Sandy • Detective Rick Simonelli was surprised to hear that a picture of him was posted on the social photo-sharing app Instagram. One of the gang detective's informants told him about the photos, which he eventually tracked down: a clandestine shot of him and his family at a restaurant, with the picture-taker's comment, "F- the feds."
Simonelli, who works with the federal U.S. Marshals Service and the Metro Gang Task Force, showed the photo Wednesday during a presentation about gangs and social media at the Utah Gang Conference in Sandy.
The annual conference at the South Towne Expo Center drew hundreds of law enforcement, educators and other professionals from across the country. Many sessions focus on how gangs share their culture and advance their criminal activity through technology and mass media. The conference wrapped up Thursday afternoon.
The recent explosion in social media has revolutionized the underground criminal culture as much as the rest of society, according to Simonelli and fellow task force detective Justin Hudson.
Facebook is an especially popular tool for gangsters to recruit, brag about their crimes or call out rivals online, the presenters said. And if an underground musician who represents a gang wants to reach a wider audience, he no longer has to wait for a record contract. Instead, a vast collection of videos that glorify gang culture are available on YouTube. And, as was shown in Simonelli's case, social networks are an easy tool to "put on blast" or publicly threaten enemies, even if it's a law enforcement officer out to dinner with his family.
"If we can do it, they can do it," Hudson said. "They have technology, too. You'd be surprised. They recruit guys who know this technology."
The proliferation of technology among gangsters can be a double-edged sword. Simonelli said that any criminal who takes a picture on Instagram is also subject to the geo-tagging that comes with such images.
"We can use it later on as evidence," Simonelli said.
The annual conference is hosted by the Unified Police Department's Metro Gang Task Force, a multi-agency group that works on gang suppression in Salt Lake County. It includes updates on gang trends in Ogden, Utah County and southern Utah.
The conference kicked off Wednesday morning with a keynote address by Jermaine Galloway, an Idaho police officer who covered the latest drug and alcohol trends across the country. The address, "High in Plain Sight," focused largely on trends that affect youths; many in the audience worked in education.
Galloway said popular clothing lines, musicians and paraphernalia often serve as secret signs of drug activity for the initiated but don't draw attention from the general public.
Clothing lines by companies such as SRH or Seedless, which sell hats or pants that include secret stash containers, are popular in the drug culture, he said. Such innocuous logos as crowns or spades can be, but aren't always, indicative of drug use.
"It all means something," Galloway said. "Everything has a meaning."
Two classes on Thursday examined how two of Utah's largest minority populations Latinos and Pacific Islanders are dealing with gang problems using their own cultures and values.
"Our community is in a transition," said Hema Katoa, a counselor with the Jordan School District who specializes in working with the Pacific Islander community.
Police first got involved with the Pacific Islander community only as a gang suppression force, he said. Now, more people are beginning to understand that prevention is just as important.
"We can't deal with this problem until we turn the faucet off," Katoa said. "What we're trying to do is to empower our children to take responsibility for the community."
The panel discussion on gang problems in the Pacific Islander community included a presentation by Herewini Jones, a New Zealander who is a recognized expert in that country's indigenous Maori culture. Jones helped establish a set-apart Maori Focus Unit in New Zealand's prisons that uses the inmates' own culture and values as a central part of their rehabilitation.
Jones told the audience Thursday that anyone working with gangsters or other criminals in the Polynesian community must recognize the power of their culture if they want to reach them. A similar approach should be taken in Utah's Pacific Islander community.
"What's needed is intensive cultural intervention programs," Jones said.
When Pacific Islander youths don't learn the values of their culture, they are more susceptible to joining gangs and committing crimes, he said. "There are valuable and powerful things in the Polynesian world, and we cannot overlook them."
Another class, about active Latino gangs in Utah, talked about the impact of various gangs operating under the rival umbrellas of California's Nortenos and Surenos. While these gangs may have started within Latino communities, many of their Utah counterparts will take all races, according to Metro Gang Unit Sgt. Lex Bell.
Bell talked about recent violence in the Salt Lake City area and how it sprouted from rivalries between the various sets. The murder of 16-year-old Kenyatta Winston, allegedly by rival gang member Frank Reyos, was an example. A February triple homicide in Midvale, allegedly by gang member David Fresques, also was born out of a violent feud between sets of the Barrio Small Town and La Primera gangs in Midvale.
Ricardo Venegas, who runs the YouthCity Teen Programs for Salt Lake City, said that after-school programs and input from a variety of community sources can help teens to escape the pull that gang life can exert on young Latinos, especially those between ages 12 and 14. Educators and others who work with youths should beware of "self-fulfilling prophecies," Venegas said.
"If we expect them to be a gang member, and if we treat them like gang members, and we see them as gang members," he said, "then they will be gang members."
Positive programs that promote leadership and identity among youths will help to disrupt self-fulfilling prophecies,Venegas added.
"All programs could be gang-prevention programs," he said. "All youth are at risk."