The scenario is familiar to gang cops in Salt Lake City: An officer sees a teen hanging out with older known gang members in a neighborhood, flashing gang signs or wearing gang colors to declare an allegiance.
The officer questions the teen, ready to document his or her identity in a database designed to help law enforcement track who is connected to a specific gang. But before the officer can file a card about the suspect’s identity — complete with a photograph — he or she must find out the person’s age.
When a child is 14 or under, an officer can’t photograph or fingerprint the child without a court order, according to Utah law.
Police say those restrictions are making it problematic to document juvenile gang members at a time when gangs are recruiting increasingly younger protégés. Now the Governor’s Gang Task Force is researching potential changes to the law, in part after the Salt Lake City police suggested the group take up the issue.
“A lot of times, kids give false information when you’re just talking to them,” said Salt Lake City police Deputy Chief Terry Fritz. “A change in law that would allow officers to photograph juveniles would help police on the street more quickly identify who they are interacting with.”
Police could more easily direct children to gang-intervention programs if officers can identify them with photos, Fritz said.
But efforts to change the law could meet swift opposition from those who fear documenting juveniles could lead to falsely labeling them as gang members — a designation that could haunt them later in life, when they may have left bad associates behind.
Utah’s current law took effect in 1996, around the same time a host of other juvenile legislation passed. Included was the Serious Youth Offender Act, which allows kids to be tried as adults for certain offenses.