BOISE -- The gang population in Boise isn't obvious to most people who live in the city, but police say hundreds of gang members operate there and it's a problem.
'There is a gang problem in Boise'
Yes, there is a gang problem in Boise, Boise Police Gang Intelligence Unit Sgt. Jeff Basterrechea said. Currently, we have over 400 documented gang members by our department and over 35 gangs right now that we are tracking.
Gang members in Boise have been around for years, but now police tell us they're getting more violent. While gang members may move toward more violent crimes, police and prosecutors say they're fighting back, using new laws.
Back in the 1990s, gang activity around the country became a noticeable problem. In 1994, the mayor and police chief began a police unit dedicated to getting information on gang problems in Boise. It started with one member: Basterrechea.
Gang behavior has morphed
We have crips, we have bloods, we have nortenos, we have serenos, we have our white supremacist gangs, and we have our biker gangs, Basterrechea said.
These days gang members aren't likely to be wearing specific colors or spray painting symbols around town. Basterrechea says gang members now don't like to draw attention to themselves, and they're behaving more like organized crime operations.
Basterrechea says it's less about the association of gang members. It's all about making money, he explained. Members from rival gangs will even work together if it means more cash. The money often comes from robbing people or selling drugs and guns.
Our gang problem is changing. They're more willing to go out and buy guns. They're more willing to go out and do home invasions with firearms, so they're starting to lean toward more violence, Basterrechea said.
Boise Policeuse new law to go after gang member
To help prevent violent gang activity, in 2006 Idaho came up with the Criminal Gang Enforcement Act.
It provides tools to the state's prosecutors and law enforcement agencies that help to make proactive enforcement of gang member violations a reality, Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower said.
One thing that's now a crime is knowingly putting a weapon into a gang member's hands. Last month, a judge sentenced the first person found guilty of that crime in Ada County: Crip member Justin K. Wilson. Wilson pleaded guilty.
Bower's office has special gang prosecutors that handle cases like Wilson's. This was an undercover investigation that lasted three months for police.
We started buying drugs from him. We started buying marijuana. Then during the course of the investigation, he offered to sell this gun which at the time they were trying to turn into a fully automatic weapon, Basterrechea said.
'A bad place for gang members to do business'
To keep guns from being used in violent crimes, police say they'll keep using aggressive tools that many major cities employ, like using informants and undercover operations.
We do less reactive stuff. We don't wait for the crime to happen then investigative it. What we do now is more proactive cases just like we did on this one, Basterrechea said.
Wilson was sentenced to 7 years for the gun sale and 5 years for the marijuana sale.
It's a significant bit of criminal justice pain, Bower said. We want to make Ada County a bad place for gang members to do business. Our efforts have kept gang members in check.
Police say out of the 35 gangs they're tracking in Boise, five are described as very active. A couple of those operate within the jail and prison systems.