An Acts Matter Essay

As a criminal justice professional, I am often asked, "Is there really a gang problem in Jackson County?" The simple answer is yes. The question that usually follows is, "Should I be worried?"

Understanding the signs and supporting zero-tolerance approaches can prevent a problem from turning into an epidemic.

Many see the signs every day. The tagging on a stop sign or the red, black or blue spray paint on a fence, building or home. These are evidence of gang presence. Members are announcing their ownership of the turf.

Although research points to three various types of members — the hard-core, the associate or the peripherals — most gang members identify, join and dominate neighborhoods through levels of corruption. The violence committed can vary with the appetite for turf and criminality.

For many years, the field of criminal justice struggled with a common definition for the word "gang." Today, gangs are generally defined as an association of individuals that has a name and recognizable symbols, a geographic territory, a regular meeting pattern, and an organized continuous course of criminality.

In Jackson County, law enforcement officials have worked together since 2009 to combat gangs through a multi-jurisdictional task force known as MADGE (Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement). The task force pulls together some of the best trained and equipped officers to assist our community in knowing what to do and who to call when gang activity is an issue.

In our community, gang violence is not tolerated, not even on the gang-to-gang level. Graffiti and hand signals also bring in an array of problems that range from irritation to economic and urban blight. Often costly and time-consuming, cleaning up graffiti has been a joint effort between the police force and the community.

Without community support, the cycle of gang activity will continue and eventually lead to delinquents joining their fellow gang members in ranks behind bars.

Please join the conversation after a panel discussion on "Gang-related Crime Trends in Southern Oregon and Prospects for Hope" on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Higher Education Center in Medford and learn how you can make a difference in gang activity in our community.

Lee Ayers, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the former chairwoman of the Criminology & Criminal Justice Department at Southern Oregon University. She has also been a Southern California law enforcement officer and a K-12 teacher.