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Utah police discuss rise of criminal activity among children at annual gang conference

SANDY, Utah -- Law enforcement personnel met in Sandy for their 27th annual gang conference this week, and while many things regarding gangs and gang enforcement have changed, cops said several things stay the same.

Those involved in the lifestyle are usually after money and power, and it usually involves drugs and guns.

"Death or prison, those are your only two choices if you choose this lifestyle," said Lt. Mike Schoenfeld of the Metro Gang Unit.

The disturbing trend for police, prosecutors and school officials is that gang members seem to be getting younger.

Many high-profile crimes over the past year, including the death of West Valley City Officer Cody Brotherson, involved gang suspects who are junior high or early high school age.

"It seems like they are a lot more violent, we do have a lot more activity, like we talked about with our juveniles," Schoenfeld said. "It seems like it's getting more attention recently. We have seen an uptick in the recruitment of younger people at the junior high and high school levels."

Detectives say older gang members have learned schools are a perfect recruiting ground, all while police are also in schools telling kids to stay away from gangs.

"So, it's disturbing to us that we are trying to make that dent in the membership down in the elementary school level, we focus on fifth and eighth graders; but we still see a rise in the membership and the recruitment of those young people."

Police say they can't say much about many of these crimes because the suspects are juveniles.

"Our issue is we try and go to build criminal cases against them: we're talking about 13 and 14 year old kids with firearms and a laundry list of crimes," Schoenfeld said. "But a lot of the violent things that are happening today seem to have gang ties, and juvenile gang ties."

The other thing that has been a blessing and a curse for police is social media. They say many young gangsters today cannot help but advertise their lifestyle, which tends to glamorize a life of crime.

But on the flip side, it gives police a valuable tool to investigate when crimes occur.

The bottom line is the gang problem is not going away here in Utah and many folks within our community—including law-enforcement, teachers, and social workers—are doing all they can to combat the problem.