3 Gilbert Council members want teen violence panel | News

By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
12 Min Read

Gilbert residents want answers on the random violent beatings of teens in town by peers that have gone on for some time without repercussion and now three Town Council members want answers too.

Scott Anderson, Chuck Bongiovanni and Jim Torgeson are heeding the community’s plea by proposing a subcommittee to look at teen violence in Gilbert, recently crowned second safety municipality in the nation by the FBI. The item is expected to be on Tuesday’s council agenda, but was not as of last Friday.

“I really want to see what the scope of issue is,” Bongiovanni said. “Is it limited to this group of kids or more widespread than that?

“We were waiting for the mayor to take a leadership role last month,” he added. “She did absolutely nothing so I gave Scott and Jim a call, ‘lets take a look at scope of the issue – look over some policies and talk to the community a little bit and see if we all can come up with some recommendations.’ This isn’t a witch hunt of any kind. We just want to look at the issue.”

Bongiovanni agreed that the problem of teen violence could have been handled internally with Gilbert Police but he said the public “would feel a little bit better if they were involved.”

A number of people are blaming both Queen Creek and Gilbert police departments for Preston Lord’s death and several beatings of teens by other teens that have occurred in the East Valley. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

The impetus behind the public’s demand for action stemmed from the October fatal beating death of Preston Lord, a 16-year-old Queen Creek teen at a Halloween party in his town. 

Many people on social media have accused teens dubbed the Gilbert Goons of responsibility for Preston’s death and the other beatings. 

 Community members took to social media, staged marches and spoke before councils in Queen Creek and Gilbert, demanding justice for Preston and requesting that the two police departments continue to investigate teen violence in their towns.

 In late December, two months after Preston’s death, Queen Creek Police  submitted charges to the Maricopa County Attorney against seven unnamed suspects. That office has not said when its review will be done.

Gilbert Police Chief Michael Soelberg last month told Gilbert Council that the department recently learned about the Gilbert Goons on social media and that there currently are no cases with a connection to the group. 

Soelberg last week touched briefly on the teen violence in town at the annual legislative meeting attended by state Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, and state Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler. 

  “Just want to ensure you we have been on top of all of our cases,” Soelberg said. “We have reopened a couple of case and we opened new cases based on some new information we have. 

“We have some cases that were never reported and some where people are refusing to help with the prosecution. With our cases we have investigated, we have made a lot of arrests.”

The police department has made no public announcements of arrests.

Petersen asked specific questions about the Gilbert Goons, including if the chief felt that all the individuals involved with the group was being investigated or whether some remain unknown.

Preston’s death has resonated throughout the Valley among teens and parents alike, as this photo from the Gilbert march shows. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

Soelberg responded that there were multiple investigations going on and when the Queen Creek suspects are identified, his department can then look for links among the cases.   

 “Most of the offenders that we have arrested or even some of our victims and witnesses – we’re not seeing the same people. We are seeing similar behavior, sometimes similar locations but not the same people each time.

“So it’s not a defined group, it’s not a defined practice or pattern.”

 Soelberg said he couldn’t comment on Queen Creek’s case but that his department is looking forward to the case being adjudicated and people being held responsible. He stressed that his department is not just looking at the Gilbert Goons but all teen violence in town. 

He also said there is a lot of misinformation circulating in the community, which makes the job tougher for police.

“People are putting out addresses and a lot of times it’s wrong, it’s misinformation they’ve heard and posting,” he said. “Lot of our efforts is combating that misinformation and investigating those incidents.”

Anderson declined to go into depth on the trio’s proposal, saying it would be discussed Tuesday. He added that parents have made “many great suggestions” on addressing the issue.

Torgeson said he envisioned the subcommittee would look at everything to see if there is anything the town can do to help and to look for “any failures to make sure it never happens again.”

 According to Torgeson, people are saying on social media that they warned police about pending attacks on teens via the Town’s Gilbert 311 app and that nothing was done to prevent them. He said the committee would verify if that was the situation.

“It’s about transparency,” Torgeson said. “They need to know that what they’ve said is being taken seriously and is looked at. I don’t think there is a grand, specific goal than complete transparency and accountability.”

 Torgeson said improvements could mean a simple policy change in how police report crime involving minors.

 “They never made an arrest and so there’s no profile on it, no description of a kid with brass knuckles,” he said.

According to media reports, the Gilbert Goons used brass knuckles in their assaults.

“The public is freaked out,” Torgeson said. “I want to make sure public concern is addressed immediately, truthfully and factually and if we can do something to improve the process we are going to do it.”

 Torgeson and Bongiovanni also hope that the formation of the subcommittee would help sort out facts from rumors for the community.

The two haven’t given thought to how many people would sit on the subcommittee or how often it would meet as it has to be approved first by council. Bongiovanni said he and Anderson would likely serve with Anderson chairing the group because he is the senior member on council.

Bongiovanni said he wanted to see Mayor Brigette Peterson step up to alleviate the public’s concerns.

“You have to react if there’s a public outcry whether it’s positive or negative,” he said. “You have to get involved with the public if there’re issues.”

Council did issue a joint statement condemning hate and violence in the community, a day after a group of mothers spoke up before the council.

Torgeson also called out Peterson for her inaction.

For instance, he said, when some people began accusing the police of helping protect the Gilbert Goons because no arrests were made, he issued a statement to the media defending Gilbert Police. 

“The mayor said nothing,” Torgeson said. “I was hoping the mayor was going to at least say something. I trust the police and there will be an arrest.”

 Peterson disputed the councilmen’s criticism.

She said that she is in contact with Soelberg and Assistant Chief Jim Bisceglie for appropriate updates.

“I have responded to all media inquiries,” she added.

Her office connected with Gilbert Police for “insight into where things stood to ensure resident emails to my town email and the council members’ email (on this topic) were responded to accurately, consistently and compassionately,” Peterson said in an email.

She said it was also her office that finalized the unified statement condemning the violence, which was reviewed by each council member. 

And, she said, Soelberg was prepared to address the topic at the Dec. 12 meeting and was provided the chance to do so using legal meeting protocols.

“My words and actions remain unwavering in my support of the Gilbert Police Department, their investigations and my expectation that violence is not tolerated in our community,” Peterson said. “I am committed to fulfilling my role as an elected official in working with town staff and the Gilbert Town Council and my efforts remain focused on that which serves our residents. 

“I always look forward to discussing all things Gilbert with residents, staff, elected and community leaders.”  

 If the council approves the subcommittee, it’s a move the town has resorted to previously.

Shortly after the 1999 brutal beating of an 18-year-old teenager that left him disfigured by a white supremacist group of local high schoolers called the Devil Dogs, then-Mayor Cynthia Dunham convened a Diversity Task Force. The Devil Dogs were mainly affluent jocks from Highland High School who terrorized the community.

The task force recommended the formation of a Human Relations Commission or HRC, which first met in 2001 but dissolved in 2017.

The HRC was resurrected in 2020 in response to weekly protests between police supporters and black lives proponents during the summer not far from town hall.

The group morphed into The Community Engagement Task Force, with the mission to address social welfare issues in Gilbert.  

By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor www.gilbertsunnews.com

2024-01-08 07:00:00 , www.gilbertsunnews.com – Vivrr Local Results in news of type article

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