Columbia police face difficulties in identifying and defining gangs

Monday, May 23, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 23, 2011
Terrance Jackson waits outside of the police line at the scene of a shooting Wednesday on Linwood Boulevard in Kansas City. During the day, Aim4Peace does outreach activities in neighborhoods plagued by violence until they hear reports of shootings or stabbings — then they go right to the scene and try to talk to victims, perpetrators or anyone in the periphery. The members of the street team aren't the police, so they can't go behind the yellow tape, but for that reason people on the scene will typically be more open with them. Aim4Peace won't report what they're told but will instead try to figure out what groups are actively fighting and try to diffuse situations without force.

COLUMBIA – Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton is not afraid to talk about the presence of gangs in Columbia.

“If they’re in a gang and we talk about it, it doesn’t change that they are,” he said.

Aim4Peace mediates violence in streets of KC

COLUMBIA – Stop the shooting.

That is the simple message behind the Kansas City Aim4Peace: Violence Prevention Project.

A 2006 Kansas City report on violence that showed a need for a dispute resolution service led to the development of Aim4Peace, director Tracie McClendon-Cole said.

It was started in 2008 based on the Chicago anti-violence organization CeaseFire, which was featured in the film the “Interrupters” shown at the True/False Film Festival. An evaluation by the U.S. Department of Justice attributed 16 percent to 35 percent of declines in shootings to CeaseFire.

Aim4Peace works to end violence, especially retaliatory shootings and homicides. McClendon-Cole attributes the shooting problem in Kansas City to interpersonal conflicts.

She said the aim of the organization is to decrease incidents of violence by changing the norm that it’s OK for arguments to result in shootings.

“This is a philosophy as well as an action,” she said. “Shooting is a behavior that can be changed.”

The organization also works to end gang-related violence.

“We use case management and street savvy staff who have legitimacy and respect,” McClendon-Cole said of how the organization works with gangs.

She said along with working with gang members, Aim4Peace also works with gang members’ friends and relatives to change their positions on violence.

Both CeaseFire and Aim4Peace use an evidence-based public health approach to reduce shootings and homicides. According to CeaseFire’s website the organization “maintains that violence is a learned behavior that can be prevented using disease control methods.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the public health approach to violence in a four-step process in which prevention strategies are tested and adopted.

The five pillars Aim4Peace uses as guidelines for its work are based on the public health model, McClendon-Cole said. These pillars are:

  • Outreach: Resolving conflicts and managing cases for high-risk clientele, including people recently released from prison.
  • Community mobilization: Networking with community organizations and providing neighborhood events “to show that folks can come together without violence,” McClendon-Cole said.
  • Public education: Working to help spread the message against shooting and violence.
  • Clergy and community partnership: Getting other organizations to assist the Aim4Peace work.
  • Criminal justice partnerships: Advocating for clients and obtaining data from organizations such as the police department.

Both CeaseFire and Aim4Peace have members who are reformed criminals who were once in similar situations to the people they are now helping.

“A lot of them have been there, done that,” Kansas City Police East Patrol Division Maj. Anthony Ell said. “They want to keep people from going down the road they did.”

"The key is having credible staff who may have been a part of violence, to help reduce violence," McClendon-Cole said.

Aim4Peace works in the East Patrol Division, where each year for more than the past 10 years more homicides have occurred annually than in any of the other five patrol divisions, Ell said. 

Ell, who was involved in the planning and implementation of Aim4Peace, said his department works with the program to provide it with statistics and data about homicides, shootings or incidents where retaliation might occur.

He attributes the prevalence of violence in Kansas City not to gangs, but to poor anger management skills and the belief that it’s acceptable to end disputes with violence. According to the Kansas City Police Department's 2009 annual report, of the known motives for homicides, the highest motive is arguments.

The Violence Policy Center's 2008 black victimization report also found that 81 percent of homicides involving black victims in Missouri were the result of arguments.

A combination of the law enforcement, individuals and organizations like Aim4Peace need to work together in the same area at the same time to successfully reduce crime, Ell said.

“We know the police cannot arrest their way out of this problem,” he said. “You have to do more than throw law enforcement at it.”

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The Columbia Police Department has identified some recent shootings as gang-related.

  • In January, Douglass High School student Alonzo Terell Stevens was arrested when he was discovered to have a gun that was connected to two shootings police said were part of a gang-related feud.
  • In March four incidents of shots fired were gang related, according to the Columbia Police Department.

But Burton said he doesn’t see the shootings in the past few months as related to an increase of gangs.

“Most of that is related to drug activity," he said. "There are alliances, but I don’t think they’re typical criminal street gangs. They’re just loosely knit groups shooting at each other over narcotics.”

Gangs in Columbia gained notoriety in 2009 when 16 people whom police dubbed the "Cut Throat" gang — 14 of them from Columbia — were federally indicted on drug and gun charges, including three drive-by shootings. 

The Columbia Police Department thinks most gangs in Columbia are homegrown, though they may have connections to other cities such as St. Louis or Kansas City, Public Information Officer Latisha Stroer said.

Burton said most of the gangs in Columbia are made up of local youths, and their activity is largely related to drugs and petty crimes.

“Like every city, we have our own group of kids drawn to gangs. Some join the band, others get into mischief,” he said.

“I don’t think they start out saying, ‘Let’s start a gang,’” he said.

Burton attributes youth getting into gangs to a lack of parental guidance. “It’s usually not anything sinister,” he said.

What's in a name?

According to the National Gang Center, Missouri defines a criminal street gang as an organization, association or grouping of three or more people with a common name, identifying sign or symbol, "having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more criminal acts ... whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

Criminal gang activity in Missouri includes assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, arson and murder.

Burton, who previously worked on a gang unit in Arlington, Texas, said the 1990s were the most recent heyday of gangs, and since then there has been a decline in visible activity.


At that time, gangs were more easily identifiable by common symbols or colors, but that isn’t the case today, he said. These days, it's harder to identify gang members. And gangs are tough to keep track of because different gangs often have different characteristics, he said.

When it comes to solving gang-related crimes, the police focus on the actual crime committed, with gang involvement being one aspect or a possible contributing factor.

“The fact that they’re in a gang is usually not relevant to solving an individual crime,” Burton said.

Stroer said the police determine whether crimes are gang-related when suspects themselves acknowledge they're in a gang, or when other people tell police the incident involved a gang or gangs.

If a person admits to being a gang member, that fact will be noted in police records, but the person or gang needs to have committed a crime to be arrested, Burton said.

“It’s sometimes difficult to identify something as a gang activity. It’s frequently just recorded as a crime,” Burton said.

Columbia Police Officer John Warner, a school resource officer at West Junior High School, said there is a perception that the police department does not want to discuss gangs, but he said that is not the case. He acknowledged, though, some caution about using the word "gang" because the public perception of gangs comes from TV and movies and is different from what they actually are.

“People think of the Mafia or a head boss with minions,” he said.

In reality, a gang is a group of like-minded people with criminal intentions, Warner said.

Burton said a gang could technically be three boys drinking who decide to break into a car.

“If they believe they’re a member of a gang, then they are gang members,” he said.

Gang activity up?

In a February article in the Maneater, Columbia Police Detective Jon Logan said gang-related crimes have increased in the past few years. However, in a KOMU story in April Lt. Scott Young said gangs are not a widespread problem in Columbia. 

Burton attributes the different opinions to the difficulty in defining gangs.

But police are taking notice of talk in the media and the department itself about an increase in gang activity.

“It appears that we have had sort of an increase in gang-related crime in the past several months,” Warner said.  

He attributes that to the weak economy, which he calls “a rich target environment for gangs.”

For his part, Burton doesn't think gang activity is up.

Stroer said police record incidents by type, so it's almost impossible to keep track of gang violence or tell if there is an increase or decrease in it.

“We know that we have gangs, but until they commit a crime there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Warner said.

Combating gangs

Sgt. Jay Pruetting, head of the Kansas City Police Department's gang squad, works with the six detectives in his unit and other units to identify and arrest gang members.

In that city, there are 442 known gangs, of which 35 to 40 are active, and around 3,000 gang members, according to the police department.

The gang squad works with the state and federal prosecutor and tries to get every gang-related crime tried federally to get stiffer sentencing, Pruetting said.

He said in any city dealing with gangs, the community must get involved in intervention and prevention.

“If kids have a strong role model, are taught manners and get an education, they usually will not enter gangs,” Pruetting said.

The first step to deal with gangs is admitting there is a gang problem, Pruetting said. Various groups in law enforcement need to work together with community groups and schools to share information and to reduce gang violence, he said.

Pruetting and his squad do this by working with the crime commission, city council and schools to teach them how to identify signs of gang behavior, such as graffiti.

Maj. Anthony Ell of the Kansas City Police East Patrol Division said law enforcement alone cannot stop violence and gang activity.

"There's so much more that needs to be done, like getting to kids early and mentoring them," he said.

Youth and gangs

One organization working to prevent the youth in Boone County from entering gangs and embarking on lives of violence is the Youth Empowerment Zone.

Lorenzo Lawson, the founding director, was certified by the U.S. Justice Department in gang prevention. Part of the training included how to spot signs of people at risk of joining gangs and how to enlighten parents on indicators of gang involvement such as a youth’s speech, paraphernalia and art, he said.

The organization helps any at-risk youth, such as those dealing with poverty and trouble in school or with the law. It teaches youth life skills such as conflict resolution, anger management and how not to give in to peer pressure.

“We are an empowerment program for those who want to change. The young people themselves have got to make the change,” Lawson said.

Warner said police haven’t noticed a lot of gang activity in schools, but they take action when they suspect it. When they spot certain kinds of graffiti or gang symbols, officers try to talk with the youths or their parents or recommend counseling.

Youth Empowerment Zone also puts people at risk of entering gangs in contact with mentors, education and job opportunities.

"It's (gang violence) pretty common in a growing city where there’s poverty," Lawson said, alluding to Columbia. That makes the city "a breeding ground for gangs."

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