One night in late November, an 11-year-old Minneapolis girl sitting at her kitchen table doing homework with her 8-year-old sister was killed by a bullet to the chest, the victim of a shootout between two 17-year-olds she'd never met outside her home.
If Minneapolis police Chief Robert Olson thought the city had licked the gang problem that surfaced in the first half of the year, the girl's death was a tragic reminder of just how difficult — and serious — the problem can be.
"We caught the little thugs in 100 hours, but that doesn't make the tragedy any easier to take," he said. "You get an incident like this and it galvanizes the community."
The shooting occurred after more than four months of a police crackdown on gangs in the Minneapolis area, a move that was spurred by homicide statistics in the city that showed the worst surge in gang-related killings in five years.
Over the first six months of 2002, Minneapolis had 19 homicides, which is about average for the city, but 17 of those killings were gang-related, police say.
"That raised some flags for us," Olson said. "We had a terrible gang killing spree that started in 1997. We saw the same thing that happened then, but on a smaller scale, so we mobilized."
Los Angeles police officials went public with their gang problem last month, when new Chief William Bratton called the issue "a threat to national security" and asked for federal assistance to take back the streets. Olson said that other police departments around the country should be following the lead.
"There's a lot of these young people out there and the gangs give them substance, meaning — all the things kids get from parents they get from gangs," Olson said. "Gangs also give them discipline and, unfortunately, violence. It's not just Minneapolis. It's everywhere. I really believe we as a nation need to take a hard look at this."
In Tacoma, Wash., police are looking at what is happening in Los Angeles and bracing for a potential rise in gang violence of their own, and they fear that at least two unsolved crimes since Thanksgiving may be indications of worse to come.
On Thanksgiving Day, someone opened fire into the front window of a home, killing a 5-year-old boy and a 19-year-old woman. The house was hit by a drive-by shooting two years ago, which police said is most likely just coincidence, but they are looking into the possibility that the house was hit by mistake.
On New Year's Eve, a young couple were found dead in a locked, idling car, in another crime that police suspect may be gang-related.
"They were both executed, there's no other way to put it," police spokesman Jim Mattheis said. "They were shot from behind, in the head."
Another killing in nearby Kent, where three young men were found last week shot inside a locked vehicle left on a roadside in a quiet residential area is also suspected of being gang-related.
Rises in gang activity in Southern California and subsequent police crackdowns historically have had an effect on gang activity in the Northwest. Gang-related violence in Portland, Ore., and Seattle and the surrounding suburbs soared in the 1980s when Los Angeles took steps to clear its streets of gangs.