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Police, educators contest realities, perceptions of gang problem

by Jordan Green

Joining a gang in Guilford County can result in sometimes fatal misunderstandings, but interviews with teenagers at Grimsley High School and Four Seasons Town Centre suggest that local law enforcement warnings about nationally-integrated criminal organizations of youthful predators exaggerate the scope of the problem.

The gang is supposed to have your back, but that’s not the way it worked for Stacy’s cousin, Antonio. A senior at Grimsley High School and Junior ROTC cadet who asked that her real name not be used, Stacy recalled how her cousin was shot to death in May 2000.

‘“Somebody set him up, this dude named Kevin,’” she said. ‘“My cousin came to the car, and he saw the gun and he ran, but they shot him in the head. They had a problem with something Kevin did, but [Kevin] put it on my cousin.’”

Her 17-year-old brother Donnell, also a Junior ROTC cadet at Grimsley, said: ‘“It’s a tragedy. A lot of people think of it as ‘I need protection.’ That’s what my cousin thought. He thought by him being in a gang someone was gonna have his back.’”

He added: ‘“Once you join a gang you automatically open yourself up to other people’s problems.’”

For someone like Donnell, who lives east of Martin Luther King Boulevard (Crips territory), traveling south on foot to see family and friends in Hampton Homes or Smith Homes (Bloods territory), often involves a journey of negotiated passage and self-imposed humility.

‘“They say: ‘Are you east side?”” he explained. ‘“’Yeah.’ They say: ‘We don’t intermingle.’ When we come to a neighborhood like the south, they don’t know our faces. I don’t go with a big group. I’ll just sit in my friend’s room and hang out.’”

Detective Ernest Cuthbertson, the Greensboro Police Department’s lead gang investigator, described youth street gangs as a growing threat in a presentation before the Guilford County School Board and members of the media on Oct. 25. Cuthbertson was introduced by School Safety Officer Anthony Scales as a ‘“known national expert on gangs.’”

‘“When I was growing up we dealt with neighborhood street gangs,’” said Cuthertson, who was raised in Morningside Homes. ‘“A lot of these street gangs today have adopted national names, tactics and ideology. It’s almost a test of heart where they have to prove themselves and be the keepers of the gate. Any challenge has to be answered.’”

He added: ‘“I’m not talking about just pistols. I’m talking about some significant firepower that we have difficulty as a police department combating. Kids will group together and do robberies and home invasions.’”

Cuthbertson gave the board members a slide show presenting images of gang graffiti, colors, codes, hand signals and numerology.

‘“Everything you’re seeing has come out of our schools in Guilford County,’” he said.

He rattled off the names of gangs that have cropped up in North Carolina schools: Crips, Bloods, Sureños, Mara Salvatrucha. He talked about encoded gang messages. He mentioned that marijuana and cocaine remain the drugs of choice for gang members, although Ecstasy is increasingly popular. Ritalin is being crushed and snorted, he said. The purity of heroin is increasing. Marijuana imported from California is now laced with PCP and LSD, and soaked in formaldehyde. He said Greensboro is a major hub for cocaine distribution in the eastern United States.

Taken together, the information presented an alarming picture.

School board member Deena Hayes challenged Cuthbertson’s presentation, suggesting that the police’s approach to gang problems is more about criminalization of youth than prevention and intervention.

‘“The kids that are calling me, black and Latino, these kids are looking for protection,’” she said. ‘“The coaches don’t know what to do. These kids are reaching out for assistance and they’re not getting it.

‘“Our police enforcement is totally about race,’” she added. ‘“Children who come into contact with law enforcement are 81 percent African American. The level of offenses are for minor crimes.’”

Cuthbertson bristled at the suggestion of police indifference.

‘“I’ve had the misfortune of burying ten kids that I worked with,’” he said. ‘“No one was there but me.’”

Additional criticism of Cuthbertson’s presentation came from Peeler Elementary Principal Denise Francisco when she read a news account the next day reporting a claim by the detective that gang graffiti declaring ‘“blood for life’” was spray-painted at her school.

‘“I am unaware that we have had ‘blood for life’ spray-painted on a wall at our school,’” she wrote in an e-mail. ‘“If this happened this school year the police must have cleaned it up without my knowledge (which is highly unlikely).’”

Reached by cell phone at the beginning of a vacation on Oct. 27, Cuthbertson said: ‘“It’s appearing as the police department is just pulling this stuff out of thin air. We’re not in the business of fabricating things or making things up. The principal is wrong.’”

Another board member, Amos Quick, said the principal at Aycock Middle School also publicly complained that his school was misrepresented in Cuthbertson’s presentation.

‘“Nobody’s seeing it,’” he said. ‘“I’d just like some hard information about the crimes that are allegedly being committed. There’s been no drive-bys, no colors, no turf wars.’”

Hayes said she is wary of a police-led effort to address gang activity in the schools.

‘“There’s enough racial profiling going on in our schools that that would just add to it,’” she said. ‘“You would like to see the police data. It’s so loosely tracked that it could be individual kids acting out instead of some organized gang. There’s no honor among [students who identify as gang members]. They’re very splintered. To act as though they have this sophistication is enormously distorted. I think they’re trying to build some hysteria around this.’”

Deborah Kelly, director of the Greensboro advocacy organization Centro de Accion Latino, said she believes gangs are appealing to young Latinos because they offer a way to intimidate those who might harass them.

‘“Part of the problem in the Latino community is that there are a bunch of wannabes,’” she said. ‘“I believe they are potential gang members because of the lateral racism between African-American and Latino youth is such that they are willing to become gang members just to feel like they’re being protected.’”

Anecdotal and statistical information about Asian students who identify as gang members is limited. Donnie Wilson, an 18-year-old UPS employee who attended Smith High School for his freshman and sophomore years, said Asian students sometimes band together for protection.

‘“The Asian gangs keep to themselves,’” he said. ‘“They don’t cause any trouble. They call themselves TRG ‘— Tiny Rascal Gang. If you can’t protect yourself you join a gang.’”

Wilson said he transferred to Greensboro Middle College, where he thrived, after a friend was beaten to death by a group of black students at Smith High School because he wore a Halloween costume perceived to be racist.

Cuthbertson scoffed at the suggestion that young people might display gang signs or paraphernalia to look cool or merely to discourage harassment from students of other races.

‘“When you have a group of five individuals that are committing predatory-type crimes, acting in concert, they have identified themselves as gang members,’” he said. ‘“It pretty much is as it is. You have to be blind as the oracles of Delphi not to correlate the things these kids do.’”

He added: ‘“People say this is a stigma that educators and police are putting on young people. This is part of the fabric of our community. If you look at the juvenile code, you will see younger people commit more violent and heinous crimes. Look at what the kids are getting expelled for: felony infractions, fights, possession of handguns. These are not misdemeanors. We have a more violence-prone generation.’”

Yet interviews with Greensboro teenagers and statistical data suggest that Greensboro’s gang profile hasn’t changed much from when Cuthbertson graduated from high school in the 1980s, particularly with regard to the question of the gangs’ geographic spread. Specifically, teenagers interviewed disputed Cuthbertson’s claim that Greensboro gangs are nationally networked.

‘“It’s neighborhood against neighborhood,’” Donnell said. ‘“You got certain projects battling towards each other, Crips and Bloods beefing.’”

Affinities between gang members tend to break down outside of specific housing projects or neighborhoods, he indicated.

‘“If you’re a Crip you can’t just say, ‘I’m gonna roll across town and find the other Crips,”” Donnell said. ‘“They won’t accept you. It’s not a national thing. Say you were gonna go to Jersey. Their signs might be different. The way they organize their cliques might be different. It would be more like you’ve got to start over again.’”

Donnell, whose older brother identifies with a gang, said Greensboro gang members tend to age out of their organizations by the age of 25, suggesting a lack of adult direction and coordination between branches.

‘“He did a lot of running when he was younger,’” Donnell said of his brother. ‘“He’s twenty-three. He’s got him a job. He doesn’t do missions anymore. He reps, but he don’t bang no more.’”

Gang lore has it that to join a gang, initiates are required to submit to a beating. The popular belief is that to get out, gang members have to be killed or allow themselves to be severely injured by their old gang family. That’s not the case in Greensboro, Donnell said.

‘“You can drift away from those problems,’” he said. ‘“You go somewhere else.’”

The statistics also contradict the notion that there is a rising tide of youth criminality in North Carolina. The State Bureau of Investigation’s ‘“Annual Report of 2004 Uniform Crime Reporting Data,’” released in August, shows that the number of juveniles under the age of 18 arrested for violent crime dropped from 3,213 in 1995 to 2,552 to 2004. Those arrested for property crimes dropped from 14,467 in 1995 to 12,163 in 2004. The report also indicates that juvenile arrests for violent crimes dropped 5 percent between 2003 and 2004, and arrests for property crimes dropped 11 percent during the same period.

Despite the easing of violence, the NC House of Representatives passed a Street Gang Prevention Act in August. Sponsored by Durham Democrat Rep. Henry M. Michaux and Rep. Phillip Frye, a Republican from the western part of the state, the act mandates enhanced sentences for those who engage in gang activity, particularly those identified as organizers, and members who coerce others into participating or threaten fellow gang members who want to get out.

There is currently no statutory definition for a street gang in North Carolina. The Street Gang Prevention Act would change that, a development Cuthbertson applauds.

‘“When the gang legislation comes out cities, law enforcement and municipalities won’t have a choice as to what gangs are,’” he said.

The proposed legislation could cover a lot of kids, seeming to target almost any group of three or more individuals who get in legal trouble together. The act defines the term ‘“criminal street gang’” as ‘“any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which engages in a pattern of criminal gang activity.’”

‘“Pattern of criminal activity,’” in turn, refers to any effort to compel another person to commit at least two offenses that violate the Controlled Substances Act or criminal law, with the exception of a few crimes, the bill states.

The bill’s authors acknowledge that ‘“there is little reliable data on gangs and gang membership upon which to base analysis,’” but notes that the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission and Administrative Office of the Courts developed an estimate of the cost of the enhanced sentencing guidelines.

According to the bill’s fiscal impact analysis, the new law would create 596 new offenders, requiring 175 new prison beds in 2007 and 357 new beds in 2008. The bill identifies 193 children who identified themselves as gang members and whose crimes fit the definition of ‘“pattern of criminal activity.’” Those children would be eligible for lockup in juvenile detention centers across the state, including one in Greensboro, run by the NC Department of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Protection. The bill calls for creating a total of 115 new beds for juvenile offenders to accommodate the tougher sentencing guidelines.

The bill’s authors anticipate that adding new beds, hiring additional corrections and juvenile justice staff, and handling the increased strain on the court system would cost the state a total of $86.4 over the next five years if the new sentencing guidelines go into effect.

‘“Five out of ten people that does gang-related activity are into selling drugs and doing drugs,’” Donnell said. ‘“Nine out of ten, they ought to be locked up or dead.’”

If the NC Senate takes up the Street Gang Prevention Act, the first of those two consequences will be an increasing likelihood for Guilford County youth who fly the colors.

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

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