A recent survey of law enforcement agencies throughout the state identifies at least 700 gangs in Ohio, with members totaling more than 13,000. Those numbers are actually lower than those of a similar survey done four years ago. But State Attorney General Betty Montgomery says the 2000 study is considered more accurate, and that comparing it to the 1996 survey may be misleading. She stops short of concluding the threat of gangs is waning, but that suggestion does jibe with the assessments of some gang experts here in Cleveland, as 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice- Michael Walker, Director of Partnership for a Safer Cleveland, says gang activity in the Cleveland area is unequivocally down. The Partnership works to reduce violence among city youth. Walker has been working with kids through the organization for 14 years. He says gang problems in communities tend to be cyclical.
Michael Walker- There will be a period where there's not really a large problem, then you see a growth and it 'll get some attention, maybe a couple of high level incidents where it'll get some media attention or newsworthiness, then an effort to quell it -- they'll create a unit. There will be very high vigilance and then it'll get quiet , and then it'll resurge again, and that's been the case with gangs in this country.
BR- Walker says the proliferation of crack cocaine led to an escalation of gang activity in the early 1990s, reaching a peak about 1995. Crack use has subsided somewhat since then, and many of the hard core gang members have, one way or another, been neutralized or removed. Again, he says, it runs in cycles.
MW- You have a lot of gang history, a lot of injuries, a lot of incarcerations. When you see enough of your friends get killed, or are shot or paralyzed you say that's the dumbest thing in the world. Look at the prison population. That population has risen in Ohio dramatically. Where do most of these inmates come from? The city of Cleveland.
BR- While gang activity may be down, Walker says its still a big problem, and a Cleveland Police Department survey obtained by 90.3 WCPN bears that out. The survey, submitted as part of the state study, identified 66 criminal gangs in the city of Cleveland, some with familiar names like the Crips, the Bloods, Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, as well as Aryan Brotherhood and Skinheads. These are what Walker calls "corporate gangs": those involved in serious criminal activity.
MW- Vandalism, armed robbery, drug trafficking, the use of weapons, assaulting, raping -- those are the groups that we have to be most concerned about in this county.
BR- Walker's own estimate of dangerous criminal gangs is lower -- 30 to 45 he says. Their members are both adults and juveniles. Then, he says, there are what he calls "wannabe" juvenile gangs, less pernicious but still troublesome. They're a nuisance to the community, cause problems in schools, and their members often escalate to the criminal level.
Both the Cleveland Police Department and Cleveland Municipal schools declined to interview for this story. Some speculate officials want to keep the subject of gangs out of the public eye, that talking about it will just draw attention to the problem and hurt the city's image. That's been an issue in the past, according to Ken Trump, a former coordinator of the youth gang unit at Cleveland Municipal Schools.
Ken Trump- The biggest problem we had here was denial. We didn't have gangs, according to one educational leader in Cleveland years ago, we had organized student youth misconduct. We weren't allowed to discuss it publicly, not only to the media, but to parents and community officials, and the longer we have denial the more entrenched these problems become.
BR- Trump calls this the ostrich syndrome, and says it, too, runs in cycles.
KT- We've seen across the country people officially in denial in many cities, they come out of it for awhile, and in many cases they go back into denial. It's almost like well, we've solved the gang problem, it's not a big issue anymore, we're going to move on to something else. And that's kind of ridiculous, you always need some kind of level of awareness and monitoring and activity.
BR- But the Cleveland survey indicates police are paying attention. The department has a special gang unit that monitors and documents gang activity. And it's operated a gang prevention program in the Cleveland Public Schools since 1997. And it's participating in the state gang prevention initiative recently unveiled by state Attorney General Betty Montgomery.
Betty Montgomery- It's a first for Ohio. We put together prosecutors, law enforcement, probation, parole, corrections agencies, who will be organized to share the current gang intelligence information and trends.
BR- Carol Rapp-Zimmerman is Deputy Director at the Ohio Department of Youth Services -- the state agency that deals with teen-age criminals, and a cosponsor of the state effort.
Carol Rapp-Zimmerman- We're going to talk about information, we're going to equip ourselves for the short term, but we're also going to learn what we can do to try and avert some of these problems in the future.
BR- Experts say the main key to averting criminal gang activity lies in giving teens more structure and supervision in their lives, a luxury that, in some quarters, is hard to come by. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.