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Funding and support in question for anti-gang efforts

by Jordan Green

A rash of shootings involving young men during Greensboro’s long, hot summer brought gangs to the forefront of public awareness, driving new candidates and incumbents alike to pledge their commitment to tackling the problem in the recent municipal elections.

The city council created a police gang enforcement unit while declining to commit any new funding to the department. Mayor Keith Holliday called for the passage of the Street Gang Prevention Act on behalf of a coalition of mayors from across the state. The legislation died in the NC Senate appropriations committee after passing the House.

Now the city is left to sort out what combination of enforcement and prevention will stem the tide. Where to place the burden of intervention – government or churches and other voluntary institutions? Focus efforts on get-tough provisions designed to protect law-abiding citizens or apply resources towards productively engaging teenagers?

“In the most recent year and a half we’ve started to see the evidence of gang activity,” said Capt. John Wolfe, commander of the investigative support division and supervisor of the gang enforcement unit. “It’s on television and it drew attention from the media. A lot of the violence in the last year and a half has been credited to gangs, but we can’t really say that it is gangs.”

The city’s push to crack down on gang activity has generated controversy among some black leaders. A planned drug and gang awareness forum was postponed a week before the election after council members Sandy Carmany and Dianne Bellamy-Small heard concerns that the effort would focus too heavily on enforcement and amount to racial profiling. Those concerns were raised by the Greensboro branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Rev. Gregory Headen.

In a mass e-mail circulated on Nov. 18, Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes leveled criticism at Darryl Kosciak, a Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department employee who heads up the city’s gang prevention efforts.

“Darryl does not have a comprehensive approach to the gang issue,” Hayes wrote. “He has a narrow perspective and without a greater understanding and integration regarding race and poverty, he and others can be very harmful to the youth and the communities suffering most from this condition.”

She added, “The NAACP, African-American school board members, African-American county commissioners, members of the clergy and many members of the anti-racism black and white caucuses have taken a position against the content of these presentations.”

Capt. Wolfe addressed the notion of racial profiling at the rescheduled forum, which was held at the Odeon Theater in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Nov. 19.

“We’ve been accused of targeting,” he said. “I want you to understand we don’t target anyone. We investigate crimes. And if our investigation leads us to your kid, then so be it. We are much more about saving that child than introducing that child into a criminal justice system that will likely fail them.”

Headen, who serves as president of the Pulpit Forum, a coalition of black pastors, said his initial apprehension that the presentation would give undue weight to enforcement was relieved.

“I heard Capt. Wolfe say, “We want to put bad persons that are an influence on young people behind bars,'” Headen said. “As president of the Pulpit Forum, we want to talk about, how can the churches get more involved? We have a tremendous role to play. We’ve got space. We need to get our hands on young people that have an influence on other young people.”

Presenters at the Nov. 19 forum expressed a consensus view that funneling juvenile offenders into the North Carolina prison system is a poor solution to the city’s gang problem. How to differentiate between those who actively conspire to operate criminal enterprises and young people banding together for protection or self-identifying as gang members as a front seemed more difficult to nail down.

Referencing Detective Ernest Cuthbertson – described by colleagues as the police department’s “resident expert on gang behavior” – Kosciak said, “There’s suppression: Lock ’em up, lock ’em up, lock ’em up. That ain’t gonna happen. If it could, Detective Cuthbertson will tell you, California would have bottled it up and shipped it to the east.”

Police say their goal is to remove adults who draw teenagers into gangs and who exploit them for criminal purposes. At the same time, they acknowledge that some teenagers who commit felonies will inevitably end up in detention.

Wolfe alluded to the risk posed by get-tough enforcement strategies that fail to account for teenagers’ social realities.

“Not all gangs are criminal in nature,” he said. “As people emigrated or relocated to an area… as a means of self-preservation, they formed these groups. For lack of a better word, we call them “gangs.'”

Mike Richey, a sergeant in the criminal investigation division, indicated that police view gang membership as somewhat fluid.

“In the gang world,” he said, “most people consider a wannabe to be a gonna-be.”

While police have no hard numbers to quantify gang activity in Greensboro, the statistics on juvenile offenses do not quite bear out the perception that youth criminality is on the rise. The past summer certainly documents a rough patch: Numbers provided by the police department show that juvenile offenses in Greensboro leapt from 473 to 579 from April to May and then gradually tapered off to 451 in October.

The first 10 months of 2007 show a 5.2 percent increase overall in juvenile offenses over the first 10 months of the previous year, but both aggravated assaults and drug offenses are down. The rising number of juvenile offenses appears to have been driven largely by an increase in shoplifting incidents. The police department reports 791 shoplifting incidents for the year to date, compared with only 739 for the entire year of 2006.

This past summer, concerns about the proliferation of gang activity appeared to lend momentum to the Street Gang Prevention Act. The bill’s demise in the NC Senate makes it a battle for another day, and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will introduce similar legislation next year.

“My opinion is mixed,” Richey said. “It has two positives. As it was originally written, 90 percent of the funding was for prevention and intervention. Also, it puts the penalties on the gang leaders instead of the first person to come to us. There’s one gang where the [original gangster] is 44. They’re directing kids who are 14, 15 and 16. What’s negative is that it lacks specific direction on prevention and intervention.”

What’s more, Richey said, there’s no guarantee that the legislation wouldn’t sweep gang-identified teenagers into the prison system who might otherwise be diverted from a criminal lifestyle through community outreach efforts.

“With everything there is that risk,” he said. “Could it happen? Yes.”

The proposed law would create nine new offenses, and enhance sentences for misdemeanor offenses found to be committed in relation to street-gang activity. A fiscal note attached to the final edition of the Senate bill concedes that “it cannot be determined how many offenders will be charged and convicted of the various “street gang’ offenses in this bill.'”

The state legislature’s Fiscal Research Division predicted that the passage of the Street Gang Prevention Act would cost the state a minimum of $62.5 million, including $24.8 million to cover the construction costs of adding new beds and $37.7 million in additional prison operating costs for four years. “Given the number of misdemeanor offenses that could be charged as gang felonies under this bill, significant increases in man hours are anticipated for the court system,” the fiscal note states. “Cost cannot be determined at this time.”

The proposed law would have made it a crime for a person “employed with or associated with a criminal street gang” to participate in “a pattern of street gang activity” and to recruit another person to participate in a “criminal street gang.”

For the purposes of the proposed law, criminal street gang is defined as “a group of three or more persons, having one of its primary activities the commission of felony offenses… that has a common name, identifying sign or symbol.”

The bill cleared the House by a wide margin and with bipartisan support in July, passing 109 to 4. Among the dissenters was Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro. Guilford County lawmakers who voted to approve the bill included Reps. Alma Adams, John Blust, Maggie Jeffus, Earl Jones and Laura Wiley. Jones is a member of the NAACP. After proceeding to the Senate, the bill died in the Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget, which is co-chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan, a Guilford County Democrat.

The absence of action by the state has placed the burden of tackling gang activity on the incoming city council and on community volunteers. While directing the police to address gang activity, the city council has allocated no new funding. The gang enforcement unit was formed by reallocating resources. The only new spending on the anti-gang initiative, said city spokeswoman Cindy Briggs, was a $3,000 expenditure by Capt. Wolfe for office furniture.

Both Kosciak, the parks and recreation employee, and the police officers present at the forum stressed that those most likely to be victimized by gang activity are the teenagers attracted to the lifestyle.

“In the last two years I’ve done more trainings at Duke Hospital, Moses Cone and Alamance Regional,” Cuthbertson said. “Kids are coming in with unexplained injuries. You ask them, “Who did this to you?’ They said, “I don’t know. Some dude.’ If they would say who it was then we could stop the next assault.”

Kosciak has been tasked with reaching Greensboro’s teenagers before they end up enmeshed in the criminal justice system by coordinating a patchwork of volunteer efforts.

“We need an outreach team before they get arrested, before they get suspended,” Kosciak said. “They’re on the fringes. You’ve got to go to them. If you take gangs away from them, you’ve got to put something back. You can’t say, “Don’t be in a gang; good luck to you.’ Ain’t gonna happen.”

Kosciak, formerly a UNCG basketball coach, indicated that developing relationships with responsible adults is the crucial factor in steering teenagers away from gangs.

“You don’t need to be concerned about all the teens in the city; you need to be concerned with the teens on your street,” he said. “It starts with saying hello. Maybe have a program at your church, some music or something. Have some pizza. Then maybe, maybe you’re the person they come to when things are going down that they need to talk about.”

The parks and recreation department’s anti-gang initiative, whose moniker is Project Hope, has made a modest start by getting Greensboro Rotary Clubs to sponsor a free basketball league at Peeler Recreation Center. Kosciak hopes other clubs will step forward to pick up the tab for athletic activities fees at recreation centers across the city.

A summer youth employment program also remains an unfulfilled goal. Kosciak proposes that Greensboro businesspeople cooperate to provide 500 summer jobs.

“We talked to the Greensboro Merchants Association and the chamber of commerce, and we couldn’t get over the who and the how,” Kosciak said. “We put in an application with Leadership Greensboro, and they’re going to get back to us with the who and the how.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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