COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department has connected several shootings in Columbia since late January and called them gang-related.
But what constitutes a gang?
Missouri statutes refer to criminal street gangs as groups — formal or informal — of three or more people with a common name or symbol who actively engage in a pattern of criminal acts. Those include murder and manslaughter, drug dealing, illegal use of a weapon, witness tampering, robbery and arson.
Other states have similar codes, but the definition of a gang might allow more leeway.
Michigan, for example, defines a gang as an organization, association or group of five or more people "other than a nonprofit organization" with a common symbol or name. It does not mention criminal activity as the primary purpose of the group.
Different states also list carjacking, kidnapping and graffiti as gang activities subject to prosecution.
It wasn't until 2009 that the Columbia Police Department officially acknowledged the presence of gangs in the city. In a collaborative effort with the FBI, federal indictments were issued for 16 people thought to be in a gang called Cut Throat. Fourteen members were from Columbia.
Several were eventually convicted of trafficking cocaine and marijuana and participating in several gun-related incidents, including three drive-by shootings in Columbia and Jefferson City.
The Columbia Police Department had been seeing patterns of gang activity as early as 2000, said former police chief Randy Boehm.
After a perceived increase in youth violence in 2005, Lorenzo Lawson, executive director of Youth Empowerment Zone, looked around for answers.
He asked Dennis Haymon, founder of a gang prevention program in St. Louis, to educate Youth Empowerment Zone staff and volunteers on ways to recognize gang activity and try to stop it.
Lawson said recently that Columbia back then was the "same atmosphere as it is now. A lot of youth violence."
"The birthing ground of the YEZ was that youth-on-youth violence," Lawson said.
But police were not yet calling incidents gang-related.
By 2007, drive-by shootings, graffiti of gang symbols and drug deals seemed to be on the rise. The drug trade led to sellers trying to establish a monopoly in Columbia, provoking violence among groups that sold drugs in the area.
Still, police were hesitant to use the term gang for fear of public misunderstanding.
"Yes, it is technically gang activity, but it’s not what your average citizen thinks of," Boehm said, citing high-profile streets gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips in Los Angeles.
"It's always a balance of not downplaying and not sensationalizing," he said.
The Columbia Police Department formed a gang task force in July. It included the Boone County Sheriff's Department, FBI and Boone County Juvenile Office, according to a previous Missourian report. The task force is not active now, according to police Lt. Ken Gregory, who originally pushed the idea.
In recent years, Columbia police have investigated small groups of 10 to 30 people, usually men in their teens to mid-20s. The Police Department does not publicize the names of the gangs it is investigating to avoid giving them notoriety, said spokeswoman Latisha Stroer.
The issue here is drug disputes rather than protecting territory, she said.
"Gangs do exist in the city of Columbia," Stroer said. "This group doesn't want the other group to sell drugs. It's mainly over selling — period."
Yet Purvis Hunt, youth development coordinator for Youth Empowerment Zone, rejects the notion of gangs in Columbia. Hunt, who is trained in gang prevention through the U.S. Department of Justice, said that compared to the gang he came from in southern California, Columbia doesn’t have a gang problem.
"In gangs you run a complete area. You stick to your side of town. You have your grocery store and your liquor store," Hunt said. That has yet to happen in Columbia, he added: "I see misguided children without support systems."
Of those involved, minority men have been disproportionately more vulnerable than white men to the appeal of gangs, which were historically organized to protect black and Hispanic communities, Lawson said.
Because gang-related crimes often lead to stiffer penalties than crimes committed by individuals, Lawson said the law targets young black males.
"It's not even conceivable (to the public) that white males would form a gang," Lawson said. "A lot of times we are quick to label a group of young people as a gang when they're doing destructive things."
Tyree Byndom, a Douglass Park neighborhood activist, believes gangs can have a positive mission, too. He said he started a gang in St. Louis in the early '80s out of a perceived necessity to protect his neighborhood.
Byndom describes two types of gangs in Columbia as:
- A group that bands together as a family for protection and a sense of belonging. "I see them as a movement, but when they go out, they are seen as a gang," Byndom said.
- Criminal organizations that come to recruit young men "to do their bidding." He said this kind of gang is not as common here in his experience working with youths.
That distinction has been made in the case of Bryan Rankin, the 17-year-old killed Saturday morning at a party in northeast Columbia. Some say the group he belonged to — Hollister Company Boys or "HCO Boyz" — is a gang; others insist it is not.
Columbia police identified HCO Boyz as a gang, citing the state definition without identifying a specific pattern of crimes.
Rankin's family and friends say the members are just friends who wear Hollister clothing.
Yet gangs see them as potential competitors, said Bryan Rankin, the victim's father. When both groups end up in a fight and police show up, HCO Boyz become classified as a gang, he said.
"People just assume they are a gang because when you see a bunch of kids hanging together and then they put a name on it, they’re a gang," he said. "Especially to the police."
Compared to more urban areas, gangs in Columbia do tend to be smaller and less organized, which has led some to dismiss them.
But Larry Parham, a Sedalia police officer who specializes in gangs, said the size or severity of gang activity doesn’t matter when defining gangs.
"That's a cop out. A gang is a gang is a gang, no matter where it is, no matter whether you're in a suburb in Utah or in Compton," he said.
"The gang definition is not because of how sophisticated it is. You still have a gang. It doesn't matter the sophistication level."