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Federal money and research model yield underwhelming data on Guilford gangs

by Jordan Green

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Jorge Cornell, leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, poses a question during a presentation on gangs in Guilford County. (photo by Jordan Green)

A new report paid for by federal stimulus funding finds that the two largest areas of criminal activities by young people associated with gangs in Guilford County are vandalism and drug-related offenses.

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Guilford County was one of 70 across the state that received federal stimulus funding through the NC Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to assess gang activities and develop programmatic responses through. The Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships at UNCG was chosen by three local agencies, Youth Focus, One Step Further and Guilford County Court Alternatives, to conduct the assessment. Out of a total grant of $136,000, $20,000 was spent on the report, said department spokesman William Lassiter, and $116,000 remains to be spent on a strategic plan.

Researchers were required to follow a model developed by the US Justice Department as a condition of accepting the funding.

“When they apply for this money, the request for proposals said they have to follow the comprehensive gang model, which was developed by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice,” Lassiter said.

By compiling data from local law enforcement agencies, researchers at the Center found that 1.29 per thousand criminal charges in Greensboro were gang related, while 1.15 crimes per thousand charges in High Point were gang related. Yet the report found that a higher share of gang-related criminal charges in High Point — 15 percent — were violent offenses, compared to only 10 percent in Greensboro.

Researcher Kelly Graves acknowledged that the report does not examine the breakdown of all criminal charges against youth, which would reveal whether gang-affiliated youth are committing different types of crimes than their freelance counterparts. The study indicates that 23 percent of the charges against gang-affiliated youth in Guilford County in 2009 were for vandalism, followed by 21 percent for drug related offenses, 16 percent for property offenses, 15 percent for other types of offenses, 12 percent for violent offenses, 7 percent for weapons and 6 percent for assaults.

Although she did not have local statistics at her command, Graves said after a presentation at the Old County Courthouse in Greensboro that gang-affiliated offenders tend to be more violent.

“With youth crimes, there’s a heavy emphasis on property-related crimes and drug offenses,” she said. “Usually, gang-related crimes tend to be the more violent ones.”

A survey conducted for the report found that 40.8 percent of young people said there were gangs present in their neighborhoods, while almost a third said there were places in their neighborhoods “where it isn’t safe to go because of gangs and gang members.”

Almost half of youth respondents said gangs in their neighborhood provide protection for each other.

“If a youth doesn’t feel safe and they perceive the gangs as providing protection for one another, that gives a really good reason to move in that direction,” said Amanda Ireland, another researcher.

The report indicates that the majority of gang-related individuals are African-American males, and that Bloods comprise the largest share of gang members in both Greensboro and High Point. The definition of “gang” used in the research model developed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention excludes motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, ideological gangs and hate groups composed primarily of adults.

At least one member of the sponsoring agencies, a mentoring program coordinator named Amanda Cox with Youth Focus, was surprised to find that members of a group validated as a gang by local and federal law enforcement showed up for the presentation.

Jorge Cornell, leader of the NC Latin Kings, asked the presenters why they counted charges rather than convictions in their breakdown of offenses, adding that he has been charged numerous times, but only convicted of about 1 or 2 percent of misdemeanor charges and never convicted of a felony in Guilford County.

“The reason we started with the charge data is we wanted to cast a wide net, so we could understand worst case scenario — how bad could it be?” Ireland said. “We even see with just the charges — we do see a very low rate of gang-related crime. For Greensboro, it’s 1.29 per thousand and for High Point it’s 1.15 per thousand. That’s based on charge data. So we know that most likely smaller for actual arrests and convictions.”

Cornell has been working with the Beloved Community Center and the Pulpit Forum over the past two and a half years to broker a peace agreement among street organizations and redirect gang members from criminal activity, but most of his time and energy has been taken up with protesting an intense suppression campaign against his group by the Greensboro Police Department’s gang enforcement unit. Recently, Cornell, who is unemployed, has started a business to make and sell candy. The Beloved Community Center issued a white paper in January 2009 called “Paradigm Shift: A Proposal to Engage Street Groups or ‘Gangs’ As A Potential Resource for Safe Communities, Justice Making and Justice Building.”

Joseph Frierson cautioned the presenters against using the term “suppression tactics,” noting that it has negative connotations with some members of the community.

“A lot of times some of those suppression tactics that are being used by police departments across the nation really are kind of infringing on some level of civil liberties of some of our young people when it comes to getting them fired from jobs, when it comes to going to employers saying, ‘Do you know this person’s a part of this organization?’ That person may be a working youth in a shoe store or whatever and these civil liberties are being infringed upon in the name of suppression tactics.”

The NC Latin Kings have a Title VI civil rights claim pending against the Greensboro Police Department.

Frierson asked if the steering committee tasked with formulating a strategic plan might include members of street organizations who are trying to make a positive contribution to their communities.

“The table is open,” Graves responded. “It would be a great thing if the collaborative that we have is huge.”

Graves indicated that Guilford County’s experience with youth gangs falls somewhat short of a full-blown crisis.

“This information is not a cause for panic, but a call for community action,” she said. “We’re not immune from youth gang-related activity.”

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