30 April 2007

Early prevention the key to stopping gangs

A decrease in visible gang activity and gang-related violence should not be viewed as any kind of victory.
Instead, it should serve as a stark reminder that efforts offering kids an alternative to that lifestyle can never stop, child advocates and police say.

It all comes down to early prevention, said Evelyn Young, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, which has been a haven for youths for 15 years.

The years before adolescence are crucial, Young said. After they turn 14, theyre too old or too cool to be in the club, she said, noting the exceptions are kids who become part of the staff for the club, which currently has about 300 members.

The club, at 1615 Illinois St. on Bloomingtons west side, offers after-school and summer programs, including recreation, educational and life skills opportunities for children 5 to 18 years old with a special focus on disadvantaged youths. Bloomington is a growing, thriving community, but we have the potential for denial, Young said.

Officials with law enforcement and social service agencies caution that some gangs have changed their approach to recruiting and retaining members. The perception that gang members are kids in trouble is not always true, Young said.
Gangs sometimes are encouraging kids to stay in school. They are less likely to be picked out (by police), and school also makes them smarter. Gangs dont want them to be the big dummies.

Peter Rankaitis, president and chief operating officer of Project Oz, a Twin City agency that works with troubled teens and provides drug education, recalled a Chicago gang that once conducted a market study of the Twin City area to determine the economic potential of drug sales a project beyond the abilities of most high school dropouts.

Community efforts
The Boys and Girls Club and Project Oz were among the community, church and public agencies that joined with law enforcement 20 years ago to address what was considered an escalating problem of gang activity in Bloomington. At the time, police said gangs were less involved in violent crime and more involved in drug trafficking. The numbers compiled in the following years by law enforcement and prosecutors were concerning: Drug dealers connected to gangs accounted for 85 percent of the 107 Bloomington vice unit arrests in 1998.

Local police continue to appreciate the work that community organizations are doing to help kids stay away from gangs. These organizations are getting to kids before they join gangs, and we have to work on suppression. It helps kids avoid gangs altogether, Bloomington Police spokesman Duane Moss said.

Project Oz served as the lead agency for former Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smarts task force on gangs funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The efforts by police to rein in gang activity paid off in the 1990s. Local gangs had distinct hierarchies and operated with 80 to 100 members between 1990 and 1995, according to a report submitted to the federal government. Police took an active, realistic approach to gang activity, Rankaitis said.

Police said, We know we cant arrest our way out of this problem, Rankaitis said. We said, Lets be honest about what were doing not blow it out of proportion and make it worse that it is, but lets not deny that gangs exist.

Police went into neighborhoods and talked to people about gangs, Rankaitis said. Major police initiatives to suppress gang activity caused serious disruptions in gang networks. A push by prosecutors to get gang-related drug cases into federal courts also helped remove gang leaders from the area, he said. Defendants convicted in federal court face longer minimum sentences and serve more of their terms than in state courts. The relationships and suppression tactics that grew out of the task force remain in force today, Rankaitis said.

Web of despair
Social service and community leaders agreed gang membership is one thread of a web of despair in which many youths are caught.

Addressing all the issues is more beneficial than singling out gang membership, Rankaitis said. If you have a youth who is having trouble at home and in school and maybe has a substance-abuse issue, it doesnt really help for us to stigmatize them as a gang member. For us, its just a reality that some kids have a gang connection, he said.

Membership in a gang serves a purpose for some young people. Historically, gangs are a way for people to organize for safety and economic reasons, Rankaitis suggested. Poor families that see an influx of desperately needed money may be reluctant to admit that the proceeds are gang-related.

The existence of healthy connections to family or the lack of a connection has an impact on gang membership, too, according to child advocates. It is common for gang leaders to try to convince potential new members that a gang is a substitute for family. They falsify the idea of family, Young said. They try to imitate family and prey upon kids who dont have a big brother or dad. They give a false sense of hope.

Although gang membership may cross several generations in a family, it also is not uncommon for gang members to try to keep their younger siblings from joining a gang, Young said. They want to protect their younger brothers and sisters. We have to remember that before they joined a gang, these people were someones child, brother, sister, aunt or father, Young said. The challenge for community leaders is to convince youngsters to choose positive gangs, like the Boys and Girls Club, she said.

Employment and recreational opportunities should be available for youths, she said, and police, social service groups and community organizations should continue their approach of working together to address the problem.

Edith Brady-Lunny
29 April 2007



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