Such a large turnout packed an informational meeting Wednesday on gangs and gang life that extra chairs needed to be brought out.
The meeting at the Los Banos Community Center attracted some 150 people, by far the largest crowd police Chief Gary Brizzee had seen at such a meeting. The Police Department held six similar sessions last year at different school sites.
Gang-related activity has become a rising concern in Los Banos in the past six months, with 13 shootings, two of them deadly. In response, The Los Banos Police Department gave a 90-minute presentation aimed at parents and children on how to recognize gang-related attire, music, tattoos and actions.
Brizzee urged parents to get involved in their children's lives.
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"It's very important. They (children) are exposed to things on a daily basis that you're probably not aware of, and you should be," Brizzee said.
Los Banos is home to about 500 validated gang members, more than double the number in 2007, in more than 20 gangs. Brizzee said the city has always been home to upper-level gang members as a hiding place.
However, Brizzee said, the city no longer serves as just a hiding place, so there's been an increase in gang-related activity. He said there is a interconnected network of gang members in Los Banos and Merced County.
The Police Department, Brizzee said, is good at suppressing gangs, but not necessarily at prevention.
"We are not always the best agency to reach out and have a conversation with a gang member," Brizzee said.
Tom Neeb, the director of special projects, child welfare and attendance for the Los Banos Unified School District, said meetings like Wednesday's are important, but he wants to reach out to the people who were not at the meeting.
Neeb said school employees tend to know which students may be at risk of joining a gang, and that's who needs the most help.
"We need to direct it at specific students within our schools," Neeb said.
There is a plan to begin mentorships, Neeb said, at the junior high and both high schools. He said the effort would be to help those students develop character, "not for pointing a finger and saying 'bad, bad, bad.' "
Detective Eduardo Solis, who specializes in gangs, said the members choose to operate in Los Banos because they believe the city does not have the resources to deal with them. His presentation focused on Norteños and Sureños, which are gangs that originated in prison.
Gloria Mendonca, 70, a lifelong resident, said Neighborhood Watch programs worked in the past, but people are afraid to be involved now.
"We have fear, the senior community has fear," Mendonca said. "We do not have enough officers, we know this," she said.
Brizzee said the best way for members of the community to help police is to be good witnesses.
He said neighborhood programs can be facilitated through the department, but it's up to the individual neighborhoods to sustain the programs.
"The unfortunate part is that we offer the service ... and in a lot of cases it just dies off," Brizzee said.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos