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Gang Specialist Translates Graffiti, Details Scope of Problem

Rachael McDonald

Last Friday, police deployed a SWAT team to arrest a member of the Barrio Los Padrinos criminal street gang in downtown Eugene. The suspect was accused of sexual assault and believed to be armed. Earlier that day, KLCC's Rachael McDonald spoke with EPD Detective Greg Harvey. She asked about gang graffiti and what's going on with gangs in Eugene / Springfield.

Harvey: "So this little walkway goes between 2nd street and the Pioneer Parkway and it’s a heavily trafficked area."

There's a tall fence along the path, separating it from a residential area in Springfield.  The fence is covered with graffiti. Harvey says he can read the writing on the wall and it spells gang activity.

Harvey: "Here you have PBS, which is the Playboys, Southside Playboys Sorenos gang. So just in 50 feet we have 4 different gangs that are putting their stuff up on here."

Harvey says he can learn a lot about gang activity by looking at the graffiti around town. He says much of it is just taggers. But gang members put up their monikers and gang affiliation. They also send each other messages-- with derogatory statements. Harvey says the graffiti can be useful for law enforcement.

Harvey: "It's very helpful to us because it starts us looking. A recent case, we had some brand-new playboy graffiti that was put up and the individual was actually caught in the process of doing it. Plus, they posted photos of themselves next to the graffiti. And so, it helps us identify who are the gang members in the area."

Harvey says gang members also use social media to maintain contact with wherever they've come from.

Harvey: "So if they're out of the Los Angeles area or back in the Chicago area or Miami or any other place around the country, they still have their connections back home."

Harvey says some gang members are from around here. He says they don't necessarily fit the images we have from movies and tv. In Eugene /Springfield, most gangs are white.

Harvey: "The gang members come across all socio-economic boundaries. We have high school drop outs. We have high school kids that do really well. We have college kids. We have people that come from rich families, we have people that come from poor families."

Rachael McDonald "What kinds of activities are gangs involved in?"
Harvey: "The gangs, for crimes, they commit almost everything you can think about" [phone rings]. Sorry, keep that thought."

That's Detective Harvey's cell phone. During our conversation, he got a lot of calls. Turns out they had to do with 23-year old
Steven Mieja. The documented member of Barrio Los Padrinos was arrested later for sexual misconduct involving a 17 year old woman.

Harvey: "If there's money to be made, there's probably gang members that are trying to make it off that. We have gang members that are burglars, that steal cars, that commit robberies, that commit prostitution acts, pimping out girls. It crosses all the crimes probably out there."

Harvey says people who are new to the gang might be the ones doing graffiti in order to prove themselves and be accepted. He says there are many reasons people join.

Harvey: "It might be generational that other family members were gang members. It might be that their friends are gang members. They see it on television; they see how it's glorified. Some of its for protection. Some of them are harassed or intimidated into becoming a gang member."

Harvey says EPD's strategy is to try to prevent kids from joining gangs. This means reaching out to elementary and middle schools. Harvey says many are recruited as young as age 8 or 10.

Harvey: "We've had a couple schools around the area that, teachers have seen adult gang members trying to contact their kids. And so, we've talked to some, other gang members that, if they don't get them by the time they're 8 years old, it's too late. So they're trying to get them at a young age."

As the weather warms up, Harvey expects to see more graffiti by gang members and taggers. He says gang activity has increased in Eugene / Springfield in recent years. This community is not unique. National statistics show more gang activity across the country.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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