In 1995, when she was a Columbia Parks and Recreation supervisor, Wynna Fae Elbert told a Missourian reporter that a late-night basketball program had low turnout because teenagers feared gang–related fighting. She didn’t know her words would spark a furor.
Dick Green, parks and recreation director, placed a letter in her personnel file the day the story ran, asking her to “refrain from making negative comments regarding information that cannot be substantiated.”
In a meeting attended by then–Deputy Chief of Police Carroll Highbarger; Elbert’s supervisor, Gary Ristow; and recreation specialist Bill Thompson, Elbert said she was told that saying Columbia had gangs could hurt the community economically.
Columbia had recently been named one of the best places to live by Money magazine, she was reminded.
“I made the mention that we were seeing gangs,” Elbert recalled. “The city didn’t want to hear it.”
She sued Green and then-City Manager Ray Beck, claiming that her right to freedom of speech had been infringed. The suit was settled out of court.
More than a decade later, there is still no agreement on what term should be used to describe youth violence in Columbia.
On April 18, Tedarrian Robinson, 17, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Columbia’s Bearfield neighborhood. By all accounts, Robinson was not the intended target.
Larry McBride, the driver of the car Robinson was riding in, had been arrested 61 times and was in a feud with the man driving the car the alleged shooter was riding in.
Police did not use the word “gang” in connection with the shooting. The incident was characterized by Columbia police Capt. Zim Schwartze as the result of an “ongoing feud between groups.”
Glenn Cobbins, who knew Robinson as a child and also knows alleged shooter Kristopher Prince, 18, described Robinson’s death and other episodes of youth violence as the acts of “misguided children.”
“There are no official gangs here,” Cobbins said. “Hell, no.”
“When you characterize this stuff as gangs, you give these guys big heads that they are really gangs,” said Cobbins. When he thinks of real gangs, he thinks of his hometown of St. Louis, which does have gangs.
“We can’t say these type of things and not be able to prove them,” he said.
An issue defined
The Robinson shooting was “gangsta” — emulating a certain lifestyle — but that doesn’t mean that there are gangs in Columbia, Cobbins said. Real gangs have an established hierarchy, are turf-oriented and can have formal rules for conduct.
Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight uses a more fundamental definition of gangs and readily said there is a gang presence in Columbia.
“It is clear to me from the cases I have handled in the past 14 years that there are groups of people that have gotten together with the purpose of committing crime,” he said. “Under my definition, I think that would be a gang.”
Hickman High School junior Destiny Harrison, who knew Robinson, described his shooting as “stupid people making stupid mistakes.”
She said that there are no gangs in Columbia, just “wannabes” who sometimes claim nationally known gang affiliations at school, such as the infamous Crips or Bloods. But, Harrison said, she takes “wannabes” more seriously since Robinson’s death.
For Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, also originally from St. Louis, “wannabes” can be even more dangerous than gang members.
“They are trying to prove themselves and make a name for themselves,” she said. “These guys here are just running willy-nilly.”
Crayton works at Gentry Middle School. She said she often sees students emulating what they have seen on television about gangs or even using gang gestures. If members of these nationally known gangs were to see this, Crayton said, these youths “would get the devil whipped out of them.”
Across the nation, little consensus exists among experts, citizens and law enforcement about what what makes up a gang. According to Missouri statute, a criminal street gang “is an ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal.” One of the criterion is a common name or common identifying sign or symbol.
To Missouri State University gang researcher and sociologist Michael Carlie, a gang can be made up of as few as two people who “share an ongoing relationship with one another and support one another, individually or collectively ... in delinquent or criminal acts.” Under this definition, Carlie said, the two teens responsible for the Columbine murders could be considered a gang.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm, who has worked for the department for 30 years, said he and his staff find it hard to label many incidents “gang-related.”
Boehm has said repeatedly that based on a technical definition — a group of people who work together to commit crimes — Columbia has gangs. Unlike the notorious Crips in Los Angeles or Gangster Disciples in Chicago, he said, they tend to be loosely organized, fairly small and their members tend to change frequently.
“We’re not opposed to the word ‘gang,’” he said. “My reluctance is that I don’t think that term is truly reflective of what we have in Columbia.”
For Dave Starbuck, president of the Missouri chapter of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association and a retired Kansas City police officer, characteristics such as those Boehm lists are indicative of the culture of hybrid gangs — loosely organized groups that often mimic gangs from larger cities.
These hybrid gangs are often difficult to detect because they do not fit the traditional mold of gangs, he said. In many cases, these groups will use the name of prominent gangs but may have limited ties, if any.
Starbuck said hybrid gangs are usually not turf-oriented and can set aside traditional rivalries to sell drugs together.
“The gang persona comes out when it serves their purpose,’’ he said.
But if not “gang,” what term can be used to describe a group that engages in drive-by shootings, sells cocaine and leaves graffiti with gang symbols? All three crimes have increased in Columbia in the last five years, Boehm said.
Thompson, who has worked for Parks and Recreation since 1981 and runs the drop-in after-school recreation programs at the Armory, said he’s “like everyone else in this community” in having trouble deciding what to call youth violence in Columbia.
From big city to small
Gangs — hybrid and otherwise — flourished in the Midwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s when gangs migrated from larger cities in response to police crackdowns, loss of jobs, increased poverty and the growing crack cocaine market, according to the National Youth Gang Center.
Former Deputy Chief Highbarger said Columbia was not immune to these trends. Highbarger talked about Chris Sledd and his Citywide Posse Group in Columbia, which operated off and on from 1989-1992. Citywide Posse and its rival, 2 Hard Posse, were known for dealing crack cocaine and committing violent acts.
Sledd was sentenced to a 20-year federal prison term and according to federal documents is expected to be released in 2016.
“Here is a bunch of guys that organize and work together that came in and out of existence for a short period of time,” Highbarger recalled.
When asked if he would characterize Sledd’s organization as a gang, Highbarger paused. “No,” he said. “I call it a group.”
Cobbins said both groups were the “closest to gangs” he had ever seen in Columbia.
But Lorenzo Lawson, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Zone, said one does not have to think of Sledd’s group to recall gangs in Columbia.
He hosted a gang prevention and awareness workshop in April. At that event, he said, two youths admitted that they had formed and joined gangs in Columbia.
Whatever the trend is called, “it presents a real problem in our community, and I said this 10 years ago,” said Elbert, who has since retired but still works part-time for the Parks and Recreation Department.
“Now they are all over town, drug dealers all over this community, not just in Ward 1 or the black community.”
“My thing is not to deny we have a problem, but to get on top of it,” she said.
The search for a definition isn’t the only factor that influences whether police and citizens choose to use the g-word, said Carlie, who has studied gangs for 30 years and wrote “Into the Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs.” Admitting a community has gangs hits a law enforcement agency directly in its ego.
“It is a self-admission of failure,” he said. “Why would police say they have a problem they can’t control? That is what a gang is.”
But for Springfield police Chief Lynn Rowe, publicly acknowledging that his community had gangs was not a sign that police had failed.
“In this society, people can do a lot of things. We don’t control people’s movements or who they associate with,” he said. “A lot of this stems from a family problem or family failure, the failure of the community, not just police.”
When he began using the term “gang” — a word he acknowledges he struggled with — to describe groups of youth engaged in criminal conduct, he was asked to “tone down a bit” by some community representatives.
“It’s not necessarily polite from the Chamber of Commerce view,” he said. “From the community’s perspective, no one wants to say there are gangs here.”
When asked whether Columbia’s reluctance to use the term gang was linked to business and tourism, Executive Director of Convention and Visitors Bureau Lorah Steiner bristled.
“As far as we know, there has never been a complaint or concern (about gangs), and anything from the visitor population that suggests it is something I have to address,’’ she said.
She said she was “not sure” that there was gang activity in Columbia.
Some law enforcement officials have said that naming gangs and publicizing them glamorize them. In a deviation from that strategy, the Los Angeles Police Department — home of the infamous Crips and Bloods — recently published a list of the 10 most violent gang members. To deny gangs the gratification of publicity, the department had previously avoided acknowledging them whenever possible.
Critics argue that the department’s decision to publicly identify gang members could help recruit youth considering gang membership. Others argue that those on the top 10 list may strive to live up to their billing, and those gangs whose members did not make the list may act out more violently to gain recognition.
Sgt. Lee Sands, spokesman for the LAPD, said the decision forces gang members, who prize anonymity, out of the shadows. So far, Sands said, the list has helped police capture four of its top 10. The list is continuously being updated and replaced by new faces.
The police are only a small part of the equation in how communities respond to gangs.
“If you admit you have a gang, you have to accept all of the problems that cause a gang to form,” Carlie said. “The real problem is why gangs form.”
Tackling that issue could force cities like Columbia to assume responsibility for racial discrimination, poverty and lack of free-time legitimate activities for youth. These factors and others are critical to why gangs form, Carlie said.
Some residents, like those in his hometown of Springfield, may be forced to rethink their community entirely.
Pretending gangs and the factors that create them don’t exist is like not worrying about the proverbial “termite in the kitchen,” Carlie said. “(Gang activity) is literally eating away at the foundation of the country. Unless it is taken care of very quickly, decisively, and publicly, it is going to continue to grow.”
Regardless of word choice — “group” or “gang” — inaction is not an option, Elbert said.
“If we don’t have gangs, we better get a handle on what we do have so it can stop,” she said. “Our ‘groups’ could get worse.”