Zimmer: ‘Gang activity is infectious’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Zimmer: ‘Gang  activity is infectious’With a continued rise in crime across the Indian Wells Valley, Kern County and the state of California — coupled with diminishing resources for law enforcement and criminal justice — safety continues to be an issue of paramount concern to the public.

One of the most important tools for keeping communities safe? Keeping gangs from getting a foothold, according to Cynthia Zimmer, supervising deputy district attorney in charge of gang-related criminal prosecution in Kern County.

“In the gang unit we handle the most difficult cases,” Zimmer told members and guests of the Ridgecrest Exchange Club last week. “They are difficult to prosecute, their crimes are the most deadly, the cases are very complicated and the witnesses are always reluctant to testify.”

When she began her career with the Kern County District Attorney’s Office some 33 years ago, there was no gang unit — “because there was no need for one.” Now her team accounts for the largest staff in the department.

“We have a gang problem in Kern County, even though we don’t have one in Ridgecrest. But we didn’t used to have one in Bakersfield, either.

“You need to be aware of the signs in your schools, in your shopping centers, in your communities, because gang activity is infectious. When we see signs we stomp it out. We don’t want to happen here what happened in Bakersfield, Shafter, Arvin, Wasco and Delano.”

She gave her audience a brief history of how gangs got entrenched in the metropolitan areas of the county. Decades ago, members of both the Bloods and Crips — two of California’s most violent rival gangs — began appearing in Bakersfield.

“The Crips dominated in Bakersfield,” said Zimmer. “But they had to fight someone, so they split into three gangs.”

Each faction has its own territory, its own signature shade of blue and distinct membership.

Historically the Crips are considered an African American gang, she said, “but if you are white, Hispanic or mixed race, and you grow up in one of their territories, you can be a member of their gangs.”

In the interest of time she glossed over Kern’s Hispanic gang network, but she noted those gangs share territory with the Crips and have primary control of the illegal drug trade within the county.

One of the three factions of Crips is the West Side Crips, which identifies itself with turquoise. Their territory encompasses some of the most wealthy neighborhoods, inspiring envy in the two opposing factions.

West Side is also the biggest gang, and the most deadly.

“The Country Boy Crips is my least favorite gang,” she said. “I’ve personally prosecuted many of them, but they are the hardest to convict.”

She said that they are among the best shots of the known criminal networks within the county, and they have a relentless hold on potential witnesses — which makes it difficult to gather testimonies. Their preferred shade is powder blue.

During her presentation she showed a photo of a large gathering of the East Side Crips, another formidable gang, decked out in royal blue. “How many of you personally know a young person who was murdered?” asked Zimmer. “Every one of these individuals in this photo knows of 10, 15 people their age who were murdered.”

She went through the different monickers, tattoos and signs each of the factions use to identify themselves and their alliances.

“It all seems so silly,” she said. “I almost want to laugh when I’m saying these things in court, but it’s too deadly to be funny.”

She pointed to the dividing line on a map between two of the rival gangs. That area has become notorious for drive-by shootings and other acts of violence — many of which have killed and maimed innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire.

Some of the gang members who were murdered by their rivals spark retaliatory attacks that go on for years. That is where Zimmer and her associates come in — if they can successfully prove guilt, and gang affiliation for a criminal, that will add time to the sentence.

“Any day you can keep a gangmember in jail, you are keeping them off the streets.”

Zimmer and her staff know their gangsters, and keep close watch over the scenes of frequent acts of violence — which include smoking shops and marijuana dispensaries, where members typically loiter.

“These people are no joke. You do not want this here in your community, you don’t want these people in your schools. The best they have to look forward to in this life is prison or death.”

Zimmer said that Kern County has made some headway in mitigating the Crips through the Bakersfield Safe Streets partnership. Nonprofit agencies meet with members of gangs and, without judgement, ask what they can do to help get them out — whether that means finding a job, getting an education or even getting a driver’s license.

“That has also opened up a lot of communication and trust,” she said. “We want them to understand that law enforcement is not bad.”

Whether the department is gaining or losing ground in criminal activity is much more difficult to measure.

“We know that 2016 was a record year for homicides. This year our gun seizures are up, and our shootings are down. But how do you say, except by the numbers, what you have been able to prevent?” asked Zimmer. “It’s very difficult to say whether it’s better, but I can tell you it would be a lot worse if we didn’t try.”

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood often cites Ridgecrest as the largest population in the state without gang activity. Zimmer was asked whether it would stay that way if the KCSO continued to diminish its force in the Indian Wells Valley.

“That is a concern,” she said. “Luckily, you have a great police force with the Ridgecrest Police Department. We love working with them, and we think they are really on top of public safety in your community.

“But you do have a reduced number of deputies in unincorporated areas, and that is something you will have to watch.”

She said that Rosamond is one example of a rural community where evidence of Los Angeles gangsters is beginning to appear.

“I think, though, the much bigger problems than the lack of law enforcement are the decriminalization trends coming out of Sacramento,” said Zimmer.

Since 2009 the state legislature has begin emptying prisons, declassifying felonies and reducing sentencing guidelines and enhancements for prosecutors.

Another movement proposes to eliminate the bail system. “It used to be if someone was dangerous, you could keep them in custody. Now they want to release someone with an ankle monitor.”

While these laws have been aimed at protecting the accused, the result has been increased risk to the public. “We’ve got to start a movement,” said Zimmer. “That would be great if we could start it in Kern County.”

Pictured: Cynthia Zimmer, supervising deputy district attorney for gang-related prosecution, shows some of the signs her division uses to identify gang members. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-09-29