Gang authority James C. Howell reads research reports on airplanes, and when passengers sitting beside him notice, they usually want to talk about what causes the gang problem.
“What they say is, ‘It’s the family; it’s those bad families,’ ” Howell said. “Well, yes – but there are a lot of other factors.”
Howell is a senior researcher with the U.S. Justice Department’s National Gang Center, and was lead author of a 2007 report on gangs in Durham.
He was back in Durham last week to talk to the Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee on factors that lead youngsters to join gangs and what to do about them – which is, he said, a long-term process.
“Gangs first developed in Durham in the late 1970s, so it’s been well-institutionalized ... for a long, long time,” Howell said. “It’s very difficult to eradicate it when it has become intergenerational in some communities over a 35-year period.
“Now you’re dealing with the sons and daughters of those original gangs, and now grandchildren of them in some cases,” he said.
The 219-page assessment ( nando.com/assess) of 2007 found Durham had gang-suppression services and programs in place, but they lacked coordination and there were gaps between what one group and another was trying to do.
One result of that was the steering committee, a group that formed of city, county, public school and criminal-justice officials, as a coordinating body. Another was hiring Gang Reduction Strategy Manager Jim Stuit, in 2011.
Howell praised Durham for the coordination it has put in place.
“You don’t have to bring in a lot of new programs,” he said. “Durham County has a number of programs. ... It’s a matter of refining your strategy.”
Duke University Vice President Phail Wynn said authorities‘ efforts to draw members out of gangs they’ve joined can lead to gangs’ own counter-measures. Howell agreed.
“There may be violent consequences,” he said.
Stuit and City Manager Tom Bonfield raised questions about declining funding for gang-prevention programs and the best ways to use what money is available.
“How do we do a better job of deciding who we need to put more into ... where we get the highest success rate?” Bonfield asked.
“You’re on the cusp of it,” Howell said, with “meta-analysis” techniques that can identify particular elements of existing programs that are effective for particular individual situations and guide social service and criminal justice in using the right measure at the right time in the right case.
“This is a new frontier,” Howell said.
For the time being, gangs remain a problem in Durham, though according to police, gang-related incidents account for only about 7 percent of the city’s violent crime.
Police believe a feud between two factions of the Bloods gang led to a rash of shootings in early 2014. Overall in 2014, 394 validated gang members were arrested in Durham, on 1,546 charges including 611 felonies, according to data provided the committee last week.
“The gang problem isn’t going to go away,” Howell said. “It’s not easy to tear apart a problem that’s rooted in the cracks of our society.”
“Risk factors” – aspects of life that incline youngsters toward joining a gang – appear and begin affecting children very early, he said.
“A 15-year-old kid doesn’t just wake up and say, ‘Wow, I think I’ll join a gang today,” Howell said.
Rather, joining a gang is the result of a process that can develop over a period of years starting in very early childhood.
“Those likely to join gangs have a large number of risk factors, but also tend to have risk factors in multiple categories of their lives,” he said. “These are interactive risk factors that complicate matters. ... The groundwork is laid way back here at birth.”
Lack of adult supervision, family instability, poverty are risk factors that affect young children. Chronic conduct issues early may be aggravated by factors at school.
“There are a lot of them there,” Howell said. Low achievement on a student’s part is a strong indicator of problems to come, but there are factors on the school’s part such as “a negative school environment where there are a lot of gang fights” – a kid may join a gang simply for protection.
Feeling rejected by peers in more positive circumstances, childhood delinquency, aggressive behavior, dating at a young age – especially for girls – narcotics and emotional upsets such as death of a close relative or parents’ divorce can incline a young person toward getting mixed up in a gang.
“These are interactive risk factors that complicate matters,” Howell said. “Yes, it begins in the family ... but it’s not that simple.”