Tracking street gangs

The images are disturbing — in dozens of pictures posted on social networking websites, Baton Rouge teenagers are clustered together, smiles stretching across their young faces as they flash gang signs with their hands and point guns at the camera.

Their videos posted on YouTube boast of the riches they’ve earned through selling drugs and the people they’ve shot for disrespecting them.

One of the more shocking pictures shows a teenager holding a young child in his lap, a handgun clutched in her tiny hands as he helps her aim the barrel at the camera.

The videos and the pictures are labeled as being from the Dumb Way Boys, one of at least 10 groups that the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office has identified as street gangs.

Other local gangs include the Young Guerillas, Citi Boyz, Baby Guerillas, Block Boyz and Bottom Boyz Guerillaz, said Assistant District Attorney Otha Nelson.

Usually teenagers who grew up in the same neighborhood, they use hand signs, graffiti and tattoos to signify their clique, claim territories and frequently fight with rival groups, Nelson said.

He calls the groups “hybrid” gangs — typically about 15 youths who mimic the gangs depicted on television, in hip- hop culture and in documentaries.

But Baton Rouge gang members’ lives are far different than the glamorized lives they’re trying to mimic.

Many of these children grew up in extreme poverty surrounded by violence and see getting rich through drug dealing or rapping as the only way out, said Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a former Baton Rouge gang leader who now works as a community activist.

They live in a culture where education is sidelined, violence is respected and many parents “raise their children to be soldiers,” said Reed, whose organization, Stop the Killing Inc., works with troubled youth.

“They’re operating in a constant state of survival mode,” Reed said. “If you’re not in survival mode, then you won’t survive. In joining up with other kids and forming these groups, you have a better chance.”

Nelson and fellow Assistant District Attorney Aishala Burgess spent more than a year investigating whether there were gangs in Baton Rouge. Nelson said they found eight male groups and two female groups that “clearly identify” themselves as gangs.

Crimes that can be traced to the gangs include armed robberies, burglaries and weapons cases, he said.

Fights between the groups do escalate to shootings, Nelson said, but officials haven’t pinpointed a murder caused by feuding factions.

“There are clearly homicides that are suspected to be gang-related,” Nelson said. “But we have nothing official, nothing definite.”

Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a Baton Rouge Police spokesman, said the department doesn’t refer to the groups as gangs, reserving that term for nationally affiliated gangs that are highly organized and make money by selling drugs.

McKneely called the groups in Baton Rouge “factions.”

“They call themselves gangs, but they’re not like the gangs of Los Angeles,” McKneely said. “It’s groups of neighborhood kids that get together and cause havoc.”

He said that most often amounts to fights that frequently erupt between rival groups, which in rare instances have escalated to shootings.

Police declined to name specific shootings that resulted from feuding groups.

Nelson said the March 29, 2010, slaying of 16-year-old David Cobb first led the two prosecutors to focus their attention on gangs. Cobb was killed during a gathering at the BREC park on Woodpecker Street after a large fight erupted and shooting ensued.

It was a particularly violent weekend in which two other men, Kreglan Gaines Jr., 18, and Joshua Stewart, 20, were also gunned down in separate incidents.

Nelson said he also noticed cases coming into the juvenile division of the District Attorney’s Office that involved victims who identified their attackers as gang members or defendants who claimed to belong to a gang.

“We were seeing young men being arrested for violent crimes and then we were seeing deaths,” Nelson said. “There were coincidences that made us realize we were dealing with something here.”

Investigators do not suspect the groups have initiations that involve major crimes, such as shootings or random attacks, Nelson said.

The danger stemming from the street gangs seems to be isolated to those in the groups, he said.

“I wouldn’t say that the problem in Baton Rouge is extreme,” Nelson said. “We have not seen a situation where the public at large is at risk. But we need to get on the front end to ensure it doesn’t get worse.”

John Moore, director of the National Gang Center, a federally funded research and anti-gang training center, said more than 3,500 cities and towns across the country face a similar situation.

Every jurisdiction defines gangs differently, Moore said, but street gangs throughout the nation are commonly groups of juveniles and young men who collectively identify under one name, view themselves as a gang and have an elevated level of criminal activity.

While there is typically a semblance of organization, it’s a common misconception that groups need a clearly defined leader, pecking order and organized criminal enterprise in order to be considered a gang, Moore said.

“Most gangs are not organized and never have been,” he said. “We’d be in a lot deeper trouble if they were.”

Battling back

In April, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III called a meeting of several parish officials and representatives from all levels of law enforcement after he began noticing “gang-related names” surfacing in cases handled by his office.

The group decided to better collaborate about suspected gang members or activity, open their investigations to other agencies and form an interactive database to organize the information.

“We can do a search and get whatever information is in the system on a certain gang or certain person,” Moore said.

He said his office is working on the prosecution of more than 20 people suspected of criminal activity related to gangs. The suspects’ jail sentences can be extended if prosecutors prove their offenses were committed on behalf of a gang, Moore said.

State Police spokesman Lt. Doug Cain said analysts at the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange — more commonly referred to as the “Fusion Center” — receive information about possible gang activity which they compile, analyze and disseminate to investigators in local agencies.

McKneely said that when police become aware of a new group, investigators work to identify and photograph the members.

Police alert the parents and encourage them to intervene, but if they don’t get their children under control, they can be held responsible.

Earlier this year, 50-year-old Ada Jones was convicted of improper supervision of a minor and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Police alleged she had two sons “who have demonstrated a pattern of criminal gang activity since the ages of 13 and 15 and she has improperly supervised them,” according to her arrest warrant.

Jones, of 1007 E. Johnson St., is the mother of Rickey Jones, 18, a known member of the Citi Boyz gang, according to her arrest warrant. Ada Jones’ other son is a juvenile and not named in the warrant.

Ada and Rickey Jones could not be reached for comment.

Police also contact schools so education officials can keep an eye out for any suspicious activity, McKneely said.

Chris Trahan, spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said no major problems have arisen from rival groups crossing paths at schools.

He said school officials have an active relationship with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office to prevent problems with feuding groups from coming onto school grounds.

Trahan said the best safeguard is the relationship educators have with their students.

“When you have strong administrators who students feel comfortable enough to talk to them about what could possibly come on campus, the administrators can stop it before it does,” Trahan said.

Fighting hopelessness

Many teenagers growing up in impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods develop a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, said Juan Barthelemy, an LSU assistant professor of social work who specializes in adolescent aggression and violence.

“In these areas with concentrated poverty, low education and high drug use, where people are getting killed all the time, it’s just a volatile situation,” Barthelemy said. “If you talk to the kids, they don’t see a future for themselves. They think they’re going to die young.”

The gangs offer a level of protection and give the youths a sense of belonging, Barthelemy said.

The sense of belonging and purpose is often missing from a gang member’s home life — where parents are usually absent or involved in criminal activity, said Cecile Guin, director of the LSU Office of Social Service Research and Development.

Compounding the problem of unstable homes are violent streets where drug use is rampant, options are limited and it seems nearly everyone has a gun, Barthelemy said.

“For young kids right now, it’s ridiculous how easy it is for them to get a gun,” Barthelemy said. “All they have to do is want one.”

Many kids in these communities are taught from an early age that the way to get respect is by being the toughest and most violent, said Reed, who led the Baton Rouge gang the Southside Wrecking Crew in the late 1980s. Reed was in and out of prison for 25 years before forming Stop The Killing, Inc. in 2002.

Even incarceration — or “getting your stripes” — is considered a rite of passage, Reed said.

When youths band together in named groups, the cliques “are more glamorized than organized,” with the youths trying to emulate what they see in hip-hop culture, Reed said.

“You’re dealing with a group of individuals whose morals have been turned down so low, they feel like they have to have the best thing in the store to feel like they’re somebody,” Reed said. “And they’re willing to put their lives on the line for that.

It just so sad because we’re losing so many kids to the streets, institutions and graveyards.”

On the Internet

National Gang Center

http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/

Stop the Killing Inc.

http://stopthekillinginc.org/