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."
‘They Were Executed’
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.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
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.
Mattheis said there has been "a rash of street-level violence" in Tacoma over the last couple of months, and even though it is not all tied to gangs, the city is focusing attention on the kinds of crime that gangs are known to commit.
"What the chief is doing is he doesn't want us to get caught off-guard," Mattheis said. "We're trying to get ahead of the curve. We don't want to be in the same position we were in the late '80s."
When Los Angeles' Bratton announced last month that the city was going to crack down on gangs, he described a community fighting for its life.
"It will devour this city," Bratton said. "It scares hell out of me how sophisticated, how entrenched they are. The federal government better recognize that and put the same resources into fighting this that they did with the [Mafia] crime families."
Same Name, Different Game
In Minneapolis, Tacoma, Memphis, Tenn., and other cities around the country, law enforcement officials and social service professionals say they are just as concerned about indications that youth street gangs may be on the rise again, even if the gangs may not be as well developed as they are in Los Angeles.
A study of figures from corrections departments across the country done by the National Major Gang Task Force, an organization of current and former law enforcement and corrections personnel, teachers and social workers, found that there has been a rise in the number of people put in jail for gang-related violence, task force director Ed Cohn said. The study is due out later this month.
Police look at crime statistics for evidence of gang activity, but as young people of new immigrant groups become "Americanized" and form gangs of their own, Olson said, the problem becomes more complicated.
In addition to more traditional black, Latino and white gangs, Minneapolis is also now facing gangs of American Indian, Somali and Hmong youth.
Bratton's comparison of youth gangs with organized crime families may be apt in terms of their violence, but police say gangs generally do not have the structure or broad geographic reach of crime families. However, that may be changing.
While gangs in Los Angeles, Detroit, Seattle and Miami might share the same name, style of dress, insignias and patterns of behavior, they operate independently, police and gang experts say. Even in the same city, separate gangs using the same name and to all outward signs the same may fight one another just as fiercely as they fight another group that has adopted a different identity.
For example, in Los Angeles area there are more than 300 groups that identify themselves as Crips, but there is little or no connection among them, said Robert Walker, a former DEA agent and officer with the South Carolina Department of Corrections who runs Gangs or Us, an informational Web site and consulting firm for law enforcement agencies.
While police can step up enforcement to get gangsters who commit crimes off the streets, Olson and others say it is a better option to adopt measures that keep kids from joining violent gangs in the first place.
"We need 100,000 youth workers," he said. "I think we'd save millions."
As part of the Minneapolis police initiative to combat gangs, they have started a Police Athletic League and a Youth Coordination Board, to create positive options for youngsters with nothing to do.
Rita Dorsey, the director of the Youth Violence Abatement Project in the Memphis area, encourages schools to create extra-curricular activities to supplement the in-school programs her group runs to try to dissuade kids from getting involved in gangs.
The organization has a youth mentoring program and would like to start a children's "citizens' police acadamy," a class for kids to learn about what police do and how they do it, to try to break down some of the barriers between cops and kids, she said.
But gangs remain an attractive option to kids who feel little promise from society, and are raised with the values of machismo and saving face, Dorsey said.
"They think that violence is the first and not the last resort, as opposed to the way it was for my generation," she said. "Violence is glorified in the media, and then you have the easy access to weapons. If you have access to a weapon, you're going to use it, and the more powerful the weapon is, the more violent the crime."
However, she said that in the half-year the organization has been in existence, there are signs that it is having some success.
"I feel like I'm building a bridge, doing it one plank at a time," she said. "I think we're making some headway, though, because we're hearing from parents and children saying we're glad you're getting involved."