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Las Vegas Police Take On 20,000 Gang Members

"Mara Salvatrucha Graffiti" by Walking the Tracks - Flickr: Mara Salvatrucha. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gang graffiti in Los Angeles, where many Las Vegas gangs originated.

In Southern Nevada, about 20,000 people identify themselves as gang members.

That’s about six of every 1,000 Nevada residents. That puts Nevada in the top five states for the number of gang members, according to the FBI.

While many gangs originated in California, others are homegrown right here in the Las Vegas Valley. As such, gang boundaries and divisions can be very difficult for law enforcement to define.  

Lt. Sasha Larkin with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's gang unit told KNPR's State of Nevada that  'hybrid gangs' are a problem because they're often made up of people from other gangs that have joined together.

“It is a little bit more difficult for us to follow and track, which is why we spend a lot of time out in the community talking to people trying to figure out how we can best keep the pulse on what’s happening,” Larkin said.

Despite the difficultly of tracking gangs, Larkin believes the department is making progress in limiting gang influence and violence.

She said the number of gang-related homicides this year is down from last year, but she admits it is still too high.

“We’re moving in the right direction. Are we anywhere close to where we need to be? No.” Larkin said.

Sgt. Branden Clarkson is also with Metro Police. He tracks graffiti and says kids often start as taggers, spraying graffiti on buildings, walls and signs, but they quickly move into robbery and drugs, forming their own street gangs.

However, Clarkson doesn't believe arresting kids is the best answer.

“We can’t arrest our way out of a problem,” Clarkson said.

He believes outreach to kids in need is more valuable. 

“We need to find people who want to escape this life,” Clarkson pointed out.

Many people in gangs don't know another life because they grew up in that environment. 

“It's what they know. They don’t know any different,” Clarkson said.

He thinks if the community steps up to provide a sense of family the draw of gang life won't be as strong.

Ernest James knows that draw. He was in a gang first in Los Angeles and later in Las Vegas. 

He was drawn to his gang because his brother was involved and he looked up to his older brother. 

“Everybody didn't’t have a mother or father at home so we just huddled around each other,” James explained.

Later, however, when he started having his own family, his attitude towards being part of a gang changed.

“It’s like having an extended family until you really realize it is not an extended family that they’re really there to use and manipulate individuals,” he said.

James was in prison and had to say goodbye to his son through a pane of glass. At the time, his baby boy couldn't walk or talk.

When James was released from prison, “My son was walking and talking but he didn't know me and I realized how long I had been gone.”

That moment, along with outreach from Metro Police Capt. William Scott, prompted James to leave his gang. He now works to help other kids get out of the gang life.

“When you really realize that being a father of five boys and two girls... that there is something greater in life than yourself that you don’t want this generational curse to follow your children,” James said.

Eddie Neves also understands what it's like to be part of a gang and then leave it. He spent years in prison because of his criminal activities associated with his gang.

“I began to see through the facade,” Neves said.

He uses that experience to teach other young people about the reality of gang life.

“Nobody likes to be lied to and so when their eyes are opened that they’re being lied to that’s when they aggressive step away,“ Neves expressed.


Lt. Sasha Larkin, gang crimes bureau, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department;  Sgt. Branden Clarkson, gang crimes bureau, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department;  Ernest James, Las Vegas Power of One;  Eddie Neves, Homies for Christ

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.