In The News

DA candidate Zimmer talks cannabis and gangs

The Daily Independent | May 12, 2018

Kern County prosecutor Cynthia Zimmer wants to be the county’s next District Attorney. She is running for the job as the county’s top prosecutor against Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman in the upcoming election, but that’s not what she was at the Rotary Club of China Lake meeting to talk about on May 2.

Instead, Zimmer gave a fact-filled presentation about gangs, marijuana dispensaries, and trends in Kern County crime to a riveted room.

Zimmer has worked for Kern County for 33 years, been a supervisor for 20, and has headed the gang unit for 11 years. During her tenure she had handled every type of criminal case ranging from narcotics to sexual crimes and homicides, and has prosecuted some of Kern County’s most notorious criminals, including the East Side Rapist Billy Ray Johnson and serial killer Kerry Hastings.

“I have been doing this for a long time. I have tried a lot of different types of cases,” she said.

Zimmer jumped right into her topic.

“When I started in 1984, we didn’t have a gang unit. What does that say about our culture and the way crime has gone?” she asked rhetorically.

Zimmer said gangs got started in Bakersfield during the 1980s when L.A. gang members came out to live with family in that area.

Now, however, “there are a lot of different types of gang members in Kern County and they are usually race-based,” she said. She added it depends upon the neighborhood.

Zimmer said Kern County has white gangs, African-American gangs, Hispanic gangs and some Asian gangs. She said gangs are essentially male in Kern County, although women may assist with hiding guns and lying to get welfare while allowing male gang members to live with them.

She said there is not a big problem with white gangs in Kern County right now, although Rosamond and Oildale do have some. East Bakersfield, East Kern and Rosamond have African American gangs.

“Hispanic gangs are the most plentiful and are numerous throughout Kern County.”

Her presentation focused largely on African American gangs, but she said the information applied to all gangs.

According to Zimmer, 2017 was the deadliest year on record for Kern County with 101 homicides, the majority of them gang-related.

Consequently, gang unit is the biggest unit and deals with the majority of murders and violent felonies such as robberies and carjackings.

An important part of the prosecution is proving crimes are gang-related. She said what is called a “gang enhancement” significantly increases crime penalties by enhancing sentences. Gang-related murders, for example, can bring the death penalty because the gang enhancement is considered a special circumstance under the law.

The prosecutors are on the lookout for what she called “indicia of gang membership,” evidence that can prove association with a gang.

Some of these indicators include history of past bookings and the location inmates ask to be booked; tattoos; monikers or nicknames; clothing; associates; gang territories; involvement in gang crimes; and admissions of past gang affiliation or activities.

A relatively new area used to ID gang members is social media.

“Gang members can’t stay off the phone and they can’t stay off Facebook,” Zimmer said. “We have been able to lead to successful arrests and prosecutions of dangerous people based on social media.”

She gave many examples of gang members showing a surprising lack of caution on social media, posting photos with evidence as well as shooting videos of raps describing crimes.

Zimmer gave a little bit of information about the gang lifestyle.

“What do gang members do? They don’t stay home and smoke weed all day and play video games, although they do that a lot of the time. But that’s not their primary criminal activity.”

She said their criminal activities do include murder, attempted murder, drive-by shootings, robbery, residential burglaries, carjacking, narcotics sales, weapons violations and witness intimidation.

She said drive-by shootings are actually falling out of favor with some gangs, who now prefer walk-up shootings instead.

She said gangs also “like to steal guns during residential burglaries, because they can’t go to gun stores and buy guns. A gun to a gang member is like a hammer to a carpenter,” she said.

Zimmer said financing methods for gangs have changed.

“They used to sell dope to finance the gang. Now they steal, and guns are a great commodity for them.”

She said in their off-hours gang members like to hang around marijuana dispensaries. She noted that Ridgecrest might want to take note of this information if the time comes to consider putting in a “pot shop.”

According to Zimmer, gang members make up a huge proportion of people frequenting marijuana dispensaries.

“I will tell you, the customers in pot shops are gang members. They are not [all] people who are sick, although some may [be],” she said. Zimmer added that the most frequent customers of marijuana dispensaries “are physically well people between the ages of 18 and 24, male, who come up and buy marijuana.”

She said in Bakersfield, this leads to frequent gang fights and shoot-outs when the rival gang members encounter each other in the dispensary parking lots.

Zimmer explained a lot of the disputes as follows: “disrespect has to be settled with a shooting.” She said gang members keep long lists of the back and forth killings, and deify dead members.

“If you get killed by a rival gang member you are in elevated status in the hood,” she said. “If you get killed by a cop you are a martyr.”

She noted that gang members have an encyclopedic memory for the various events and are always keeping score.

“They can’t tell you geography or history or who were the presidents but they can sure tell you who got killed five years ago and what happened.”

According to Zimmer, killed gang members are commemorated by others in the gang with “dead homie tattoos” and “dead homie shirts.”

Zimmer said, “I am not trying to be disrespectful. These are their terms. If somebody dies, they get ‘dead homie shirts.’ ”

Of course, lots of people get tattoos including memorial tattoos for humans, and even pets. Gang tattoos are very specific, however. And according to Zimmer, part of her job is knowing how to “read” gang tattoos and graffiti and distinguish them from other types of tattoos and graffiti.

In addition to the memorial ones, other popular gang tattoos include showing pride of the gang and disrespecting a rival gang.

Gang graffiti can have similar meanings, as well as a complicated symbol system tracking murders by crossing out certain letters in spray painted words. Deciphering this language is an important part of tracking the social criminal history of an area, according to Zimmer.

“Graffiti is the newspaper of the gang,” she said.

Not to be confused with gang graffiti, however, is the puffy writing associated with street graffiti artists she said. This is not usually gang-related.

Zimmer spoke a little bit about the future of marijuana dispensaries in Kern County, as well as the recent past.

She noted that it is currently illegal to have marijuana dispensaries in Kern County “except for a few that are being given a little bit more time.”

However, she said, if that changes the district attorneys will follow the law.

“If if is determined at some point that marijuana dispensaries are legal, of course we will abide by that.”

She said marijuana dispensaries, however, have brought a slew of problems to the Bakersfield area.

“In Bakersfield it has always been illegal to have pot dispensaries, but in October of 2017 we had 70 of them.” They were dealt with for years with cease and desist orders, she said, but in October and November of last year the Bakersfield Police Department got warrants and shut 68 down.

What they found in the process, according to Zimmer, were illegal firearms, cocaine, “an enormous amount of money and gang members running the pot shops.”

California marijuana dispensaries operate on a cash-only basis due to federal regulations, so “pot shops” are also robbed so frequently their nickname is “gangster ATMs,” Zimmer said.

She said that between robberies and homicides in the parking lots the city of Bakersfield received 1,500 calls for service in and around marijuana dispensaries in 2016.

Zimmer said, ironically, Ridgecrest has not seen that much of her in recent years because of the relative lack of gang activity here.

“You cannot let something like this happen in Ridgecrest. Because it is like a cancer. It spreads and it is infectious,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of gang activity out here and if we see it we come out and stomp it out.”

Asked by a member of the group if Ridgecrest has any active gangs, Zimmer said there are a few issues but “the answer overall is no.” She chalked this up to the efforts of the Ridgecrest Police Department. “You have a really good police department here.”

She urged positive steps to help prevent gangs from getting a foothold. Kids are starting younger and younger with gangs she said. Gangs have been known to recruit children as young as 12.

“We used to go to the high schools for gang prevention. Now we go to the grammar schools.”

As for prevention, she urged education and mentoring. She said people join gangs for three primary reasons: looking for a family, lack of success in other areas in life, and because their actual family members are already gang members.

She urged people to “watch out for signs and symbols and reach out and mentor.” She said positive attention and success can go a long way to preventing a young person from adopting the gang lifestyle.

She referenced the Rotary Club, who was holding the luncheon she was speaking at, urging Rotarians and other organizations seek out younger members.

“Get more young people into service organizations to mentor and become their family.”

Zimmer is a graduate of Cal State Bakersfield and Loyola Law School. She has been married for 30 years and has two adult children. She is a founding member of the Bakersfield Safe Streets partnership, which is a non-profit in which she actively works with clergy in the community to help young people turn away from crime and build law-abiding lives.

View Original Publication: The Daily Independent