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by Jordan Green


‘Talking loud and acting proud’

More than a year ago the Greensboro Police Department unveiled a strategy to combat gangs that could be likened to chopping the head off a snake. The approach is “top down”: “We will identify the leadership within these criminal gangs and will systematically remove them, beginning with the top leadership, using proven investigative and prosecutorial means,” one of the goals of the department’s gang enforcement unit states. “We will employ every legal avenue available to identify, locate and aggressively prosecute the leadership within criminal gangs. We believe that this disruption of the criminal gang structure will have a significant impact on the gang’s ability to remain organized and adversely affect their ability to recruit new members.” In the case of the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation, one street organization labeled a gang by law enforcement, the gang unit’s aggressive strategy of surveillance and arrests carried out has resulted in the organization’s leader receiving a flurry of charges, most of them dropped by the Guilford County District Attorney or resulting in acquittal. Jorge Cornell, the self-identified leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, has been charged 17 times since Dec. 1, 2007; he was found guilty of two — disorderly conduct and resisting arrest — acquitted of one — assaulting a police officer — and relieved of 12 by the DA, while two others remain pending. While police have produced no evidence of coordinated criminal activity in the past year, Cornell has publicly pursued a peace agreement, pledged to expel members who engage in violence and sell drugs, and won the support of pastors and a wide array of activists as he confidently faces charges of abducting a 15-year-old girl and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile early next month. Cornell said Monday that his group turned down a plea deal from the Guilford County District Attorney to drop the felony abduction charge in exchange for pleading guilty to contributing the delinquency of a juvenile because he and fellow Latin King members consider themselves innocent. At least one published study questions the fairness and effectiveness of anti-gang strategies such as the one deployed by Greensboro, suggesting that by focusing on group affiliation rather than complaints of criminal offenses they run the risk of actually strengthening gangs and alienating the police from the community. “Heavy-handed suppression efforts can increase gang cohesion and police-community tensions, and they have a poor track record when it comes to reducing crime and violence,” authors Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis write in the 2007 Justice Policy Institute study Gang Wars. Capt. John Wolfe, who oversees Greensboro’s gang enforcement unit, acknowledged that the police crackdown on gangs might have the unintended consequence of reinforcing their sense of unity, but ultimately he hopes the threat of arrests will create a sufficient deterrent effect to persuade gang members to quit. “I think when people feel endangered they seek safety in numbers,” he said. “That threat can act as a strengthening force. That’s part of the package. I ill tell you that we’re talking about very minimal numbers of people [actively involved in gangs]. I’d like to see people who realize they’re in over their head say, ‘I’d like to go down a different road.’” The Greensboro gang unit’s campaign of surveillance, intelligence gathering and arrests against the Latin Kings, an organization that grew out of the Illinois prison system in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reseeded in New York City in the 1990s, and others is based on an assumption that it constitutes a criminal gang, Wolfe said. “It’s an aggressive strategy against validated criminal gangs,” Wolfe said in a recent interview. “We’re targeting people who are operating as criminal gangs, and there’s evidence to support that they’re operating as criminal gangs.” At least three members of the North Carolina Latin Kings have served or are currently serving prison sentences for crimes ranging from assault with a dangerous weapon to possessing stolen goods — all for crimes that were committed before Cornell publicly announced his campaign for peace. Subsequently, a group of Latin Kings broke into a house and attacked a 52-year-old man in his bed in retaliation for a home invasion before realizing they had the wrong person. The victim, Louis Young, received a letter of apology from Cornell. By the gang unit’s standards, the Latin Kings easily qualifies as a criminal gang. The gang unit’s Standard Operating Procedure defines the term loosely, sweeping in individual and coordinated activities, and crimes committed both in the past and the present: “A criminal gang is a group of persons (two or more) who have a common identifying symbol or name, and whose members individually or collectively engage or have engaged in a pattern of activity, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the community.” Wolfe dismissed the notion that criminal acts independently carried out by individual gang members might be distinguished from criminal acts carried out on behalf of the gang. “They have to have something in common,” he said. “Their motivation has to be to improve their position in the gang, or to improve the organization’s status in the gang world.” Defining what exactly a gang member is has long preoccupied those who study gangs and spawned reams of text. Tim Delaney writes in his 2005 book American Street Gangs that “every definition includes some mention of the word ‘group’…. Is a group of young people hanging out together a gang? What if this group is hanging outside a convenience store talking loud and acting proud? What if this group creates a name for itself, starts identifying members with specific clothing, and uses secret hand signals and handshakes and intimidating nicknames such as ‘killer’ and ‘assassin’? But the group just described could actually be a sports team! Add to this description the commission of a number of deviant acts and fraternities and sororities would also fit this profile.” Greene and Pranis’ review of gang literature and crime statistics suggests that gang activity rarely rises to the level of coordination to qualify as organized crime. “Researcherswho study gangs generally find, however, that most ‘gang crime’ is notwell planned or centrally directed, but is instead committed byindividual members or small groups on an ad hoc basis,” they write,adding in another passage that “gang members account for a small shareof crime (including violent crime), even within communities andneighborhoods where there are gang problems.” Citing FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the authors wrote that cities across North Carolinawitnessed an increase in gang membership in conjunction with a decreasein crime from 1999 to 2004; Greensboro, in contrast to other North Carolina cities, also saw gang membership drop sharply over that period. “Arecent influx of Latino immigrants may have led officers to misidentifyyoung Latino men as gang members,” Greene and Pranis write. “On theother hand, it is conceivable that gang activity could be growing evenas crime falls, since gang members account for a very small share ofthe crime problem. In any case, the data provide no support for thenotion that North Carolina is experiencing a gang crime crisis.” By2005, perceptions of a rising gang problem in Greensboro were beginningto create a political mandate to crack down through an aggressivelaw-enforcement approach and today the gang enforcement unit enjoyswidespread support from a city council otherwise riven by infightingand acrimony. Campaigning in September 2005 to fill the open District 2 seat on city council, Goldie Wells listened to a fearful resident allude to a growing gang menace at a session with the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association.Today, she sponsors a faith-based initiative called Love, Youth, Faith,Empowerment, or LYFE, to keep children from becoming involved in gangs. About a month later, police Detective Ernest Cuthbertson,considered the department’s resident gang expert, drew an alarmingpicture of the gang situation in Greensboro for members of the GuilfordCounty School Board when he told them that graffiti reading “Blood forlife” had been spray-painted at Peeler Elementary. The principaldisputed the claim, writing in an e-mail that “if this happened thisschool year the police must have cleaned it up without my knowledge(which is highly unlikely).” The following summer Mayor Keith Holliday lead a news conference in Greensboro with other North Carolinamayors to urge the passage of legislation that would have ratcheted upoffense classifications for any person who convicted of a crime in association with an organization deemed acriminal street gang, resulting in more severe sentencing. Thelegislation was eventually passed by both houses of the GeneralAssembly and signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley in August 2008.

Publicpressure on the city to address gang activity increased with the 2007municipal election. Among those raising the issue was blogger andwrite-in mayoral candidate Billy Jones, who commented on YES! Weekly’s neglect:“Why no mention of Greensboro’s gang issues? Is life so good on yourend of town that you don’t know they exist?”

As the electionapproached, the city council allocated $500,000 to form the gangenforcement unit without increasing the police department’s overallbudget. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, who was elected in2007 and is widely believed to aspire to the position of mayor, saidhis support for the Greensboro Police Department’s handling of gangactivity is absolute. “In terms of the gang unit, we had ahuge outcry from the community,” he said. “We directed the policedepartment to do something about it, and they’re doing something aboutit. They’ve got an aggressive approach to policing gangs, and I supportit.”

As to whether the gang unit is effective, Perkins said he wouldrely on police Chief Tim Bellamy to tell him, and only if the chiefvolunteered the information in a briefing or report to council. “Mysupervisor knows what I’m doing and the city manager knows what I’mdoing, and I’m being fair and above-board,” Capt. Wolfe said. “Wedeveloped those goals last September and released them to the public.Wetold the public: ‘We’re brand new, and if the community has any issues,let’s hear them.’ I don’t know why we’re talking about this in December2008.”

The controversies raised over the degree to which gangs threatenpublic safety and the social roles played by gangs are hardly unique toGreensboro. Greene and Pranis write that New York and Los Angeles, large cities with ongoing tensions in the years after World War II, undertook dramatically different responses to gangs, with New Yorkachieve a high degree of success through a social-work approach andheavy-handed law enforcement suppression resulting in gangsmetastasizing in Los Angeles. Chicago’s 1960s gang history may offer a glimpse into Greensboro’s current condition.

The authors of Gang Wars writethat the Blackstone Rangers and the Devil’s Disciples were drawn intocommunity organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky’s outfit, The WoodlawnOrganization, which received funding from the federal Office ofEconomic Opportunity to create jobs, while simultaneously antagonizingmunicipal government under the administration of Mayor Richard Daley. Anothergang, the Conservative Vice Lords, reportedly allied with civil rightsactivist Jesse Jackson and “attracted funding for a host of socialprograms. But at the same time that the Lindsay administration in New Yorkwas embracing community action programs such as these, and deliberatelyenlisting gang leaders from among the city’s ‘worst kids’ to serve asstaff for recreation and jobs programs, Mayor Richard J. Daley’sresponse was quite different. “Daley feared the gangs’increasing role in building grassroots power, and the liberal alliesthey were attracting would upset his political machine,” Greene andPranis write. “As TWO was launching its OEO-funded youthprograms, the Daley administration was beefing up the policedepartment’s gang intelligence unit and initiating a crackdown ofintense police harassment.” The report continues with an account of how gang members flooded into the Illinoisprison system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in theprisons being controlled from the inside by what had become the BlackP. Stone Nation, Vice Lords, Disciples and Latin Kings. Thecity of Greensboro favors what is known as a balanced approach,launching Project Hope under the parks and recreation department toengage teenagers in wholesome activities, alongside the new gang unitin October 2007. A city press release compiled from informationgathered by the police stated that 12 nationally organized gangs wererepresented in Greensboro — among them, Latin Kings and Vice Lords,along with well-known organizations such as Bloods, Crips and MS-13.Greene and Pranis’ report treats balanced approaches, which seek topair law- enforcement suppression with community support for youngpeople who want to avoid or get out of gangs. The authorscontend: “Most community stakeholders lack the resources necessary tobecome real partners in collaborative gang control efforts. CouncilwomanWells counts herself as a supporter of prevention, but endorses thework of the gang enforcement unit as complementary to her own efforts. “Ithink they’ve been quite effective,” she said. “We’ve seen a decline ingang activity.” Roger Pitney, president of the Shoppes at PyramidsVillage, a retail hub developed from the hull of the old CarolinaCircle Mall, was among the members of Wells’ LYFE organization that metat Evangel Fellowship on Dec. 11. The members made reports on a varietyof community improvement efforts, including a program to teach youngboys etiquette, a pilot drill-team program, a proposed block ofScripture study for public-school students, an upcoming clothinggiveaway at the Claremont Homes public housing community. For Wells’part, the councilwoman discussed her efforts to have a swimming poolfunded by bonds approved by Greensboro voters in November sited in herdistrict as an economic-development driver. At a previousmeeting, Pitney had released statistics developed with the policedepartment showing that crime dropped 60 percent in September, comparedto the same month in the previous year, at his shopping center. Hedescribed the gang unit’s role as part of a larger effort. “If we seegraffiti on the walls we call the gang task force,” he said. “They comeout and evaluate the graffiti. The landlord is notified, and then thegraffiti is removed.” Pitney’s management team has also takena proactive role. “We are bringing it to the attention of the tenantsand the consumers that this is a safe environment,” he said. “You havean openair area, and it’s illuminated. The police are taking a look atthe patrol’s they’re doing.” Capt. Wolfe said the gang unit’sactivities go beyond suppression, and officers take the opportunity todivert low-level members from the gang. Gang enforcement unit reportsreferring 23 people to Project Hope in the past five months. Sixty-fivepercent were black, with the remainder being Hispanic, white, andAsian. The group included three females. “I can’t tell you howmany young people we’ve come in contact with that we’ve helped out of ajam with the criminal justice system or helped out a jam with a gang,”Wolfe said. “We are using our discretion with regard to the crimes theymay have committed, to help them. I’ll give you an example: You’ve gota kid who’s fairly new in a gang, and he’s committed a misdemeanoroffense. If that kid says, ‘Look, I did it because I’m involved in thisgroup,’ we can use the discretion of the state to say, ‘If you reallywant help, we can help.’ If there’s a victim, we can discuss the optionof quitting before they get charged. We’re not in the business ofintroducing kids into a criminal justice system that otherwise wouldn’tbe there.” Wolfe said he recognized that some, if not all, ofthe Latin Kings’ time together is taken up with wholesome pursuits.“They participate in social activities like any other group, like achurch group, like a club,” he said. “I know that soccer is big, thatthey’re involved in sports. They’re involved in family outings andcookouts. I recognize that they’re human. I don’t have a biased eyethat says that every time they’re together, something fishy is goingon. I’m not in that place, and I don’t think my people are in thatplace. In fact, I know that my people are not in that place.”

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Latin Kings members and their children posed with Guilford College students last month. Capt. John Wolfe, who oversees the GPD’s gang unit, acknowledged that sports and family outings occupies a significant amount of the group’s time. (photo by Jordan Green)