Law enforcement officials say recruits getting younger

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 18, 2012

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — Scott Flowers hadn’t been a middle school resource officer long when he met his first gang member.
After hearing rumors, Flowers said, he took the eighth-grader aside and asked him.
“He said, ‘yes,’ ” Flowers recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I respect that decision, but I don’t agree with it. Respect me enough to keep it out of my school.’ ”
Flowers, a deputy for the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, worked at Southeast Middle School from 2004 to 2007.
He now works with educators across the county to develop gang awareness programs in schools.
Flowers and other law enforcement officers across the state have seen an uptick in gang-related activities for kids at younger ages.
At the N.C. Gang Investigators Association conference this week, Flowers heard what authorities across the county have been saying: Gang members are targeting elementary school students.
Inside a busy Guilford Ballroom at the Sheraton Greensboro Hotel, Rob Lang, assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, described what he’s seen.
He told about 500 officers in the audience he used to tell parents to talk to their children’s seventh-grade art teachers — because young gang members often doodle gang symbols in school — to know who was affiliated.
“We know it’s way below that now,” Lang said, referring to the recruitment age. “It’s in the elementary schools.”
‘Blessed in’
Rowan County investigators said they’ve seen active recruitment in all phases of education.
Salisbury Police Sgt. Todd Sides said most elementary school students displaying gang traits, such as doodling gang graffiti or wearing gang-specific colors, are “blessed in,” meaning one or both parents were gang members.
“They don’t have to go through the whole fighting thing and initiation,” Sides said. “They were born into that gang.”
For the most part, Sides said, children of gang members run with younger gang-affiliated cliques before joining the larger groups in middle and high schools.
“It’s a case by case thing,” Sides said.
As of August, Salisbury Police had 354 cases of identified members, investigators said, which includes admitted, validated and suspected gang members in the city.
Sides said recent arrests involving teenagers and juveniles have given the impression that middle school students are just becoming involved in gangs. But it’s nothing new to police, he said.
“It’s always been going on. Now it’s just more of a story,” Sides said. “It’s always been that way. They try to get younger kids involved.”
Change ‘not gradual’
One way older gang members have recruited is by offering the prospect of money, friends and popularity, Sides said.
Once in, new recruits are typically asked to commit a crime, which is later used to pressure the recruit into staying with the gang.
“It’s not that they trust each other,” Sides said. “It’s, ‘How much dirt do I have on this person?’ ”
The perception of gang recruitment is that it’s associated with drugs, Sides said, and that the change in behavior will be slow.
But the impact is quick.
“Grades are going to go out the window,” he said.
Clothing, attitude, the language children use and friends will all change, too.
“It’s not gradual,” Sides said.
Police said parents should be on the lookout for changes in behavior for school-age children, especially if it’s out of character.
Fayetteville Police Capt. Mark Bridgeman, president of the N.C. Gang Investigators Association, said he’s seen gang members as young as 6 years old.
“Right around fourth, fifth grade,” is where heavy recruitment begins, Bridgeman said, “to the end of high school.”
Parents are key to helping steer their kids away from gangs, he said.
But he admits it’s “easier said than done.”
“This is where parents need to know,” Bridgeman said. “Why do you have a kid that’s wearing Los Angeles Kings jerseys all of a sudden or wearing a specific color?”
Lesser charges
Officers said one reason gangs recruit younger kids is that until teenagers turn 16, most offenses will be handled by the juvenile justice system. Many officers believe gangs are using that for crime.
“I feel the gangs are looking for younger kids to do the criminal activities because they know nothing’s going to happen to them,” said Flowers, the deputy.
Several high-profile arrests have included juveniles and older teenagers in recent months.
Earlier this month, a 12-year-old and 15-year-old were arrested with two older men during a daytime break-in on Elm Street.
An arrest report said a man rang the doorbell about 1:30 p.m. and when the resident didn’t answer, he and three others jumped a backyard fence and began prying the door open.
Officers caught the group several blocks away. The two men were charged with felony attempted breaking and entering and misdemeanor first-degree trespassing.
The juveniles were given juvenile referrals, which allow officers to arrest them and set up a juvenile court date.
Spotlight on violence
Salisbury was thrust into the state and national spotlight when a 13-year-old girl was shot and killed near the J.C. Price American Legion building on Old Wilkesboro Road in 2007.
Nine men were arrested in the shooting, and Treasure Feamster, the girl who died, became a symbol of gang violence.
In response to the community’s reaction and sudden focus on gangs, Mayor Pro Tem Susan Kluttz and the city of Salisbury began hosting “Gang Summits” for residents ready to get involved.
Businesses, churches, nonprofits and schools began identifying ways to increase gang awareness.
Kluttz, who was mayor at the time, said the first summit was coordinated after citizens began contacting the City Council.
“The community looked at us and said, ‘What are you going to do about this?’ ” Kluttz said.
One of the results was a city-wide curfew for children. Area churches also started new summer and after-school programs.
Kluttz said there have been additional measures, like an expanding Project SAFE neighborhoods program, in the five years since Feamster’s death.
“We’ve done a lot, as far as prevention and awareness,” Kluttz said. “But I think there’s a lot that still needs to be done.”
Kluttz, who was appointed to the Governor’s Gang Task Force in 2011, said she is aware of the gang recruitment age.
“I do know from our police chief (Rory Collins) that the age is getting lower,” Kluttz said.
Larger gangs
As gang recruits get younger, Salisbury investigators say area gangs are growing in size, mainly by consolidating. Sides, the Salisbury police sergeant, said the city has between 15 and 20 gangs. There have been as many as 30 in recent years.
The Bloods gang, made up of a number of independent groups of gang members in Salisbury, is the area’s largest, Sides said. Members replicate aspects of the original West Coast Bloods gang, represented by the color red.
The reason for consolidation, Sides said, is that smaller gangs need to join up with a larger one to protect themselves.
“I think it’s just a power-in-numbers type thing,” Sides said. “Just trying to be stronger.”
Along with Project SAFE Neighborhoods, a national program dedicated to reducing gun violence, authorities are also using the Gang Resistance Education and Training program.
Flowers, the Rowan sheriff’s deputy, said he began teaching the G.R.E.A.T. program about a year and a half ago.
The program is similar to the D.A.R.E. drug abuse program, Flowers said, and focuses on gang prevention. It targets sixth-graders.
Students “have a new environment in middle school,” Flowers said. “They’re not sure which way they’re going to go. You need to make the right decision.”
Flowers said kids of any social or economic background are susceptible to gangs and it’s up to parents and teachers to help them.
“We have to show these kids that we are going to be invested in them,” he said.
“Whether you’re a parent or an educator, if we don’t spend time with them, they’re going to find someone to spend time with.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

From crib to Crips

According to a 2011 gang assessment by the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission.
n 922 validated gangs in North Carolina
n Salisbury has 15 to 20 gangs
n 18,345 gang members are validated in GangNet
n Salisbury has 354 admitted, validated or suspected gang members.
n There are more than 3,500 gang members in the North Carolina prison system.
n 93 percent of gang members are male.
n 68 percent are black.
n 21 percent are Hispanic.
n 8 percent are white.
n 1 percent are Asian.
n Gang members can be between 6- and 70-years-old.
n The average oldest gang member is 27. The average youngest gang member is 15.
n 114 out of the 115 school systems in North Carolina completed surveys in 2008
n  67 percent said there was a gang presence in one or more schools in their district.
n Gang presence has been identified in 568 schools (24 percent)
n 64 percent of high schools have a gang presence
n 59 percent of alternative schools have a gang presence
n 49 percent of middle schools have a gang presence
n 31 percent of other schools, non-traditional high schools, early colleges and special schools.