LIVINGSTON -- It could be as simple as a symbol in a notebook, a drawing on a hand or a seemingly harmless gesture from a child, but they all could be indicators of an existence that leads to violence, incarceration and death.
Crime stemming from gangs continues to be a problem in the Central Valley, and the Livingston Police Department took a step toward trying to reduce their influence during a gang prevention summit Saturday.
Chief Ruben Chavez encouraged parents to look for signs that their children might be getting involved with gangs, which could start around 9 or 10 years old. Practicing graffiti in notebooks, drawing gang symbols on their skin and using gang signs around their friends could be forewarnings of trouble.
"Once you get to that point where they're entrenched in that gang culture, very few things can get them out," he said.
However, he said the police department is working to reach out to children before that happens.
"Our officers are getting more involved in schools," Chavez said. "It's something that hasn't been done in the past and we're just kind of raising the bar a little bit to be more active."
A good family structure, after-school activities and accountability are all crucial to keeping children away from criminal elements, he said.
District Attorney Larry Morse II, who spoke at Saturday's event, also emphasized the importance of reaching out to kids when they're young. When kids enter gangs at the high school level, it's hard to get them out, Morse said.
"By the time they get to high school and get embedded in gangs, it's really tough, it's really tough to get out of them," he said. "The pressure becomes almost overwhelming, they're already meshed in that lifestyle. It's dangerous to get out -- physically dangerous to get out of gangs."
His goal is to stop children from becoming involved with gangs at all.
"If you don't get in, you don't have to worry about getting out," Morse said.
Morse has been pushing a program called "Merced County Project 10%," which has UC Merced students speak to eighth graders about the importance of graduation. The goal of the project is to raise graduation rates by 10 percent, which would drastically reduce violent crime, according to studies.
There were 24 homicides in Merced County last year and half of those were gang-related, Morse said. Keeping kids out of gangs can reduce that number, but his office is ready to put a stop to those who miss the message.
"We will never, ever surrender the streets to a lawless element," Morse said Saturday. "We will do whatever it takes. We can do preemptive things to keep kids out of gangs. We're going to do that. But for those in insist on threatening or terrorizing or hurting others, we will drop the anvil on them and we will leave no stone unturned in doing so."
Morse said when people become entrenched in the gang lifestyle, it not only harms themselves, but also causes grief to their families.
Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza knows that feeling.
During Monday's event, Espinoza said his brother was involved in gangs and is now in prison.
"Being mayor, people always have a feeling that hey, everything's perfect, but it's not," he said. "We go through that too."
About 20 people attended Livingston's gang prevention summit and Chief Ruben Chavez hopes to build on it for next year. He plans on getting the school district involved to increase exposure of the anti-gang message.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.