BOISE -- The Treasure Valley is home to hundreds of gang members. Local police say with gang members come gang crimes. Prosecutors say some of those crimes are violent or even deadly. Some have innocent victims.
"Even if the gang members are targeting rival gang members, a shooting on the boulevard In broad daylight, you're still going to possibly hit an innocent house, an innocent car, or an innocent person walking on the sidewalk," Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Ellie Somoza said. "'I've also seen lots of cases where they've done a driveby on a house, where they have the wrong house."
Specialized police units work to track gangs
Back in the 1990s, police and prosecutors in our area watched what was going on around the country with gangs. In California, gangs were literally claiming parts of cities. Some agencies began specializing in gang enforcement to get ahead of the problem. In 1994, the Boise Police Department created the first specialized gang unit in the state.
"We have approximately 450 gang members documented in our department," a BPD Gang Intelligence Detective said (KTVB is not identifying the detective because of his job duties). "It's steadily increasing, and it's tough to keep up."
Other agencies, like the Caldwell Police Department have units that deal with gang crimes. Various local and federal agencies also work on operations through the Treasure Valley Metro Violent Crimes Task Force.
KTVB goes with BPD gang unit on patrol
The BPD detective allowed KTVB on a ride-along as he patrolled on a Friday night, looking for gang activity.
"There's little pockets all over the city," the detective said.
On a traffic stop, the detective found a man who'd been involved in gang activity before. The detective got his contact information and took photos of his tattoos. Tattoos can often give details about someone's gang affiliation and activities.
On another traffic stop downtown, the detective found two men who'd recently been in prison and have tattoos possibly related to prison gang activity. During a search, he found a marijuana pipe in their car, which would be a parole violation for one of the men and would be reported.
BPD Gang Unit: Violent gang crime is on the rise
The detective said the gang unit's intelligence, enforcement, and presence have helped manage Boise gang activity. But lately, there's been a disturbing increase in the city. In April, there was a downtown shooting near City Hall. Last week, the gang unit arrested several people during an investigation, charging several with gang crimes. This year, there have also been home invasions with suspects who appear to have gang ties.
"As of recently, we've been seeing a lot of violent activity between gang members. Some is spill-over from other counties, and some homegrown right here in Boise," the detective said.
Prosecutor: Canyon County gang crimes down, but increasing again
Canyon County is also seeing changes. Not long ago, drive-by shootings, stabbings and other violent gang crimes were rampant.
"It was a lot of violence for such a small population and such a small area," Somoza said.
Somoza works in the drugs and gangs unit and says since 2008, things had been calming down, but her gang caseload is picking up again.
"There's been a lot more going on recently," Somoza said.
New gang laws stick gang members with bigger penalties
Somoza's biggest tool is obviously the law, and she says new, stricter laws are still keeping the gang problem more reigned in than just five or six years ago.
"They know that if they commit a crime, and they're committing a crime as a gang member, that they're going to get hit extra hard," Somoza said.
In 2006, the Idaho Criminal Gang Enforcement Act was signed into law. It tacked on more prison time for crimes committed by gang members. It made supplying guns to gang members a crime, and it made recruiting new members illegal.
"The gang recruitment law we've used to wipe out the hierarchy of a couple of local gangs, and you saw a huge drop off in the violent crimes around that time," Somoza said.
One of Somoza's cases involved gang leader Mona Manzaneres. She was the first person in Idaho prosecuted and convicted for recruitment.
Gang members on new laws and Idaho's reputation
Gang members know prosecutors are using these laws, and they can act as deterrents. A former Blood gang member says Idaho is strict, and he left his gang only after facing a possible life sentence in prison.
"Sooner or later, you're going to get caught," the ex-gangmember said. "It's not the same anymore. You can't do the same things nowadays as you could then without getting caught."
Police, Prosecutors say they need to be proactive
Treasure Valley police and prosecutors say the task forces, specialized prosecution units and new laws have helped them, but statewide, this problem isn't getting smaller
"The problem has spread out from Canyon County. Every part of the state, literally every corner of the state now has a gang problem," Somoza said.
Local departments say they need to deal with the gang problem on the front end and not wait until the gang members increase to an uncontrollable amount or their crimes get too out of hand.
"The main thing is just being proactive, you know, staying in front of some of the crimes and getting in the middle of some of our groups, our gangs before they really get out of control and then all you're doing is playing catch up at that point," the BPD detective said.
The community tie between drugs and gangs
Police say violent gang activity is on the rise, but the most prevalent crimes involve drugs whether that's usage, dealing or trafficking. Watch the KTVB.COM exclusive video below to learn more about the tie between drugs and gangs.
Many gang members are going to prison, but most will be released back into the community. On Wednesday night at 10:00 p.m., KTVB will go inside the prison to find out how they deal with gang members there and what happens when they're released back to our neighborhoods.