As an unprecedented number of kids move here or grow into middle- and high-school age, police say gangs are a greater threat than ever before.
By Melissa Hankins
Photographs by Chris Edwards
Throngs of people thread their way through a ring of tents at the Carnaval Carolina on the single Sunday it was held in Charlotte last June, eating tacos and turkey legs, sucking on frozen mangos, and downing soft drinks. Anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 people were expected to attend the annual event, but RCH Broadcasting, the parent company of local Spanish-speaking radio station 105.3 FM and the Carnaval's organizer, says more than 80,000 showed up.
It's designed as a family-friendly affair, a fiesta devoid of alcohol. Small children toddle about excitedly, sweating in their diapers as the temperature spikes to 95 degrees. The noise is loud and grating. Several musicians perform energetically from stages set too close to each other. A couple of speakers spew static.
By 6 p.m., piles of paper plates and balled-up napkins cover the ground like carpet. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective Steve Parker kicks at the trash as he strides from one end of the festival to the other. Parker is a temporary member of CMPD's fledgling gang unit, an officer on loan from the Metro Division. He's at the Carnaval because, he says, so are "hundreds of bangers. We're here to gather intelligence." Bangers are active gang members. CMPD officers often spit out the term.
Parker squints as he scans the crowd. The day is waning, but the sun is still strong. "We're looking for certain clothes, certain tattoos," he says. "The gang unit is built out of criminal intelligence. We track information and put it in a computer system. Gang members are very fluid. Everything changes. By doing operations like this we can see what groups are affiliated with what tags at the moment. For example, we'll know if they've changed colors."
The unit was also there, Parker says, to maintain order. Despite the event's billing as a celebration of Latino heritage, CMPD Major Eddie Levins, former head of the gang unit, says "it's violent. Last year, people got stabbed. And they might not serve beer there, but people come in drunk off their feet."
The event is also, Levins says, traditionally flush with bangers, who show up to show off. Steele Creek Division Officer Steve Worley, another temporary member of the gang unit, says social events can be particularly dangerous. "When bangers have all their women around," Worley says, "not only do they have to impress their brothers, but they have to prove their machismo, too."
Adds Parker, "It doesn't matter to these guys that there are tons of little kids around. No matter where you go in Charlotte—events like this, the mall—you'll find a mix of bangers and kids. They don't give it a second thought." In fact, many of the bangers are kids.
"Like, look at those guys," Parker says, pointing to about thirty people knitted together amid the pulsing Carnaval crowd. The majority appear to be teenaged girls and boys. Parker gestures to the three strollers within arm's length around them. The males, their faces freckled with tattoos, are dressed in immense, low-riding jeans. Long fabric belts hang limply from their waists. Blue bandannas peek out of their pockets.
At this moment, Parker is the only police officer around. Forty-five regular CMPD patrol officers are on duty, along with the gang unit. But there are no blue uniforms in sight—Parker's crew is outside the Carnaval's gates, huddled around their unmarked white van with gang suspects they'd dragged out earlier. Parker is wearing black clothes, but his badge is visible, and so is his gun. As Parker eyes the group, they eye him back. Speaking into his radio headset, Parker says, "I've got a crew. Blue flags. Tatts."
The group edges closer to the officer, and several "mad dog" Parker, which, he explains, means that they look at him with an exaggerated aggression. Which, he explains, is enough reason for CMPD officers to search for identification and weapons. It is not, by the way, illegal to belong to a gang in the U.S., though some states are considering legislation that would change that (in fact, Levins has recently been traveling "almost daily," he says, to Raleigh, lobbying for stricter gang-related rules and sentencing). Some gang members are also illegal immigrants, Parker says, and officers use that as a tool for arresting them. "This could be a big catch if we can get somebody out here," Parker says, an edge creeping into his voice. He sighs and swipes at his handlebar mustache with the back of his hand. Into his radio: "We've got a crew ripe for the picking."
A pause. "The other officers are tied up with arrests."
Five more young men join the group as it inches closer to Parker. Into his radio: "Hey, am I going to get any help out here? I need f—ing people out here!"
Gangs are a growing problem in Charlotte, but hardly one exclusive to Latinos, or any other ethnicity. The gang problem is rooted in the city's rapidly expanding youth population. There are more kids living in Charlotte than ever before (there were 36,420 high school students and 29,207 middle school students enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year), and more of them are getting into trouble. According to police, the number of juveniles arrested for burglary increased 30.8 percent from January to April this year over the same period in 2006. The number of young people stealing cars jumped 50 percent.
And the majority of gang members in this city are under twenty-one. Criminal justice professor Paul Friday, of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, studies juvenile delinquency. "There are lots and lots of children who want to join gangs around here," Friday says.
The reasons young people are attracted to gang life are clear enough. They're sorting out their identities. They're looking for a place to belong. Gang culture—the talk, the dress—has been popularized. But the reasons spurring Charlotte's gangs can also be pinpointed to a couple of the city's specific issues, Friday says. "The single best predictor of juvenile delinquency is poor academic performance," Friday says. "We have an academic problem in Charlotte. Our schools rate poorly on a national scale when it comes to test scores.
"Poor academic performance is also associated with poverty," he says. Poverty is another reason why children look to gangs for support.
"Proportionately, we're certainly not poorer than other cities our size, but economics here are still proportionately more serious. Charlotte's a banking town. We have a lot of white-collar workers. The problem is, geographically speaking, we also have them working right alongside a lot of poor people, too." Swanky Uptown is surrounded by pockets of poverty, still-turning neighborhoods like Chantilly and Wilmore. "This leads to what's called relative deprivation," Friday says, "the expectation of having what others do. Which leads to entitlement, a ‘you owe me' attitude." Kids, he says, are especially vulnerable to these feelings, and it causes them to commit crime and to search for peers with whom they can commiserate.
Another major reason why local kids are turning to gangs, Friday says, is because "research shows there are many female-headed households in Charlotte. Which is not as masochistic as it sounds," he's quick to add. "What I'm talking about here is the lack of positive male role models. Without them, boys don't learn appropriate male responses. They learn to associate maleness with toughness." And, Friday says, in one-parent households where the lone adult is often at work, "kids are not getting the discipline they should. They set their own schedules, they don't have curfews. They're street people. We have ten-year-olds hanging out with sixteen-year-old dropouts who become resistant to authority. They become wanna-bes."
A Wanna-be is a Gonna-be.
This is the motto of CMPD's Gang Intelligence Unit, which formed just a few years ago, in 2003, and it shows how seriously cops take the area's wayward youth. Sergeant Donn Belz directs the group. Prior to this role, he headed up CMPD's Homicide Unit. Belz, bald and straight faced and looking like he could have walked off the set of a network cop drama, says the city's gang problem has been escalating for some time, but that local leaders were slow to acknowledge that fact. "Charlotte is just now finally accepting that it has a gang problem," he says. "This unit is in its infancy."
It is young and small. "There are four full-time gang unit members plus myself and a division coordinator," Belz says. Five officers, including Parker and Worley, have been on assignment with the unit for a couple of years, but ultimately they report to their division captains, meaning they can be yanked back at any time. "The idea is to assign a gang unit coordinator to each of the thirteen [police] divisions," Belz says. "But I don't know when we'll be able to do that."
Says Levins: "Should there be more people on the unit? Yeah, it'd be good to add more people to a gang war. But we've got to work with what we've got." Gang units across the country are not consistent in size, he says, but several are on par with Charlotte's. Atlanta has eleven officers in its gang unit. Philadelphia has just twelve.
The gang unit has entered 2,000 local gang members into Gang Net, CMPD's tracking database, since its inception four years ago. "But according to national guidelines, for every member we have documented, there are three more undocumented," Belz says. "So, actually, there are about 8,000 gang members in Charlotte." For several reasons, it's difficult to pinpoint how much crime in Charlotte can be blamed on gangs, though. Belz calls it a "significant" amount. "Gangs here are involved in murders, rapes, burglaries," he says. Of course, it's possible, too, that the people committing crimes could be doing so even if they didn't have colored bandannas hanging out of their pockets.
Another reason pinpointing crime percentages is hard, he says, because gangs tend to battle with each other, and violence among them tends to go unreported. CMPD has estimated, however, that gangs committed at least 20 percent of the robberies in Charlotte last year. They determined, too, that 92 percent of the area's gang members are male, 53 percent are African-American, and 33 percent are Latino.
Besides the forty-five uniformed CMPD officers patrolling the Carnaval Carolina this late June day, there are ten members from the gang unit, including the temps, and a handful of FBI agents and federal immigration officers.
They aren't enough.
"This group is getting larger by the moment," says Parker, still trading stares with the same group members. He shakes his head.
Several long minutes later, Belz and Worley and about ten others swarm in. Half of the gang suspects melt into the crowd when they see the influx, but officers manage to get their hands on several. In short time, two are on their knees, two more are handcuffed, and police dig into the droopy pockets of a dozen more, looking for weapons and wallets. The crowd closes in, too, curious. Officers yell, "Get back!" Uncertainty fills the air.
"This is why we need more officers in the gang unit," says Parker, clearly frustrated. He circles up the officers who'd come to help him, the ten still busy searching suspects, and keeps the crowd at bay. "See? Instead of getting them all, we're getting, like, five."
Worley looks at Parker and nods toward the knot of spectators. "Yeah, well, they're all around us," he says. "Too many." Then he turns toward a baby-faced boy with a telltale long belt who emerges from the crowd, knocking his fists together. "Stand back! Stand back!" Worley yells, wiping sweat from his forehead. "See him? See what he's doing with his hands? He's trying to rally his brothers. He's telling them," Worley points to the gang suspects being frisked, "he wants to fight." Parker moves in on the troublemaker.
Suddenly, a fight breaks out several yards away, and everyone spins in that direction. A few of the uniformed officers helping the gang unit start to step toward it, but Worley and Parker shout them back. They can't spare the men. "They're starting to edge back up behind us," says Parker in a low tone. The gang suspects who'd split when Parker's backup arrived have returned.
Worley purses his lips, looking rueful. "I wish I had a video camera," he says, "so we could record some of this stuff. Because no one would believe it."
Police make just five arrests at the event (and all five arrestees are later deported, Belz says). Most of the banger suspects end up slinking off with their friends. No one is hurt.
Outside the Carnaval's gates, Officer Chuck Hastings, a full-time gang unit member, explains why the situation seemed to magically dissipate. "We couldn't do much there," he says, shrugging. "Ninety-nine percent of that crew was legal. Second generation. Meaning their parents are probably illegal, but because they were born in the States, they're citizens." When the officers realized they couldn't nab their gang suspects with false papers, they quietly appealed to a couple of high-ranking individuals (the equivalent to mob bosses, officers joke) in an effort to cut the tension. They needed things to calm down. They were, after all, at a festival. And if they couldn't legally remove the characters who worried them, then they certainly didn't want to stir them up any further.
"But, man, we are severely understaffed," Hastings continues. "That whole thing could have gone really bad, really quick. If some of us didn't have the rapport we do with some of those guys…" Parker leans against the van, gulping bottled water and listening to Hastings.
Inside the vehicle, a scrawny kid sits in handcuffs, his belt so long it almost touches the ground. It reads "Brown Pride" in archaic-looking letters. He claims to be fourteen years old. He looks younger.
"That's the problem," says Parker later. "We'll end up just letting him go." Parker is referring to the fact that there are only thirty spaces available for male juveniles in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg jail system, and zero for females, and so, too often, officers say, arresting youngsters is more trouble than it's worth. "They're always right out again," Parker says. But, actually, the police let the boy go because he didn't break any laws. It is evident time and again, talking to the gang unit, that some officers wish they could arrest gang members simply for being gang members.
But back in the van, the boy says he's not in a gang, anyway ("They all say that," says Hastings). "I just hang out with those guys," the boy says.
"Sur 13." Sur 13 is one of the larger local gangs. "They're pretty cool sometimes. But they can be really dangerous. They'll jump you if you mess with them."
The boy goes to Vance High School, where he knows about twenty-five kids in gangs. "Most people there feel the pressure to join a gang," he says. "We get influenced by them. They'll say they'll ‘have our backs.' That they'll take care of us. But if you get in one, you're endangering your family," he says, rubbing his knobby knees. "There are drive-bys and stuff. But I've never been involved in any of that," he adds quickly. "Can I go now?"
An officer unlocks his cuffs.
One-third of Charlotte's gang members are juveniles, meaning they're under seventeen. In 2004, the gang unit established a program to address that fact called Gang of One. The Reverend Frances Cook directs it. "The number of juveniles [in gangs] has decreased slightly since Gang of One's conception," she says, "though I can't say if that's a direct result of our work or not." She smiles modestly.
While the majority of gang members are between sixteen and twenty-one years of age, Cook says, "their target audience is eleven- to thirteen-year-olds. Gangs recruit middle school youth. Kids in every middle school in Charlotte are familiar with gangs. They know gang members. They have them in their community. In our experience, it's at this time when kids will decide if they'll be in a gang or not, so it's critical for us to come in then and say, ‘Hey, there are 1,000 different things you can do besides join a gang.' Because it's not enough to just say ‘no' to gangs," Cook says. "They have to say ‘yes' to something else. I don't care what that something else is."
Though Gang of One consists of Cook and only Cook, she partners with area churches, schools, and community organizations in an effort to provide some of those "different things" juveniles can get involved in—after-school activities that take kids off the streets and educational programs that deglamorize gang life.
"We talk to children about the reality of gangs," Cook says. "We don't try to scare them, but…well, the ones that join gangs are looking for a place to belong. For a family. Or they're looking for money. What they might not realize, however, is that the purpose of being in a gang is to engage in criminal activity. And at some point they'll be held accountable for that."
Cook's office at CMPD's bustling headquarters is a study in contrasts. So is she. "Yes, I am a reverend po-po," she says. "The kids tease me about that. There are probably not too many police departments that have a Baptist minister as part of their efforts to combat crime. But the fact that I'm a minister serves as a bridge between the kids, the police, and the community. I feel called for this work," she says. "Though I never imagined I'd be doing it."
Behind Cook's desk hang her degrees. She's papered the wall to her left in different variations of the Golden Rule, as interpreted by different religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity. On her right hangs a series of sinister sketches; gang-recruitment posters drawn by "her kids." A joker points like a demented Uncle Sam above a Sur 13 insignia, which, apparently, is the gang that Belz and his crew tangled with at the Carnaval. Another picture reads, "F— DA WORLD," a phrase favored by another local gang called MS-13.
"I keep that one up as a reminder that not everyone sees the world as I do," Cook says sweetly, looking preternaturally serene. She laughs. "There are about 150 different gangs around here. It's really a growing problem. But they're not like what you'd think, if you're using, say, L.A. as your model. We're not L.A. We're not New York. We're not Detroit. Gang members here don't control blocks and blocks of territory like you'd see in those cities. Our gangs are very mobile. It's not about territory yet, but that kind of takeover could happen," she warns. "That's why Gang of One's work is so important.
"We have homegrown gangs," Cook says. "Copycats. Members in Charlotte will use the big names, the Bloods, the Crips, but they aren't really affiliated with them. Not yet, anyway. I do think that gang members across the country see the opportunity to move to the Southeast." Charlotte could look attractive to West Coast and New York gangs, Cook explains, mainly because the city hasn't dealt with anything like them before. A small gang unit like CMPD's is much less intimidating than LAPD's massive one, which numbers 350 officers.
The LAPD says it's hard to say whether that will actually happen, however. LAPD Officer April Harding says, "Is there a tracking system? No, there isn't."
Belz has also commented on the fact that gangs are known to keep track of the police assigned to bust them. "I know through word of mouth," he says, "that the [gangs] know our unit's here now."
"What we don't want," continues Cook, "is for gang members from L.A., New York, and Detroit to feel comfortable here"—for them to see Charlotte as a kind of lush, virgin territory, populated by wanna-be gangstas and patrolled by too few gang-specialist cops. Rather than being angry at Charlotte copycats, Cooks says, gang members from other cities probably see imitation here as opportunity, and she expects the bigger gangs, at some point, to reach out to local ones. "I think eventually there will be a connect," Cook says.
Ralph Taylor is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' executive director of alternative education, and he's done volunteer work with some of the established West Coast gangs Cook refers to. He's also well aware of the copycat behavior she describes. Taylor's been with CMS since 1992, and he says he frequently comes across "so-called" gang members during school disciplinary processes. Before that he worked in Tampa Bay, Florida, and he grew up in Miami, "where there were a whole lot of very serious gangs," Taylor says. In comparison, he says, Charlotte's gangs seem silly.
"I've met the ones with the flags in their pockets," Taylor says. "The handkerchiefs. They're more of a social group than a hard-core gang. When they get together, they play video games and watch TV. They fight each other, but as far as the black market stuff, they have no idea what that is." Taylor sounds scornful. "I've had kids here tell me, ‘I'll be a Blood till I die,' " he says. "They'll say, ‘I'm going to do this and that,' and then I'll say, ‘Really? How many are in your gang?' And they'll say, ‘Six.' " He chuckles. "There's one that call themselves the He-Men, like after the cartoon character."
Unlike Cook and Parker and the rest of the gang unit, Taylor doesn't seem to take Charlotte's young gang members too seriously. "Look," he says. "I'm not telling you they're not a problem, because they are. But as far as being the hard-core criminal type…well, these kids are lucky to have $3 in their pockets. I don't want to belittle the fact that there's gang chatter in the schools, but at this point, the kids just aren't menacing."
This attitude, however, seems to anger Levins. "OK, the He-Men? Murderers," he says. "The hangers-on? Dangerous. These not-quite-full-bloom gang members? They go from robbing to stealing cars to shooting people. The level of gang-related crime has increased in Charlotte, and the severity of the crime committed has increased. It doesn't matter if these guys are not full fledged. It's not a small thing, to have documented gang membership in every middle and high school in CMS. There are teachers from that school system that call us all the time, saying ‘please help.' "
Says Taylor, "That's not something I'm aware of."
While CMS has a couple of staff members, like himself, who specialize in working with gang members, Taylor says gangs aren't a major disciplinary problem in the schools because they don't go around terrorizing teachers and other students and because it's not illegal for them to exist. "There are no gang ordinances in the state of North Carolina," he says, "so it's not against the law for them to be here. And I'm not aware of any hard-core recruiting going on in the schools. Kids aren't being kidnapped in the hallways."
Besides, Taylor says, it's not really CMS that should be worrying about gang prevention and suppression. It's parents. "Education is key to keeping things under control," he says. "But it's not so much what the schools can do. It's the parents. Parents shouldn't let their kids walk around with red handkerchiefs sticking out of the pockets, calling themselves Bloods."
During a recent series of community forums held by police throughout Charlotte, the top concern of residents from neighborhoods all over the city centered on the unsupervised behavior of kids. "There are children on the street corners day in and day out," complained one elderly lady at a meeting in the University area. "They sell drugs. They shoot guns. When do they go to school? When do they sleep?" At each forum, residents asked police to keep kids off the street. But Levins says that responsibility falls on everyone. "There are certain parts of town where it's OK for kids to hang out on street corners and certain areas where it's not," he told a crowd at the final forum. "What enforces that? The community does.
"We have to pull kids off the corners," Levins says. "We've got to change the culture. We have to say as a community, we're going to take responsibility for our kids."
And, yes, he says, we have to change the law. While making gang membership itself illegal is a controversial topic (some say doing so would be a constitutional breach), North Carolina lawmakers are now considering legislation that would make it easier to hand out stiff penalties to gang members who commit crime, that would make it illegal to threaten anyone who leaves a gang, and that would allow government agencies to confiscate property used by gangs. The N.C. House and Senate are each considering $10 million grants that would focus on eliminating gangs.
Cook says that, in fact, Charlotte's greatest hope for beating back its gangs lies in Raleigh. "If we can pass those laws, Charlotte can keep gang culture from becoming as entrenched here as it is in other cities."
Levins says he and Cook will continue to travel to the state capital until they get an answer from lawmakers there. It's not been easy getting Raleigh to bolster any part of Charlotte's criminal-justice system though. Finding funding is difficult, and the gang legislation requires a lot. "You should come with us," Levins says, sighing. "We need all the help we can get."