Troy Campbell knows about gangs. By the time he was in eighth grade, he was running with a Compton gang and selling drugs. By age 17, he said he was earning $3,000 an hour in his trade.
It took several trips to jail and some financial woes to make him look for something more reputable.
"Everything I was doing began to fail, everything from relationships to illegal drug trade to automobiles. When everything went downhill, that's when I began to realize I had to stop," he said.
He did get out of the crime-filled lifestyle. Now 37, he travels the country as a counselor and motivational speaker, offering leadership training and lessons in how to help troubled youths.
Gang crimes seem to have risen recently in the Lodi and Galt areas, but it's actually not confined to those cities. Stockton and Sacramento police have also seen a rise in gang-related activity, and Campbell said Compton, in Southern California, is also seeing a spike.
Gang violence often goes in cycles — one gang member is victimized, so his cronies retaliate against their rivals. The rivals, in turn, react. Sometimes copycats get in on the action, Campbell said.
Police believe one factor in the rise in gang activity is the overcrowding in California's prison system. Lodi Police Lt. Chris Piombo recently attended a mandatory management seminar in Sacramento, where a number of police officials also noted that they are losing officers due to budget cuts.
It's "the perfect storm," Piombo said, repeating a phrase used at the seminar by Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel.
Prison officials are releasing inmates early because of both the budget and the lack of bed space. Criminals, many of whom linked up with other gang members in prison, then go back home, where they have an even harder time trying to get a legitimate job due to their prison record. And then, when shootings and stabbings happen, many people don't want to talk for fear of being dubbed a snitch, Piombo said.
Lodi police are trying to increase the response to gang activity, he said.
"We have additional officers out. We've changed the hours of some investigators," Piombo said. "We're looking beyond merely enforcement, but what the motives are. We're contacting some of the older gang members, and the parents, too — the people who are responsible for these kids."
In Galt, police periodically make a public presentation about gangs, trying to reach parents and community members in order to educate them.
A gang member doesn't have to be in it for life. Campbell decided to leave the life of crime, and now he has no problems going back and talking to youths who belong to various gangs.
He believes the community should be more involved.
"I think everyday citizens should stop being so scared. I don't mean that to be arrogant," Campbell said. "One day I went to church, my braids in my hair, my pants sagging. This lady came to me and just gave me a hug. That hug communicated to me so much more than a thousand words could have."
Churches are often places of solace for even hard gang members, because they lose loved ones and want a place to grieve, he said. Pastors and parishioners alike can offer more support, mental as well as physical, than they realize.
Many at-risk youths simply need a mentor they respect, Campbell said.
As a child, his parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother went on welfare to help support the family. Campbell doesn't blame his parents for his early life of crime, noting that his mother pinched pennies to keep him in private schools.
But he never talked about the pain of divorce, and said that left a deep mark. Until his mother kicked him out of the house at age 16 for selling drugs, Campbell said his grade-point average was 3.86. Had someone recognized both his abilities and his needs, he may have cleaned up sooner.
"When you see young people who sell drugs, it's usually because they have an entrepreneurial gift. We need to give them something else to sell," he said.
How parents can keep their kids out of gangs— Spend time with children by getting involved in school activities and getting to know their friends and friends' families.
— Be a role model.
— Encourage study habits and homework completion.
— Teach them about peer pressure and how to deal with it.
— Encourage activities that are supervised, such as sports, music lessons and youth groups.
— Get involved in the neighborhood, such as the local Neighborhood Watch group.
— Teach children about the hazards — arrest, pain caused to family members or victims — of gang membership.
— Don't allow children to wear gang-related attire. In San Joaquin County, the main gangs are Nortenos and Surenos, and members commonly wear blue or red bandanas, belts and shoelaces.
Source: FBI and local police