Cause of increase in gun crimes hard to pinpoint

Tuesday, November 6, 2007 | 6:17 p.m. CST; updated 5:02 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — More crimes have been committed with guns so far this year compared to last, Columbia police said Tuesday.

But the cause of the spike in gun crimes — sharply illustrated by the robberies and shootings last weekend — can’t be pinpointed.

Although precise statistics weren’t immediately available, Columbia police Capt. Brad Nelson said the last couple of months have been “pretty rough” in terms of gun-related crimes.

“I don’t remember as violent of a weekend in the 15 years I’ve been here,” Nelson said.

Police responded to one stabbing, two incidents of shots fired, two assaults with guns and three robberies from Saturday night to Sunday night.

Although it’s still early in the investigations, police are not sure why there were so many crimes in such a short period of time, Nelson said. There have been only two arrests in the five crimes:

n Maurice D. Figures, 18 — arrested on suspicion of second-degree robbery and resisting arrest in connection with an armed robbery that occurred Sunday at Garth Avenue and Ash Street.

n Andre S. Hayes, 19 — arrested on suspicion of second-degree assault, armed criminal action, obstructing a government operation and second-degree drug trafficking after, police said, he shot at a driver in a car on Interstate 70.

Nelson said he did not know whether one person or a group of people was responsible for several of the crimes, and the incidents seem to be unrelated, random acts of violence, he said.

Lack of cooperation from witnesses at the crime scenes has complicated the investigations, Nelson, the department’s investigative commander, said. On Sunday, none of the roughly 40 people outside of Bambino’s Italian Cafe would give police any information about who fired five shots in the restaurant’s parking lot.

In a separate incident in which a man was shot in the 500 block of Park Avenue, the victim told police the crime was retaliation for a shooting that occurred on Oct. 9 in the same area of Park Avenue. But police have been unable to obtain any information from him on the shooter.

“Sometimes people prefer not to be involved with the police,” Sgt. Ken Hammond of the Major Crimes Unit said. “We’ve seen in the past that there’s a ‘no snitch’ mentality.”

Despite witnesses’ reluctance to answer questions, police are not calling any of last weekend’s incidents gang-related, and police continue to reject the notion that Columbia has gangs.

What police have seen is “out-of-towners versus locals” conflicts between groups with affiliations to cities like St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said.

Sgt. Scott Young, supervisor of the narcotics unit, said police had seen “a sprinkling of issues a year or two ago,” when conflicts erupted between Columbia residents and people from New Orleans who relocated to the area after Hurricane Katrina.

“We haven’t heard any of that recently,” Young said. “In the past we got a few calls ­— sometimes they were the victims, sometimes they were the suspects.”

But Boehm acknowledged that Columbia is home to several loosely organized groups. Police don’t call them gangs because they don’t fit the definition, he said. “These groups aren’t wearing certain colors or hurting people who are in the wrong place,” he said.

Groups in Columbia lack other characteristics of true gangs, Boehm said.

“People think of gangs as something that has more structure,” he said. “These groups are constantly evolving and changing. It’s not unusual for a person to claim a different affiliation within 30 days.”

David Curry, who has studied gangs and gang activity in Missouri and is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he has observed signs of gang activity in Columbia. The three men responsible for two of the three robberies this weekend on Ash Street could be an “adult robbery gang,” he said.

The level of organization is not what qualifies a group as a gang, Curry said.

“In places like St. Louis, they have very loosely organized groups, but they still commit a large amount of crimes,” he said. “Organization has little to do with what makes them a gang.”

Identity, through tattoos and graffiti, is an important element for gangs, Curry said.

Complaints about graffiti in Columbia have also increased this year, though the “tags” have not been identified as belonging to any particular group. Although some tattoo shops in Columbia, like Alternative Art Ink, at 1013 E. Walnut St., have not had any requests for gang-related symbols or signs, Tattoo You, at 1204 Rangeline St., has had requests for them. But they refuse to create those images, manager Scott Lammers said,

“We’ve had people come in and ask for blood ties that symbolize the Bloods, and people have asked for Crips tattoos,” Lammers said.

The most important component to a gang is conflict, Curry said. Gangs emerge through it and grow stronger over time with it. Often the conflicts are either with the police or with residents of the city where they reside, he said.

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