, recorded on a gang member's cell phone, depicted a "jumping in" or gang initiation beating of a 15-year-old behind Carson Valley Middle School.

Miller said Douglas County's gang members cross every economic spectrum and race.

"White, Hispanic, black, they're in every neighborhood in the Valley and at the Lake," he said. "It's not just the low income areas of Douglas County."

In recent years, gang members have moved into Douglas County from Carson City and South Lake Tahoe. More gang members are coming into the area from Southern California, Miller said.

"The idea is to stop it at the street level in Douglas County and push the gang members back to where they came from," he said.

Recently, Douglas and Lyon counties and Carson City were awarded a $350,000, one-year stimulus grant for regional gang enforcement.

"We asked for $1.2 million for three years, but there were a lot of agencies after that money," Pierini said. "We got funded for one year.

"It will be a collaborative effort. That just makes sense. By working together, we'll certainly slow down gang activity."

Pierini said Rooney and Miller work gang enforcement in addition to their regular duties. By adding the new positions, the department will be able to devote at least one officer to gang enforcement.

"We're doing a really good job compared to other communities our size," Pierini said. "But we can't do it with just the officers we have now. Our biggest challenge is how much time do we have to increase our resources so we won't be overrun with gang members."

Rooney said it's not illegal to belong to a gang.

In fact the criteria as to what constitutes a gang for the most part are the same are for any organization from AARP to the Girl Scouts: More than three members, certain customs, traditions, and clothing, the organization continues to exist even after members leave.

However, legitimate organizations part ways with illegal street gangs over the last requirements: Engaging in criminal activities.

"People join street gangs for the same reasons: No family support, earning a living, or they need protection," Rooney said.

The sheriff's office meets regularly with the school district and juvenile probation officers.

"We probably have a huge number of parents who have no idea their kids are in gangs," Rooney said. "We want to give them some idea of resources that are available."

"With an established gang unit, we'll be able to do more in schools," Pierini said.

He encouraged residents to contact the sheriff's office as soon as they see any suspicious activity such as graffiti, especially if the perpetrators are still at work.

"We had a graffiti call recently where the reporting parties said their dog had been barking early the night before. That's when to call," he said.

Pierini credited Rooney and Miller for their diligence in gang enforcement.

"These two fellows really put a lot of work into their training. They take it upon themselves to help with this problem," he said.


The Douglas County Sheriff's Office is making a presentation Thursday on gang issues and enforcement before Douglas County commissioners. The meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Tahoe Transportation Center, 169 Highway 50, Stateline. The sheriff's presentation is No. 14 on 20-item agenda. Information, 782-9821.


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