Astring of drive-by shootings and other crimes last year alarmed the police, who were worried Jackson County had reached the tipping point for gang activity.

Astring of drive-by shootings and other crimes last year alarmed the police, who were worried Jackson County had reached the tipping point for gang activity.

"It was getting out of control in Medford and White City," said Medford Lt. Mike Budreau.

2013 was punctuated with headline news about a stabbing, a beating over a drug dispute and a robbery over heroin and money that led to a standoff with a Nazi-inspired gang member.

Budreau and other law enforcement officers were concerned gang activity had reached a critical mass in the county. They responded with force, bringing suspects into custody and sending a message that gang activity wouldn't be tolerated.

"It comes to the point where they can't go to the store without seeing an officer look over their shoulder," Budreau said.

The number of gang members and their associates identified by law enforcement has more than tripled, from 110 two years ago to 356 today. But the number of incidents has dropped substantially.

Gang-related incidents peaked in 2011 at 753, dropping to 140 in 2012, then bumping up to 188 last year. Police say numbers can be deceiving, however. Last year saw numerous high-profile crimes, while other years were filled with reports about graffiti and other minor crimes.

Since the end of summer, gang-related crime has subsided, but law enforcement says it's only a matter of time before it flares up again.

The fear is that an influx of hardened gang members from Southern California could turn the valley into a caldron of crime and drug deals gone awry.

In the first half of 2013, three drive-by shootings shook west Medford with rivalry between Sureños and Norteños gang members.

In September, three men identified by police as gang members were arrested on suspicion of beating and robbing a woman after a dispute over heroin and cash.

Around the same time, an alleged heroin dealer and member of the white supremacist Nazi Low Rider prison gang barricaded himself in a closet in Rogue River, fought with SWAT officers and was eventually subdued with a stun gun during a search at his home that found illegal drugs, stolen guns, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, cash and body armor, police said.

Police are watchful for acts of retaliation by one gang against another, which can often spiral out of control and lead to the violent behavior that attracts public attention.

"That's when it's important for police to be very aggressive," Budreau said.

Jackson County sheriff's Detective Tim Kennedy said gang-related incidents have been dormant for several months but they're not going away.

"I think we've slowed things down," he said. "I think we just got lucky."

The sheriff's department is holding an information session on local gang activity, "Color Wars — An Inside Look at Gangs in Southern Oregon," from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the Smullin Center Auditorium, 2825 E. Barnett Road, Medford.

"We're starting to see and recognize 100 new gang members a year," said Kennedy, who works on a gang joint task force with Medford police. "That's pretty scary when you start to see that kind of increase."

Law enforcement receives tips about gang activity, particularly potential fights or grudges. Focused patrols are dispatched to particular areas when something flares up.

When a situation is quelled in west Medford, something pops up in White City or Central Point, Kennedy said.

Unlike Los Angeles or Fresno, gang members coexist in the same neighborhood in Medford.

Also there are major gangs, then subsets and offshoots of the gangs. Kennedy said law enforcement has probably just scratched the surface in identifying gang members.

For instance, an offshoot of the Sureños gang in Central Point is the Central Sureños Locos.

Kennedy said it can be difficult to keep track of these gangs or to identify someone as a gang member.

"I just can't call them a gang member because they wear baggy pants," he said.

Many gang members are trying to hide their affiliations because they are on probation and are ordered not to associate with gangs.

Medford police Deputy Chief Brett Johnson said other gang members readily identify themselves as being part of a gang, particularly on social media websites.

"A big part of it is self-identification," he said. "They have gang signs on personal property."

Sureños identify themselves with the color blue and the number 13 or other various designations, including Sur, XIII, X3, 13, Sur13, uno tres, trece and three dots. Often a member of the Sureños will wear a logo of the Dodgers or another team that sports the color blue.

Norteños wear red and use the number 14, Norte, XIV, X4 or four dots. They'll sometimes wear a 49ers logo or other team with red.

In California, known gang members face more severe charges if they are involved in crimes. Oregon doesn't have similar laws, Johnson said.

Police receive information from various sources when rival gangs are feuding, Johnson said. Police then contact known gang members and their associates to get a quick handle on the situation before it escalates.

Sheriff Mike Winters said the Jackson County Jail also tracks gang affiliation when prisoners are processed.

"We look at tattoos and other signs during admission," he said. Winters said he hopes to get the public more engaged so it can provide tips to law enforcement to go after gang activity before it gets out of control.

"It just means that you've got to keep a close eye on it or it just takes over," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him at