Gang symposium tackles trends |

Gang symposium tackles trends


STATELINE —When District Attorney Neil Rombardo asked local law enforcement what would help in dealing with gangs, one thing stood out: education.“They wanted more training. We decided, let’s do it,” Rombardo said. “It’s really a way to train these guys.”Through funding from a grant, the Carson City District Attorney’s office set up its first Northern Nevada Gang Symposium, now in its fifth year.Officers decide what they want to see and what they need in training, and Rombardo then tries to get the speakers to fill those needs. At Wednesday’s symposium at Lake Tahoe, three things took the stage: gang trends, how to be an expert witness and what it means to be an informant in an outlaw motorcycle gang.There are currently 2,200 documented gang members, 1,400 of whom are active, in the Reno-Carson-Tahoe-Gardnerville area, said Javier Lopez, a Reno Police Department officer. Lopez is assigned to the Regional Gang Unit whose members are from various police agencies in that area.“(They’re) just the tip of the iceberg,” said Eric Chavez, an officer with the Sparks Police Department also attached to the Regional Gang Unit.Gang members love their guns, Lopez said. “They love weapons. They love to have them, they love to carry them,” he said, adding that the gang members especially love to show off their weapons and use social media to disseminate their gun-toting image.Gun purchases often are made legally, although the people who end up with the weapons may have criminal records that prohibit them from possessing them.“They get turned over in straw purchases,” Lopez said, adding, “There are just more guns and more guns and more guns all the time.”Gang members tend to be “a bunch of knuckleheads” but they are “thinking about what they’re doing,” Chavez said, describing how gangs are evolving by increasing gun and drug purchases, branching into pimping and using social media, and using strategy during conflicts and when coming into contact with police.One stratagem is to stage a domestic disturbance in an attempt to distract an officer at a crime scene so that an innocent-looking gang affiliate can pick up shell casings or other evidence to stymie an investigation.Gang members slowly graduate from misdemeanors to felonies, and those offenses build a case for a gang enhancement in a criminal case, Rombardo said. The gang enhancement adds one to 20 years to a sentence without the chance for probation, meaning a person would have to serve at least a year on top of one’s normal sentence, under Nevada law.Rombardo stressed any police stop of a gang member must be done in a constitutional manner. Those stops, called field interviews, can’t be used in court if not done properly, and when done properly can help to show an officer’s credentials as a gang expert at trial.Charles Falco, an informant for various police agencies from 2001 to 2010, told the audience about his experience as an informant on the Vagos Motorcycle Club, described by the Department of Justice as an outlaw motorcycle gang.Falco infiltrated the Vagos gang’s Victorville chapter between 2003 and 2006 and eventually helped bring 40 members to trial — only one of whom beat the charges, he said.“After three months, before I had a bike, they asked me to ‘prospect.’ They were trying to build their numbers, which is a perfect time to infiltrate,” he said. “It’s like pledging for a violent fraternity.”At three months in as a prospect, Falco learned of a drug robbery that had gone wrong. A drug user ended up being shot by a Vagos member. Falco got the gang member to admit to the shooting and gave that information to investigators.A month later, Falco was “patched in,” becoming a full member of the club and wearing his Vagos patch on the back of a vest. Falco wore the vest while he spoke to officers at the symposium.Those patches are not forever for the Vagos, he said, because of legal police harassment of gang members. He said that a third to half of Vagos members leave the gang because they can’t tolerate the harassment. Falco also said Northern Nevada police agencies are doing an “excellent” job of dealing with biker gangs.“Do anything you can do without getting you or your department sued,” he said. “The harassment changes how (outlaw motorcycle gangs) do business. They can’t do the same stuff anymore that they used to do.”