PATTERSON -- A forum Thursday night to discuss law enforcement drew high emotions, with residents speaking about their fear of increasing gang activity in this growing community and the Sheriff's Department response to the problem.
About 50 people gathered at the Westside Resource Center for the discussion, which was organized in response to complaints that sheriff's deputies are harassing teenagers by stopping or detaining them without reason.
But it was gangs at the forefront of the discussion.
Several residents said they have seen gang activity balloon in recent years, to the point where parents don't want to allow their children outside after dark in certain neighborhoods.
Detective Ed Meraz told the group that most of the gang members are coming to Patterson from the Bay Area, and a new gang has formed in the last two years that has compounded the problem. Called the Runners, it is a mixed-race gang that started in the Heartland Ranch subdivision in Patterson and is attempting to take over the west side of town, he said.
About 13 variations of gangs with roughly 250 members are in Patterson, Meraz said. Tension between those groups has escalated recently, he said, and deputies have increased their vigilance in response.
Some in the audience wondered if the deputies are targeting all teenagers, rather than just those with gang ties.
A 17-year-old Patterson High School student said he felt he was unfairly questioned by a deputy when he was told to sit on the ground while the deputy paced around him for 20 minutes.
"To be labeled a Norteño didn't make me happy at all," said Leo Reynoso, who said he is a good student and athlete.
Other teenagers said that they had become so used to being stopped that they have memorized the deputies' routines.
Dave DeLaRosa, 20, said he has been pulled over so many times that "it doesn't bug me anymore." But the last time he was pulled over, the deputy allegedly yelled and cursed at him before driving away, DeLaRosa said.
Patterson contracts with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for police services.
Sheriff Adam Christianson, a member of the panel along with Police Chief Tyrone Spencer, said deputies have a duty to stop and talk to teenagers. Having a heavy police presence around parks or other places where there may be gang activity helps to deter crime, he said.
Mayor Becky Campo said that the issues between residents and deputies may be a reflection of the changing community as it experiences growing pains.
"There may be some overzealousness in our police officers in certain situations," said Campo. She said she hoped the forum will spark some changes in the department, adding that she believes the police chief heard the audience's message "loud and clear."
"Maybe the police chief needs to take back to the department a little more professionalism in dealing with people," Campo said.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at email@example.com or 238-4574.