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Gang assessment finds that Forsyth County doesn’t have much of a gang problem

by Eric Ginsburg

Over 30 community members and around 10 police officers gathered at United Metropolitan Baptist Church on April 4 to launch Winston- Salem’s second annual “gang awareness week.”

The press conference was the first of eight events scheduled throughout the week aiming to educate the public on gangs in Forsyth County and generate ideas to stop gang activity all together.

“Our presence lets you know we are serious about gangs in this community,” said Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who said the goal was to “wipe out and move out gangs.”

The press conference included a presentation of a countywide gang assessment by Alvin Atkinson, the executive director of the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University.

In his presentation and in the executive summary of the report, Atkinson explained that while there is a gang presence in the city, there isn’t a gang problem.

“We can now shape our strategy based on this data,” Atkinson said. “We have very little violent gang crime, and we want to keep it that way.”

The report states that nearly all gang-related offenses in Winston-Salem were vandalism (44.4 percent), followed by simple assault (11 percent). The report, which was funded by the NC Department of Juvenile Justice, does not explain how a crime was categorized as gang-related or whether it was based on arrests or convictions.

“It can be noted that serious and violent gang related crime is negligible and follows the general crime pattern in W-S,” the report says.

The report states that half of all “validated gang members” in the area are Latino while 39 percent are African-American and 8 percent are white. The report includes a ranked list of local gangs, but does not list any predominantly white gangs despite their existence.

Officer MS Wooten is the gang unit officer assigned to white gangs and extremist groups. Wooten said the National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nation and Hell’s Angels are all active in the area though they are often outside of city limits.

He said the white power groups like skinheads are better classified as extremist groups than gangs and are larger in Greensboro than in Forsyth County. The gang unit consists of nine officers assigned to various specific gangs and organizations, with most overseeing Latino gangs.

“Quite honestly the major thrust of this was towards street gangs or youth gangs,” said Atkinson, explaining why white groups were left out. “It does create that risk that when you see Hispanics you are going to think they are gang members.”

Atkinson said the police department’s gang unit drove the work.

“They try to deliver a message through taking out the leadership of gangs,” said Atkinson, describing police suppression tactics.

Gang awareness week was organized in large part by Solomon Quick, the gang reduction specialist for the Winston-Salem Police Department.

“You can solve, in large measure, your gang concerns,” Quick said in an interview. “This whole week was about solutions.”

Quick, who is a non-sworn police employee, said even though gang-related offenses are low across the county, work needs to be done to keep the numbers down.

“These are potentially gateway crimes,” he said. “There will be a progression if we’re not careful.”

At the opening event, Atkinson said that while the number of so-called validated gang members has increased, gangrelated crime has not.

Half of the events scheduled for gang awareness week were movie screenings. The final event was a screening of Finding Hope Now, a documentary about Pastor Roger Minassian and his congregation in Fresno, Calif. that helps people leave gangs and find employment. Minassian and director Harold Mead were both present for the viewing.

Peace Process was screened twice with a discussion afterwards with writer and executive producer Katina Parker aimed at youth to generate solutions to gangs and gang crime. The list of events also included a showing of 18 with a Bullet, a film about Latino gangs MS-13 and -18, which was targeted at the Latino community.

On April 13, former gang member Oscco Bolten of Kansas City delivered the keynote address at Forsyth Memorial Conference Center about why people join gangs and how to deal with them.

Homicide detective Garry McFadden of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department spoke April 7 about the result of youth gang violence he has seen over and over again since his career began in 1982. McFadden said he worked 800 murder cases in his career and goes to all of the funerals.

“I’m tired of burying kids. I’ve buried enough kids to fill a school,” McFadden said. “All I want to do is save somebody’s life.”

After acknowledging that Charlotte and Winston-Salem couldn’t be less similar in their gang problems, he proceeded with an alarmist presentation that included photographs of dead teenagers to drive his point home. Some of the gruesome pictures were of local cases he worked on while others were from various cities around the country.

Towards the beginning, he warned the audience to look out for kids wearing sports hats that could be associated with gangs including the Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, LA Kings, Cincinnati Reds, LA Dodgers and more.

“When I think about kids I think about funerals,” he said.

“If you have a stop-the-violence rally all you’re doing is giving out hot dogs.”

One slide in the presentation showed a poster that said “choices” and showed a handgun and a wad of $100 bills on top of a Bible. McFadden said people often don’t realize how their choices have long-lasting effects and gave his parents’ decision to get married as an example.

Quick has been in his current position for two years but began work around gangs eight or nine years ago in Greensboro. His father was a Methodist minister in Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro, and Quick ran into the issue of gangs when he was working with the Boy Scouts. From there, someone put him in contact with his future mentor, Greensboro police Detective Ernest Cuthbertson.

“I might know one tenth of what he knows,” Quick said.

Cuthbertson gave him a deeper understanding of gangs, the risk factors and provided good context, Quick added.

David Parsons, who works for the North American Mission Board, attended the opening press conference and spoke highly of gang awareness week.

“It gives people an understanding of where our culture is going,” Parsons said. “It shows we have a gang presence and not a gang problem. We’ve got to be willing to invest our lives in these kids.”

Parsons said there are roughly 600 gang-affiliated youth in Forsyth County, less than the total number of churches. He said if one person from each church stepped forward to mentor one kid, the problem could be taken care of. Parsons works with the Christian Association of Youth Mentoring working towards that end.

“The culture of the church can fix this problem if we want to or we can put our heads in the sand,” he said. “We’ve got to wake up that sleeping giant.”

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