Durham News: Opinion

July 25, 2014

Bob Wilson: City gets ‘incomplete’ on gang report

No one seriously argues that gangs don’t exist in Durham. But their numbers, composition, territories and influence have been debated for more than two decades, and it’s fair to say we still know little about them.

“Durham is the hoodest place in America n----- get shot or robed n no police show up it’s a stra8 jungle in that bitch n only the strong can survive the weak fall n die”

– Marco Reyes, posted on a YouTube site for the documentary film “Welcome to Durham.”

Whether Marco Reyes is a real name or not hardly matters. The writer’s language, or rather the misuse of it, is the sum of all fears about gang culture. His words are pregnant with violence.

No one seriously argues that gangs don’t exist in Durham. But their numbers, composition, territories and influence have been debated for more than two decades, and it’s fair to say we still know little about them.

The city’s 2014 Gang Assessment report tries to connect the dots and succeeds with some of them. Overall, however the report has a tentative tone that reflects its most vital and admittedly hardest-to-obtain element: inside information.

For example, the report has little definitive to say about gang influence in the public schools because “the ‘hard data’... is inconclusive.”

Strikingly, the report doesn’t even name gangs that have been identified in Durham, fretting that might aggrandize them.

Is Durham infested by the Latin Kings? MS 13, the most violent of the genre that originated in Los Angeles? The Bloods and the Crips, sworn enemies that live and die by the gun?

Not naming them is ridiculous. Residents, especially in troubled North East Central Durham, expect their public safety officials to inform them about threats from organized crime – and that starts with names.

Nonetheless, the 2014 report, a sequel to the first gang assessment in 2007, contains several nodes of information that should give any Durham resident pause to think about the issue.

More than three-quarters of residents believe the city has a gang problem. Almost 60 percent of Durham Public Schools students and teachers responding to a survey said gang members are present in their schools.

But belief is a perception. Reality is the hard part.

How do you tag a gang member? Well, you validate him (or her) according to a 12-step chart, any two steps of which suffice. That ranges from tattoos (the infamous tear drop tattoo below the left eye, for instance, signifying a hit), wearing gang colors, claiming gang membership, or even a history of being seen in a gang’s territory.

However loose the validation process may seem, it does produce numbers. Thus, we know that from 2009 to 2012, the period covered by the assessment, police reports with gang members as suspects or victims averaged 1,130 a year.

While that number constitutes only 4.6 percent of criminal incident reports, don’t be lulled into thinking that these incidents were rite-of-passage hijinks. Guns wielded by validated gang members were involved in two out of three aggravated assaults and three out of four robberies in these incidents.

How well organized these gangs are is another unanswered question in the 2014 assessment. Latino gangs are generally disciplined hierarchies, and the report suggests they are a growing presence here.

Any assessment of gang activity these days must consider the land mines of race, and the 2014 report is no exception. But it does note that between 2010 and 2012 young black males comprised 90 percent of arrests in gang-involved incidents.

That figure should rattle every one of us. It represents a massive failure of civil society to mitigate the vexing problem of keeping young black and Latino males out of the criminal justice system.

So far, not much has worked. But give an A for effort to new Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L’Homme, who vows to disrupt the schools-to-prison pipeline.

He will need all the help, public and private, that he can get. His objective is too keep young black and Latino males in the classroom and off the streets where dropouts are magnets for gang recruiters.

If Marco Reyes is one of them, start with him, Mr. Superintendent. Now, there’s some raw material for your experiment.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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