New efforts are underway in Petaluma to keep kids from joining gangs — something officials say is happening at an earlier age.
“There's been a gang issue in Petaluma since the late 1980s,” said Bob Florez, longtime gang specialist and president of Santa Rosa-based gang prevention nonprofit Sunny Hills Services. “We're starting to see more sophistication from gangs in how they draw young people in, especially among the Surenos and the white pride gangs here in Petaluma.”
The Police Department said there are currently about 200 gang members or gang associates residing in the Petaluma area. Of those, approximately 60 are gang members on active probation, parole or post-release supervision.
“The current youth gang problems in Petaluma are linked to a variety of adolescent issues, ranging from serious violence to truancy,” said Petaluma Police Gang Sgt. Marty Frye. “Recently, the most common gang activity we are experiencing is intimidation or bullying and gang graffiti.”
Florez said that Sunny Hills Services has noticed an emerging trend of gangs recruiting children as young as 10 to join in criminal activities while also keeping a lower profile to avoid attention from the local police and media.
“Kids are getting drawn in and going to other cities to commit crimes for the gangs,” said Florez. “It may start with an active gang member taking a youth under his wing, introducing them to the party lifestyle, and leaving the kid to think it's just about having fun. But eventually, they become a steady part of the gang and they get called upon to act as a gang member.”
Florez added that kids are no longer making efforts to publicly identify as gang members. Gone are the days of sporting red and blue to signal one's affiliation. “I've worked with many kids from Petaluma who have gone to the East Bay to commit their crimes and prove themselves to their Petaluma gang ties,” said Florez. “The gangs don't want the publicity in Petaluma because that's their home base and they don't want the attention.”