It has been five months since the Pasadena Police Department launched its Gang Intelligence Unit, the division that collects gang-related data after its predecessor unit, Project Spotlight, was disbanded.
In a recent interview with the Pasadena Citizen, Pasadena Police Chief Michael Thaler said the change from a unit with several tasks to one that focuses solely on gang intelligence has been a success.
Project Spotlight was a unit merged with the old Gang Task Force and the Street Crimes Unit. While the old unit's tasks besides gang intelligence were serving warrants and special investigations, the three members of the Gang Intelligence Unit - which started operating on Nov. 28 - spend most of their time in front of the computer.
One of the reasons why Thaler decided to disband the old unit was that not enough focus was put on gang intelligence.
"We're adding anywhere from 20 to 30 additional gang members per week, is what I'm being told, based on information we receive from the gang unit, from interviews in the jail, from officers who fill out gang cards," Thaler said.
At this point, more than 600 gang members are documented in the police department's database. Thaler said since the new unit was launched the high water mark was about 2,000 documented gang members.
Gang unit members follow the Texas criminal code's guidelines for entering individuals into the gang database. For example, officers must determine if an individual is a self-professed gang member, if others say he is, if he associated with known gang members or if he uses street gang symbols, hand signals or tattoos.
Those for who no gang activity is reported for five years are taken out of the database, which explains the fluctuation in the number of documented gang members.
"We are very comfortable and confident that everybody that's in the database right now has been documented for good cause," Thaler said.
Thaler wouldn't speculate on how many gang members there are in Pasadena. Nor would he comment on which gangs are most prevalent in Pasadena for concern that the publicity could be used as a recruiting tool for those gangs.
Sgt. Steve Skripka, the unit's supervisor, said no gang is exclusive to Pasadena. "It would be incorrect for me to say gang A, B and C work in Pasadena. They are transient in nature."
According to the anti-gang website StopHoustonGangs.org, the Houston area is home to at least 30 street and prison gangs.
"The more famous gangs and the more prolific gangs, I would venture to guess or say that we've probably got representatives here in Pasadena and (that) we've already documented," Thaler said.
He also said that fewer than 10 gangs account for the majority of criminal gang activity in Pasadena.
The nature of gangs has changed from territorial to mostly money-driven criminal organizations, Thaler said.
"I don't want to compare them to the Mafia but that's really in effect what it is. It's an affiliation of individuals of like mind who want to engage in criminal behavior."
So how big of a problem are gangs in the city of Pasadena?
"We, like any metropolitan area, unfortunately are struggling with those individuals and criminal enterprises that are affiliated through gangs," Thaler said, "but it's not at the levels I've seen in other major metropolitan areas and we're not anywhere near the level of what it is in Houston."
It is hard to say how many crimes out of the total number of crimes are gang-related, simply because even if committed by a known gang member, a crime such as domestic violence cannot necessarily be classified as a gang crime.
However, Thaler's guess as to how many crimes are committed by gang members, "I would say probably at least half" of all crimes in Pasadena.
Pasadena residents can learn about Houston area gangs and submit anonymous tips on StopHoustonGangs.org.
Tips can also be submitted directly to the Gang Intelligence Unit at 713-475-7825.