Police officer educates schools on gang prevention
To some, Park City is a town of grit, gleaming in its rich history of silver mines, to others it’s a proud town with a strong sense or community, and to snow-sport aficionados, it’s an international winter-playground. Park City police officer Vai Lealaitafea works to ensure it is never known as a town tagged with a gang problem.
Lealaitafea recently began to educate Park City schools about gangs, which he believes are on the verge of gaining a foothold in Park City.
Lealaitafea said that two California gangs are sinking roots in Summit County. He said their main influence is Latino, although Caucasians and blacks are also involved. He declied to name the gangs, as he felt that would give them publicity and a sense of validation.
He stressed that although the current Summit County gang activity consists mostly of isolated incidents, and is not a major problem yet, it is a growing concern that cannot be ignored. Once gangs become established, they are nearly impossible to remove, he said. He estimates the number of people associated with gangs in Summit County at around 30.
"It’s important we not understate the problem and be in denial&But I also don’t want to scare the community," Lealaitafea said.
"It’s early enough that we can stop it," he said. "I credit the community for giving officers the information we need. The best way to combat gangs is if the whole community helps out."
Lealaitafea knows all about gangs. Growing up in Los Angeles, he saw his cousins join gangs, and for a time, he almost joined. That was until he saw the devastation that gangs can wreak on the community.
"I’ve had friends and relatives who have been heavily affected by gang violence," he said. "It tears families apart."
Lealaitafea has already been invited by middle-school administrators to educate them on what to look for and how to prevent gang activity,
Lealaitafea and his helper, officer Mike Carrillo inform administrators and teachers of gang members or gang wanna-be members wearing gang colors, flashing gang signs and selling or using drugs.
"Gangs and drugs go hand-in-hand," Lealaitafea said. But drugs are not the only criminal activity. "There was a drive-by in Heber a few months ago, but luckily nobody got hurt" he said. "We’ve had juveniles who committed aggravated robbery, and we’ve confiscated guns from kids. A 15-year-old is the youngest gang member I’ve dealt with," he said. We’ve had teachers confiscate bandannas and gang colors."
"Tagging," or spray-painting gang symbols on buildings or structures is getting to be more of a problem according to Lealaitafea. He said the Park City tries to paint over the tagging on city structures within 24 hours to keep gangs from gaining recognition from their spray-painted advertisement.
Lealaitafea has established a data base of suspected Summit County gang members.
"Gangs provide power and protection, especially for kids not doing well in school," he said. "But what kids don’t realize is that when they run into trouble the gang is not there for them."
Lealaitafea said some gang members come from single-parent households where the parent is working to support the family. The child has nothing to do and nowhere to go after school, and that can lead to trouble.
"Parents are usually the last ones to know, or they are in complete denial about child’s involvement with gangs," he said.
Lealaitafea sees prevention as the key with after-school programs like the Boys and Girls clubs. While he feels he can help teachers and administrators understand and deal with potential gang problems, he would like to talk with the children in the schools.
But Lealaitafea is concerned he might scare some children. He said he would like to speak with more parents.
"If the community comes together we can do it," Said Lealaitafea. "We need family and schools to help."
He reflected on the accelerating gang activity.
"Park City is a beautiful place," he said. "They don’t need that kind of thing here."
For more information contact Vai Lealaitafea at vlealaitafea
Students struggling in school
Any student involvement with drugs or strangers meeting with students for short periods of time.
Large amounts of money that the student cannot explain
Clothes of one color, or bandannas.
Friends exhibiting colors, bandannas or tattoos
Students with no where to go and no supervision after school
Cans of spray paint
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