Mean Streets

by Allison Seale

Mean Streets Cover
The following article presented great challenges. Like a prosecuting attorney who seeks a murder conviction without the benefit of a body, this story must convince you, the community, that we have gang problem in our cities without being able to show you specific evidence of the problem.

Because gangs thrive off of publicity, the police and other law enforcement officials have chosen not to release specific information relating to local gang activity. No names or numbers of crimes can be detailed. Specific shootings, assaults, or theft can not be identified as gang-related. The story can not tell you how to know a gang when you see one by the colors they wear. It can only give you non-specific signs of their existence and tell you that, based on the evidence and the opinions of experts and eyewitnesses, Bryan and College Station does have a gang problem. And based on the opinions of experts in cities where the problem has already spun out of control, the time to act is now.

More than 800 people will die this year in the streets of Los Angeles as a result of gang violence. On average, three people die each night. Nearly half are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of some 1,000 warring gangs. No one remembers how or when the situation got so out of hand; the only thing that is certain is now it is beyond control.

Mean streets may be expected in Los Angeles, where police arrest 40,000 gang members every year, but the glamorization of gang life in movies and popular music, coupled with societal problems relating to poverty and the break up of the nuclear family, is bringing mean streets to places where many thought it could never happen. Places like the Brazos Valley.

The Nature of the Beast

Youth gangs are not a new phenomenon in this community, or in this country for that matter. In the 19th and early 20th centuries in the northeastern United States, Irish, Italian, and Polish gangs, among others, were commonplace in some immigrant communities, but they were not regarded as significant threats to public safety and law enforcement. That’s where today’s gangs cross the lines from those of the past – as our society has become more violent, so, too, have today’s gangs. They are now regarded as an extremely serious threat to public safety and law enforcement.

Over the past decade, Texas’ violent crime rate has risen by nearly 46 percent. One of the most frightening aspects of that statistic is the growing phenomenon of juvenile killers, up 143 percent in Texas since 1987. In Harris County alone, more than a dozen juveniles were arrested for murder during January 1992, including a 15-year-old boy who allegedly shot another teenager who refused to surrender a Los Angeles Raiders jacket. Gone are the days of fist fights. When push comes to shove now, childish arguments turn into tragedy when juveniles seek to solve their problems through more cowardly means – weapons. In many cases, their killings are linked to gang rivalries.

Texas Youth Commission referral records indicate that almost one-third of the juveniles in their custody belong to a circle of friends who at least sometimes think of themselves as a gang.

Kids get involved in gangs for different reasons. Lack of supervision and guidance at home is one of the most common reasons cited in studies. Most significant, however, is the need to feel a part of a group. In their search for respect and power, that group may take the form of a gang. Children who live in impoverished areas may get involved in profit-oriented gangs to be able to buy the clothing and shoes that other kids are wearing at school, while those children living in neighborhoods where there are turf-based gangs may be intimidated into joining to keep from being beat up.

Most Texas gangs fall into one of four categories: delinquent youth gangs, traditional turf-based gangs, profit-oriented gangs, and violent/hate gangs. With the exception of only one – violent/hate gangs – evidence of all of these gangs has been found in Brazos Valley.

While delinquent youth gangs are what most people think of when they think of gangs in our area, local police say the two largest groups are the more violent turf-based and profit-oriented gangs.

Call in the Witnesses

The police chiefs in both Bryan and College Station, the county sheriff’s department and members of juvenile services all concur: there is a gang problem in our community. Each department has sent representatives to gang seminars around the country, and each has sent a representative to Los Angeles to learn about gang intervention techniques and to witness – first hand – just how bad the situation can become. Sergeant Mark Ricketson, team leader for the Street Crime Apprehension Team, has what is perhaps the most sobering account.

"In L.A.," he says, "they gave instances of kids as young as eight years old ordering designer caskets shaped like a car. Kids are prearranging their own funerals."

The Bryan Police Department is taking the gang problem very seriously. In the past six months there have been nine drive-by shootings –that’s an average of one every three weeks since last July. To try to prevent any further escalation, Bryan has assigned one SCAT officer as a gang liaison officer to gather intelligence and communicate with the schools and others in the community who are concerned with the problem.

"It’s a fickle situation," Ricketson says of gangs. "Right now, we think it’s stabilized." He explained that gangs are popular all over the nation, due in large part, he feels, to their portrayal in movies directed toward the very groups who are most at risk of becoming involved.

It is during the teenage years that children begin to search for an identity. Which role models or groups they choose to identify with can mean the difference between life and death.

"So far we haven’t had anybody hit," Ricketson says. "I don’t know if they just want to say they did a drive-by or what but, sooner or later, one of these shots is going to hit somebody and somebody might get killed."

Once someone is hurt, a chain reaction of events can get set into action, like toppling dominos, as one gang retaliates against another. This eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality, played out with a variety of lethal weapons, can leave carnage to rival any war. In fact, more people die every three months in L.A. from gang violence than all Americans killed in Operation Desert Storm.

Sergeant Larry Johnson of the College Station Police Department and Commander of the Brazos Valley Narcotics Task Force, says that although College Station has seen a decrease in gang activity since its height in 1990, his department is joining with Bryan’s to work towards curtailing any further development.

"It doesn’t appear at this point that ours (College Station’s gang problem) is at the point that is in Bryan but, because we are so close, what happens in Bryan has an effect in College Station. At the same time, what happens in College Station has an effect in Bryan."

Both school systems, too, agree that they have gang members in their schools, and both have innovative mentor programs and counseling groups set up to target kids at-risk of getting involved in gangs. But there is an open reluctance by administrators to classify the gang situation as a problem.

Dr. Paul Kingery, the director of the Health Promotion Program at Texas A&M and a national expert on adolescent violence in rural schools, thinks that reluctance can be attributed to an unrealistic expectation from the community. Too many expect school administrators to take complete responsibility for everything that happens on the school grounds. Kingery has conducted surveys to determine violence and drug levels in Region VI schools (schools in 15 Texas counties including Brazos, Robertson, Burleson and Washington). His findings indicate that violence levels in this region’s schools far exceed national levels – more than half of the boys he surveyed reported carrying a knife at school, twice the national average. And 18 percent of 15- to 17-year old boys reported carrying a hand gun at school for protection or with the intent to shoot an aggressor. That figure is seven times the national average.

"The reaction of administrators when we take the survey results back to them is one of two things," Kingery says. "It’s either, ‘Wow! It’s hard to imagine but, now that I think about it, I’ve had a feeling about this." Or, on the other hand, "It’s just false bravado. It’s just kids carrying pocket knives and kids bragging about guns." Complete denial.

"The difference between those two reactions will be played out in terms of battlefields on the school grounds because those who do nothing to intervene will have serious problems in the near future."

Bryan and College Station schools did not agree to participate in the survey Kingery conducted so there is no way to know where Bryan and College Station schools fall in those statistics. Both schools, however, according to police records, have had weapons violations and assaults this school year on their campuses in spite of stringent rules prohibiting weapons, fighting, and extortion.

Local schools are working with the police to identify gangs and gang members and both have sought out means of intervening with gangs. The stumbling block seems to be in how you choose to define a gang or gang member. Though school officials were openly concerned about their students involved in what they describe as gang-like activity, most were reluctant to call the groups in their schools "gangs." They think of the students involved more as "wannabe" gang members who are just mimicking what they see in the movies or as nothing more than the same types of groups that cruised the streets in the ‘50s and papered houses.

Warning to the Jury

"Anybody who is telling you that gangs today are the same as those gangs in the ‘50s is a fool," says Sergeant Wes McBride of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Operation Safe Streets division.

"I don’t use the word "wannabe" anymore," says McBride. "If a kid believes he’s a gang member, he’s a gang member. We can call in all the experts and use all the names we want to, but he knows what he is.

"if a kid wants to be a gang member, it’s a short damn trip. He may not be the same type of gang member in L.A., but he’s a serious contender for Bryan/College Station."

The difference between the gangs of today and those of even 20 years ago, he says, is that violence has become an accepted part of life and kids have become desensitized to violence through the graphic displays on television and in movies. That, coupled with poor interpersonal skills, has led to the evolution of the deadly hybrids roaming the streets today.

"These kids have no problem-solving techniques," McBride laments. "If you’ve got a problem, kill it and it’s not a problem anymore. Gangs kill communities just as much as a bullet kills a person."

Testimony from the Front Lines

"Trey" (not his real name) nods his head. "Yes. There are guys who consider themselves as being a part of gangs and, actually, they are. It’s a reality in this area for sure."

Though not a gang member himself, Trey spends time in areas in Bryan where some of the profit-oriented gangs have set up shop to sell crack and other drugs. "Basically, these guys are wannabe gangsters; they wannabe hard. The are wannabes and, from the things that they are doing around here, they’re gonna be because they are making their beds real tough to back out."

If more people come in from other cities to sell drugs, Trey says the locals who are already selling are bound to start causing trouble for the violence-hardened newcomers.

"As the guys that are growing up out of this area are running into conflict with the guys from Houston and other larger cities, they’re going to be sending in some people to take care of these guys and show them what really is hard."

Several men are gathered around a table in a diner in northwest Bryan. They come from all walks of life. One is a minister, one a retired teacher, the others are self-employed. They are all talking frankly with an outsider about the problems they are having with the gangs, or "posses" as they call them, in their neighborhoods. They don’t often open up to outsiders. Too often they are misunderstood. But today they speak openly about a problem that has them fearing for the future. The sounds of gunfire are a common occurrence in their neighborhoods, and, in some cases, they say these posses have taken over.

The posses, says one man, group together to do business in the streets and, when the crowds get bigger, they move onto yards. Eventually, they even move into houses – other people’s houses.

"One elderly lady was forced out of her house by the drug dealers," he says. "I stay in my house on the weekend."

He also has a secret weapon to keep the posses out of his yard. When the cactuses didn’t stop them, he started feeding the fire ants. "Those ants get the biggest and the smallest of them."

The others share similar stories. And all but one prefer not to be identified. People could get hurt. As the talk changes from the problem to what might be the solution, one man speaks up.

"The programs that have been identified as those that would help the most," says Steve Jones, "such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, and others, are all located outside the areas where there is the most need.

"Many of these people who need help and who would seek help don’t because of difficulties in getting to the places where these programs are held." Jones has been working to help community members get the assistance they need and to try to change the image of the northwest Bryan community. The posses are proving to be a formidable challenge to his efforts. As worries about retribution from gang members in the community increases, he worries fewer people will want to get involved.

Examining the Evidence

Experts urge that the answer lies in launching a unified, community-based attack to convey the message that gangs and the crime they commit are not going to be tolerated.

"All of the people that we’re talking to who have been through this," says Sgt. Johnson of the College Station Police Department, "tell us the things we are experiencing are the things they went through." They have also shared some of the lessons they learned the hard way.

"One of the biggest mistakes they feel like they made," Johnson continues, "was not doing anything. They took the stance that kids will be kids: They are doing these types of things, they’ll get tired of doing these things and then they’ll go away. They didn’t.

"I think history has proven that they are not going to go away. In places where there has not been a proactive approach to the situation, it has only gotten worse."

Back in Los Angeles, Sgt. McBride has a tough warning for those who haven’t yet come to terms with the potential problem. "Don’t sit and argue over names," he says. "It (arguing over semantics) stops proactive work on gangs."

To make any headway in preventing gang activity, a proactive frontal attack needs to take place on all fronts pointing fingers or placing blame. Everyone, McBride suggests – the police, the schools, parents, and the community as a whole – must work together to prevent gangs from getting a foothold in our neighborhoods and getting out of control.

"Political turf wars between the press, city councils, school boards, and law enforcement defeat any efforts to try to be proactive," McBride says.

"The schools have got to talk to the cops, the cops to the schools, and the politicians have got to back you up. And when you have a gang killing, the public needs to know that that’s happening so they know they need to respond." At present, the policy among law enforcement officials in this area is not to release information tying specific events to gangs.

Generating statistics on gang-related crime is also complicated by the fact that neither police force has a computer code set up in their systems to flag specific incidents as being attributed to gangs. A gang-related assault is entered into their computers as simply an assault. Both Bryan and College Station police are working to add these codes into their computer systems.

"Where you have an emerging gang problem," says McBride, "you can attack it. But you can’t play ostrich with gangs and bury your head in the sand.

"Gangs are like a cancer; with early detection, surgery and treatment up front you can save your life. Or, you can decide to ignore the problem and live with the pain of the cancer for the rest of your life – and that might not be that long."

Final note: Monday, January 18, 1993 – the day this article was turned in for publication – a gunman in a car passed a house in Bryan and sprayed four to five shots from a handgun at a group of teenagers who were gathered on the porch. A 15-year-old was hit by one of the shots in the back. It was 2:41 a.m. Holding to the policy of not tying specific incidents to gang activity, the police will not confirm whether or not this shooting was gang-related. Regardless, several questions come to mind. What was a group of teenagers, who ranged in age from 13- to 18-years old doing out on a porch, on a school night, at 3 a.m.? Was this shooting gang-related? If so, what is next? What can be done to stop this activity? You are the jury. What will you decide?