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Police alone can't stop gangs

Police officials in the Rogue Valley say they have a "zero tolerance" policy toward gangs. That is appropriate and, in view of last week's drive-by shooting in Medford, necessary. It is also not enough.

Youth gang activity is a complex problem, one that will not be solved by law enforcement alone. It is also not a new phenomenon, although it is new to Southern Oregon.

Investigators of Monday's shooting, which thankfully injured no one, are understandably tight-lipped on the details of what gangs may have been involved, who among the participants is linked to what gang, or what may have prompted the attack. Those questions will be answered in time, but the precise details are less important than the bigger picture.

Gangs are here, and the violence they generate is making news. The question now is how the community will respond.

To blame this situation on lax immigration laws is to miss the point. These gangs do come from south of the border, but it's the Oregon-California border.

The Nortenos and Surenos got their start in the California state prison system, and moved from there onto the streets of California cities, where gang activity followed a pattern common to many ethnic minority communities in this country dating back many years.

On the East Coast, Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican gangs plagued city neighborhoods at one time. Later, gangs emerged in black neighborhoods.

The common denominators were economic hardship, struggling families and a sense of powerlessness among new generations of Americans.

Anyone wondering why young people join gangs need only read Friday's news story about the indictments of three young men in the drive-by shooting. Among the gang-related incidents police have responded to in recent days was a party in northeast Medford during which Cody Eugene Sanders, 16, apparently shot himself in the neck with a shotgun. He died Thursday evening.

A friend who grew up with Sanders said he had struggled with homelessness and a drug-addicted mother, and had been depressed recently.

"He wanted to fit in," she said. "... He wanted somebody to lean on."

For young people who feel they have nowhere else to turn, gangs provide a place to fit in and people who can become the only family the youngster knows. The sad fact is, that family comes with drugs, weapons and violence.

Aggressive police work can send gangs the message that criminal activity will not be tolerated, and local police agencies are to be congratulated for giving the problem the attention it deserves. But just enforcing the law cannot address the reasons why kids join gangs in the first place.

That will require a coordinated effort involving schools, social service agencies and neighborhood organizations working alongside the police.

Kids Unlimited, the nonprofit agency that provides healthy activities for underprivileged youth, is just one example of local efforts to reach out to troubled young people. Wondering what you can do to help address the gang problem? Volunteer some time with Kids Unlimited or after-school programs. Donate money to these agencies. Join your Neighborhood Watch group, or organize one if none exists. Report graffiti when you see it.

One young man has died and a carload of young people are lucky not to be seriously injured or worse. This is not somebody's else's problem; this is our problem and we need to control it before it controls us.