Issue December 5, 2006

Does Louisville have a gang problem?

Questions have arisen in the wake of the recent gang-related murder of a Louisville teen. LMPD officials talk about the issue as if it’s to be expected, while those whose neighborhoods bear the brunt think it’s time to admit the problem is far more than average.

Lt. Col. Philip Turner is a patrol commander and assistant chief for the Louisville Metro Police Department, a position that brandishes the authority of a life in police work. Last Monday morning, he addressed the Metro Council’s minority affairs committee in an attempt to explain this basic concept: how to identify gangs and gang activity.

The result was an hour or so of roundabout conversation, from which came the determination that Louisville’s gang “problem,” as it were, is pretty normal for a city this size. Turner told the committee, chaired by Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, that every city has gangs, and not much puts Louisville’s above and beyond. He told them, just as he told me a few days later, that the police department never stops watching gangs, never stops pursuing them.

The committee invited Turner because there’s been a string of murders involving teens this year, and as well as being a possible indicator of gang activity, that sort of thing always sets people on edge — and when people are on that edge, they need nothing like a good explanation.

Most recently, the Oct. 25 murder of 17-year-old Darryl Head sparked renewed interest, as Head’s killing is the lone of the year’s six teen homicides that police have positively connected to a gang, although some community activists and those who knew Head say more could be.

For yet another year, all this has left outsiders shaking their heads in disbelief, pondering rather ordinary questions of self-examination about themselves and the city in which they live. Meanwhile, insiders wonder quietly whether it will lead to proper acknowledgment that Louisville does, in fact, have a serious problem with gangs, one that needs first to be recognized for what it is before it’s curbed for its violent, destructive potential.
In short, when a police department official implies that gang violence is typical, it pisses off a lot of people — it seems to downplay a grave problem. There’s a perception in the communities most affected by such violence that, despite Herculean efforts by the officers on the streets, the top brass want to whitewash the problem because it blights the city’s image. And that’s something that matters less if it’s true than if it simply exists.

False sense of security?
To simplify it, the “everyone’s doing it” argument falls short with people who live in the wake of Louisville’s gangs, which number 50-60 based on LMPD estimates. That estimate has maintained since merger.
“It’s not typical for Louisville,” said the Rev. Sandra White, who lives in the West End neighborhood of Parkland. “I’ve lived here the majority of my life, and never have I seen gang activity such as this, that has risen up in the last, maybe, couple of years.”

White said drug deals, beatings and general intimidation by groups of young men are a daily occurrence on her block. Her elderly parents live across the street and have basically barricaded themselves inside their home, with bars on the windows and obstructions to keep doors from opening easily. She worries they couldn’t shake loose of all the protections if they needed to leave quickly for some reason, and that someone from outside couldn’t get in quickly during an emergency.

In an interview last week, Turner, from LMPD, called gangs an “everyday responsibility for us.”
“When I was asked, ‘Do we have a gang problem?’ my response was ‘Yes,’” he said, his hovering Southern accent and loquaciousness both naturally disarming. The way he put it, the fact that police in every city of reasonable size will have gangs to deal with is blatantly obvious.

Eddie Woods, who was close to Darryl Head through his nonviolence group Operation Hope and who met with Head just hours before his death, said the LMPD’s characterization is “to downplay it to the point of giving people a false sense of security.”

Bill Keeling, president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police, a First Division Detective and an 18-year veteran of the force, said he’s seen gang activity here his entire career, and that it stretches the breadth of the city. Keeling’s division includes Portland, where he said he sees regular gang activity. He told me the way Louisville’s gangs have been characterized by both Turner and Officer Dwight Mitchell, an LMPD spokesman — as typical and non-traditional — is a spin on the truth.

“In my opinion, I would like to see more resources dedicated in addressing the gang problem that we have in this community,” he said.

The LMPD considers a gang to be three or more people acting together in organized criminal activity. The range of that activity is broad: everything from drug deals and beatings to robberies and shootings.
The gangs unit — a centralized group of detectives with a single focus — was disbanded several years ago in favor of the current strategy, which is based on “flex teams” and a pair of detectives in the Criminal Intelligence Unit who act as central command. The flex teams are made up of a gang coordinator in each of the LMPD’s eight divisions, which blanket the city.

Keeling is among a battery of police officers, both current and former, and community activists and critics (you can find many on the forum pages at www.lmpd.com) who say the new approach doesn’t cover the city’s gangs as well as the old gangs unit.

Gangs are often fluid, volatile
Woods’ work with 30-35 boys through Operation Hope has set him inarguably amid the gang culture and diametrically opposed to it: His mission is to get kids to drop their guns and violent overtures, and in the process, to bond them over a culture of nonviolence. He had convinced Darryl Head of this just before he was gunned down, and said Head’s murder taught him he needs to expand his operation to cover more neighborhoods across the city (Head was murdered in the Victory Park area in West Louisville; his neighborhood was around Sixth and Kentucky streets).

Woods spoke of eight-year-olds already entangled with gangs, albeit often “flag-wavers” — posturing and throwing up gang signs more than the gun-toting, drug-dealing intimidators that make it onto TV. In Louisville, boys in their later teens often populate the more violent gangs.

When you have a social structure that thrives on the unmet needs of young men — aspects of the traditional family system like father figures, a sense of camaraderie, unflinching group support in every situation — you will wind up with a volatile, fluid mix of teens and gangs, most of which are capable shape-shifters when the heat gets too hot: For instance, when its suspected leader, Kenneth Parker, was convicted of two murders in November 2005 and sentenced to life in prison, the Victory Park Crips split into several different active groups, according to Woods.

Detective Juan Garrett, an 18-year Louisville police veteran and one of the two detectives who run point on gangs, said they’re are all over the city.

“They can occur in any area,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “They’re not restricted to any neighborhood, they’re not restricted by race, ethnicity or anything. It just depends on where they want to commit their criminal activity or form a particular group.”

The Rev. White’s daughter, Caseda Moore, 35, lives in Fern Creek but grew up in Parkland. She agrees that gangs are a citywide problem, not just a West End nuisance; however, she said perceptions vary, which can be problematic in places like Fern Creek — basically, in places other than West Louisville.

“When I come downtown, I am treated so differently,” she told me last week. “I have a Suburban with some rims on it, OK? I come downtown and I’m a drug dealer.”

All this, along with media attention for more violent gang acts that feeds a constant game of one-upmanship, makes monitoring gangs — like any organized crime sector — challenging police work, according to Detective Garrett.

“As far as street gangs and gang issues, we have gang issues — maybe not to the severity of some of the surrounding cities, but we do have issues,” Garrett said.

But Woods said comparing Louisville with other cities is not a useful exercise to those affected by gang culture.
“When they say it’s not as severe as in other communities, it’s hard to tell that to Darryl Head’s mom.”

To report gang activity to the police, call 574-LMPD.

 

Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com