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Hundreds attend community meeting about gang violence in Kearns

KEARNS, Utah -- Hundreds turned out at Kearns High School Thursday evening to ask Unified Police and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera tough questions and talk about gang violence in the community, after two innocent bystanders died in a gang-related shooting that led to a crash earlier in the week.

Unified Police said they've been seeing a spike in gang-related crime in recent weeks.

"This gang activity is out of control," said Travis Vallejo, a Kearns resident.

He and many others who attended said they wanted to find out what actions police are taking to curb that spike, and how they can help combat gang violence in their neighborhoods.

Vallejo said he lives just down the street from where Tuesday's shooting took place.

"I'm just brokenhearted on what's happening," he said.

"People are off the chain, and doing things to innocent people that should not be happening in the community," said Kearns resident Jordan Gonzales.

Lieutenant Brian Lohrke with Unified Police said the uptick in gang-related crime started a couple years ago, but in the past four weeks, the violence has escalated.

"We've had an unwanted amount of violence here involving gangs," he said. "We're really trying to investigate the root cause."

He said they'd already planned to host Thursday's forum even before Tuesday's shooting, because it's become so much of a problem.

During the forum, people asked questions related to gangs and, at times, asked police why they haven't been doing more to arrest suspects before the violence turns deadly.

Sheriff Rivera, members of the Metro Gang Task Force, and UPD answered, explaining that it's not cut-and-dry when it comes to arresting gang members or halting criminal activity before it happens.

They explained programs that are being implemented to help cut down on gang activity, including Choose Gang Free-- a new program taught in several area schools that educates children on how to stay out of gangs.

"We have to attack this problem at a very young age with these children," Lt. Lohrke said. "We're finding that these gangs are recruiting others [at a] very young age."

Suggestions for resident involvement to help stop gang activity included attending city council meetings, attending National Night Out, and talking with their kids.

"It's a very hard problem to combat, but we're asking the community to join us and help us combat this," Lt. Lohrke said.

For attendees like Vallejo and Gonzales, that's what it's about-- finding out what they can do to keep their kids and neighborhood safe.

"I have twin daughters that are six years old," Vallejo said. "If I'm going to raise them in this community and they're going to live under my roof here, I need to know what's going on around me."

"I'm just here to try to make our community a better place," said Gonzales.

Lt. Lohrke said that they believe the four suspects they arrested in connection with Tuesday's shooting made up a good amount of the crime that's been happening in the past couple weeks, and now that the suspects are in jail, he said he hopes it'll quell a lot of the issues that have been going on.