Not calling them gangs didn't make them go away.
Before the Fort Wayne gang unit was formed in July, police typically referred to gangs as “cliques,” a term that conjures up images of the cool kids at high school more than a group of thugs terrorizing neighborhoods.
Officials with the unit still refuse to identify Fort Wayne's gangs by name, saying publicity encourages them, and Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards has said calling criminals gang members makes it harder to convict them because of the strict legal definition of a gang.
Euphemisms, however, don't reduce gang violence.
“It's organized crime,” said Robert L. Rinearson, Fort Wayne Community Schools' supervisor of safety & student management. “A clique? Give me a break.”
Rather than downplaying their presence, Rinearson, who works to keeps students out of gangs, said he believes residents, city and school officials and police must all respond with a coordinated effort to gangs. “The longer we allow it to go, they'll only get stronger,” he said.
Rinearson and Neil Moore, Indiana Criminal Justice Institute executive director and former Fort Wayne Police chief, said gathering and sharing intelligence is crucial.
“Once you have a subculture of violence or gang activity in a city, it doesn't go away,” said Moore, police chief from 1989 to 1997. “The question becomes then, ‘How are the young people going to be influenced by that culture or subculture?' ”
Moore noted homicides spiked while he was police chief, with highs of 41 in 1994 and 42 in 1997, many of them gang-related. In response, Moore said police made a detailed study of the victim-victimizer relationships to reduce the death toll, which dropped substantially in subsequent years. They also emphasized gathering intelligence on gangs under the same principle that sixth-century Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu advocated to his military leaders: “Know your enemy.”
While stressing he wasn't speaking specifically about Fort Wayne, Moore said police leaders often try to save money by reducing specialized units, such as gang units, when gang violence subsides.
“If you have to disband some of your enforcement effort, do what you have to do, but the one person or group you never disband is your gang intelligence group,” Moore said. “They're going to be your eyes and ears and the link to the uniformed patrol officers. … The men and women in the field are there every day, so they start to see the little signs of gang activity much faster than police administrators will.”
Rinearson applauds the formation of the gang unit but wishes it had been formed sooner. In the 1990s, after gang violence spiked, he said agencies shared more information.
“That's been lacking,” Rinearson said. “If you don't have a format that regularly brings people into the same room together, that information often stays in the dark.”
Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York insisted his department did not drop the ball after gang violence subsided. He cited the seizure of about 300 guns in 2006 and another 300 last year, some of which belonged to gang members. And York said police have good information on gangs.
“Officers are not being told, ‘Get in your cars (and) go out and solve a gang problem,'” York said.
York said the gang unit - comprising five city police officers and two Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents - communicates well with the Allen County Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Police. The state agency occasionally works with local police in gang intervention, but due to a lack of troopers, its role is primarily to share intelligence, spokesman Sgt. Rodger Popplewell said. Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries didn't return calls for comment.
Gang unit members said gang violence was down until the deaths of Contrell L. Brown, 18, and Randall D. Paris, 17, on March 24 and March 31. Their slayings are believed to be the result of a gang feud between the D-Boyz and the PAC, two black street gangs.
Unit supervisor and Fort Wayne Police Sgt. John Shank said suspects charged federally by the unit are averaging 19-year prison sentences. “The unit itself is still in its infancy,” he said. “We've had some very good, quality cases.”
Last week's conviction of Melvin Taylor on federal charges of dealing cocaine is a good example of cooperation among Fort Wayne Police, the ATF and the gang unit, said ATF agent James D. Cronin, a member of the unit. Taylor was one of eight men, some belonging to the 5th Avenue Vice Lords, who moved to Fort Wayne from Gary to deal cocaine. The investigation began in October 2005, prior to the formation of the gang unit, which joined the probe later.
It has identified 240 gang members in the city and about another 250 “associates” — people connected to gangs but not official members - according to Deputy Police Chief Nancy Becher who works closely with the unit. Between July 15 and Dec. 31, the unit made 73 drug arrests and seized 29 guns.
But unit members caution against basing performance solely on statistics. Making a case against major players can take months of surveillance, wiretaps, controlled drug buys and use of informants as opposed to netting little fish in a series of quick raids to rack up statistics.
“When you try to do a bigger case, sometimes it doesn't pan out. So you take a risk,” said Cronin. “It's a balance.”
Unit members don't work directly with other agencies or groups and are not part of initiatives such as Operation Ceasefire, a collaborative effort among police, community members and social-service agencies that reduced gang violence in several cities around the nation, including Indianapolis, in the late 1990s and earlier this decade. Unit members, however, said they have a good working relationship with civic and religious groups and neighborhood associations.
Becher said the all-white unit would like to add minority officers and is interested in prevention as well as enforcement. She cited a $35,000 federal taxpayer grant that police recently received for gang intervention and prevention to be used in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs and Urban League.
“There's a good cross-section of the community that works with us in both our efforts to conduct enforcement efforts regarding gang activity and the prevention and intervention strategies,” Becher said.