Before retiring from the Stockton Police Department in 2003, I had 32 years in law enforcement. In all those years, my most disturbing experience has always been the violence. I am currently program manager for Operation Peacekeeper, a City of Stockton youth gang/violence prevention program. The focus is youth ages 10-18, who often exhibit behaviors and attitudes that indicate they may be heading down a path of violence and/or gangs.
An early indicator is when normally good grades in school suddenly drop. If people want to see a decrease in gangs and violence, they have to realize first that criminal activity and violence are the main reasons gangs exist in the first place. Any effective prevention effort must include all three areas of a youth's life: the home, the street and school. We must connect the dots on all three areas 24/7.
Gangs are criminal enterprises, period. There are NO redeeming values to gangs. Ask any former gang member who has turned his life around, and they will confirm my assertion.
Gangs are actively recruiting our children as early as the fourth grade. Why? Gang leaders have a mission and strategy to recruit members. Often youths believe lies about the glory of being in a gang. Parents will tend to ignore or deny early signs that a youth is going down the path toward gang activity.
I have seen well-meaning mothers rationalize away clear warning signs because they naively know their "baby" would never associate with gangs. I also heard parents say their child knows better or is too smart to do such a thing; this is a false sense of security and a dangerous one.
It is not unheard of for well-intentioned adults to simply believe their children would never get involved, and will therefore deny there is a problem until too late. Gangs pray on the most vulnerable (the younger) by feeding them lies about how the gang is their family and authority — whether it is law enforcement, teachers or parents — are the enemy. Many street crimes are committed by youngsters "putting in work" because they believe the myth that they can gain the "respect" of older members.
So what is a parent to do? Let me lead by first saying there is a huge difference between simple and easy. Many answers are simple yet not at all easy. First, please do not doubt that there is a very active war going on for the hearts and minds of our children, and we must be ever-vigilant and equip ourselves with as much knowledge as possible while still having the intestinal fortitude to say "no" to our children when appropriate and question their activities.
The vast majority of our youth are indeed "good" kids. That is not the issue. Good kids are going to be influenced, as that is part of growing up. However, will they be positively or negatively influenced? You are your child's first teacher, mentor and role model. You must model what you want to see. You must spend time with them. It may sound like a no-brainer, but be the parent.
I cannot count the number of times that parents call me and admit that their child has the iPod, the cellphone, the latest in shoes that are in fashion; all of which the parents pay for. Then they admit the youth is not doing well in school and refuses to stop hanging around with his "friends." In essence, the youth continues to be rewarded for poor behavior.
There are a few simple steps (remember, I didn't say "easy") every parent can do. When I say parent, I fully realize that some youth do not have responsible parents in their lives, or some parents simply do not know what to do. If that is the case, then the uncle, family friend or neighbor needs to step up. It is imperative that you know who your child's friends are and who their parents are.
I often hear parents say their child is not in a gang but simply has a few "thugs" he hangs with that the parents really don't trust. If your child has some friends you don't feel good about, then trust your gut. Find out more about them. You must make it your mission to know these "friends," and do not allow any friend who is not going to be a positive influence on your child. Trust, but verify.
Does it not amaze you when you read about a 14-year-old being stabbed by a 13-year-old at 11:30 at night? When the child is young, they need parameters in place without compromise. Where are they? Who are they with? What are they doing?
There is not enough room to go into every scenario that may help decrease the number of gangs and the violence that comes with that lifestyle, and certainly what I suggest is long-term. However, being a very proactive parent throughout your child's life, starting at a very young age, is an outstanding start.
Ralph Womack is a Lodi Unified School District trustee, a retired Stockton police captain, and director of the Operation Peacekeeper gang prevention program in Stockton.