Breaking through the myths of gangs
January 29, 2009 · 10:34 AM
This week I’d like to try to provide some insight and some context to the perplexing problem of gun-related incidents involving young people. It’s a situation that affects every city around the Puget Sound, and in almost every area of the nation.
As crime rates in our area generally decline, juvenile violent crime has been the exception, related directly to gang violence. The paradox between these two trends is a factor of unique issues within what the media calls the “gang culture.” It’s really difficult to get our collective minds around what seems to be an irrational and destructive lifestyle, but looking at a few “myths” might help. I also want to discuss what we are doing about it.
While most young people continue to quietly make good choices in their lives, everyone in our area is seeing high-profile incidents related to ongoing dynamics involving rival Seattle-based groups. You know, however, that transit and cars make everyone mobile, so the seemingly nonsensical violence and retribution between these relatively small groups affects everyone. When the choice is made to engage in violent acts in places like a mall, it affects everyone’s sense of safety.
I would like to offer a few “myths” about gangs and violence from our observations and research, and hopefully begin a conversation about what we can do.
Myth No. 1 - Gangs are a black thing. Gangs do exist in the African American community, but gangs are also a factor among Hispanics, East Africans, Pacific Islanders, and among whites. The violence occurring in the recent spate of high-profile incidents has centered on African American groups, but that is not indicative of the overall picture. To categorize young black kids because a few have become involved is to ignore the huge numbers who are doing the right things.
Myth No. 2 - Shootings in public places should make us avoid certain areas. A person who chooses to hang out and subsequently commit a violent act goes wherever groups of people go -- to a mall, to a transit platform, to a friend’s house, or anywhere else, just like we all do. These incidents can happen anywhere, and have happened anywhere. It is an uncomfortable truth that nationally we have seen violence in malls, schools, parking lots, churches, private homes, parties, restaurants, office buildings, post offices - I think you get the point. To begin to categorize areas as bad places simply exacerbates the problem and further divides us. We should be aware in public places and be careful, but not avoid them just because of a high-profile incident.
Myth No. 3 - Kids are different now than they used to be. I hear this all the time. I am not being naive when I say that, by and large, I think teenagers right now are doing better than anytime in my memory. Lots of them do stupid things, and a few are just plain criminals. But most are working hard and are pretty impressive young people. A small subset going off in a destructive direction, with an “eye-for-an-eye” gun-driven culture is driving collective opinions.
Myth No. 4 - We can enforce and incarcerate our way out of this. This is probably the most important myth to debunk. Regionally we can, and are, beefing up aggressive enforcement of the most hardcore gang members and putting them away. Last month, I joined Sheriff Sue Rahr, Seattle Chief Kerlikowske, and many others to announce new enforcement and interagency cooperation efforts aimed at better coordination. That will make a difference, and regionally we are actively going after the most chronic and dangerous offenders. But to simply focus on enforcement without creating alternatives and support systems for the much larger numbers of kids on the periphery of gangs is the wrong direction.
While it may seem crazy to some of us to even consider why someone would be in a gang, we need to acknowledge that gangs offer a perception of short-term benefit. A gang may offer a sense of security to a kid who feels threatened, a sense of belonging to a kid who feels adrift, and a sense of risk to young people who want to show their independence. The problem is, it’s about the most dysfunctional choice anyone can make. Here in Kent, we are working on additional enforcement through extra patrols in hot spots and coordinated efforts with other departments. We are a regional leader in working with federal and state agencies to develop and assess intelligence and tracking of the worst offenders. We are also working with minority communities to provide ride-alongs for local pastors to get to know our officers and to connect with kids as the officers contact them during patrol. Our Weed and Seed effort, a community-based program through the Department of Justice, is focused on providing positive opportunities and options for young people.
Gangs and gang-involved kids exist at some level in every community and in every area. Right now, certain groups have decided to use violence and retribution and their acts are affecting all of us. We need to acknowledge that, and be honest about what we can do. It takes enforcement, yes, but we need to be straightforward about the need for the community to own the solution and for families, schools, and churches to deal with it head-on.
We can start through an effective Weed and Seed initiative, by encouraging the State of Washington, even in these difficult economic times, to focus on both enforcement and education, and by having these discussions with our own kids.