Motorcycle gangs have a presence in Manatee County, police say

MANATEE -- In the wake of the fatal shootout May 17 between rival outlaw motorcycle gangs in Waco, Texas, local law enforcement officials acknowledge the existence of several biker gangs in Manatee County, but say events like Waco's are not a regular occurrence.

"I don't want to say there are new concerns since Texas, because those concerns are just always relevant with any gangs, not just bikers. But when something like that does happen, it's certainly a reminder to everyone that they are violent individuals," said Bradenton police detective Ben Pieper. "Not every person that rides a motorcycle is a violent individual, but outlaw motorcycle gang members are extremely violent individuals."

The Bradenton Police Gang Unit is aware of at least six active outlaw motorcycle gangs in Manatee County, he said. Illegal activity by OMGs, as they are referred to by police, usually involves narcotics and assaults.

Conflicts among OMGs is usually over territory as was the case in Waco. Groups claim stakes to Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota, Pieper said.

Detectives with the gang unit have a professional relationship with the gangs, Pieper said.

"Not every member will talk to us out in the open, which is understandable. A gang member's rule is not to talk to law enforcement," Pieper said. "If they are going to host an event, often times they will reach out to us and let us know. If we reach out to them, they will usually put us in touch with a spokesman who will talk to us to make sure everything goes smooth."

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office said it hasn't had recent issues with the three clubs it monitors, said spokesman Dave Bristow.

"We've had a good rapport with them over the years. We're certainly aware of what

happened in Texas and will take necessary precautions here without going into detail what that would be."

In Palmetto, Police Chief Scott Tyler said the department is aware of gang members who either live there or who regularly pass through the city.

"We have a presence in Palmetto, but we have no active cases with them," Tyler said.

Tyler said officers have casual conversations with assumed gang members.

"We've had some talks reminding the officers about officer safety and that these folks are known to be violent," Tyler added.

Nationwide, gang membership and violence is on the rise, detectives said. Locally, outlaw motorcycle gangs are also increasing. OMGs, however, are diverse with the fastest-growing membership now in the African-American community.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs share similarities with street gangs.

"They are still secretive, they have their colors, insignia and everything else, but they understand that the sheer random acts of violence are not good for business," Pieper said. "These guys, they do have jobs."

While members of the Bradenton Police Gang Unit have not yet reached out to local OMGs since the events in Waco, they say they have spoken to a few members in recent weeks regarding the situation here.

"I don't want to ever say don't worry about it, because they are gang members, but I also don't want to say don't go to your favorite watering hole and have a beer on the weekends," Pieper said. "The incidents that we have had have never been that large scale."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, contributed to this report.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.