Durham News: Opinion

Wilson: Gang threat greater than gang numbers

So City Hall asked residents if they think Durham has a gang problem, and 78 percent said yes. The wonder is that 100 percent didn’t say so.

The city has a long experience with gangs, which today are essentially criminal enterprises financed by the drug trade instead of radiator moonshine. Although they flourish in East Durham, their tentacles extend into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

The 2014 assessment report for the Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee also revealed that 31 percent of those surveyed reported direct experience or knowledge of gang activity – a sobering statistic.

That’s a long way from former police chief Teresa Chambers’ claim 20 years ago that Durham didn’t have a gang problem, a case of the obvious hiding in plain sight.

These outfits are tough nuts to crack, and they do not hesitate to kill or maim anyone encroaching on their territory. The most vicious of gangs is MS 13, which originated in Los Angeles among emigrants from El Salvador and now has a national reach. Others are more familiar blood enemies such as the predominantly black Bloods and Crips.

Gangs here and elsewhere recruit kids who become the functional equivalent of child soldiers. And like a definition of hell, gangs are easy to get into, impossible to get out of.

Some do, of course, but those who live to tell about it are rare exceptions.

Without a steady intake of new members, some young enough for middle school, gangs wither as their seasoned soldiers are killed or taken off the street for prison terms. The latter are justly dismissed as graduate schools for criminality, because gangs also have a substantial presence in prisons.

I have long thought that youngsters without a father in the home are at special risk of being drawn into gangs. Gangs present themselves as a surrogate family – in loco parentis with a vengeance – by fostering intense dependency and a bond of brotherhood.

Rather like all for one, and one for all. But break the rules and you risk becoming no one.

If it seems that the city doesn’t have a firm grasp on the gang issue, it’s because nobody has yet come up with a reliable means of gauging the success of anti-gang initiatives.

That’s what the Gang Reduction Steering Committee is trying to do, but it’s slow going. Sometimes it seems the panel is debating the definition of “is.”

For example, staff writer Jim Wise reported that when Durham Public Schools suggested using dropout, suspension and truancy rates as one measure of gang influence on youngsters, defining truancy became an issue.

There is truancy, and then there is chronic truancy, the latter being 10 unexcused absences from school. At that point, a kid’s parents, often a single mother with multiple children, face intervention by the courts.

Before that occurs, however, anti-gang nonprofits usually enter the picture. All well and good, but some of these tax-subsidized groups don’t keep good data.

For sure, we know when anti-gang measures don’t work. Drive-by shootings, which sometimes kill or wound innocent bystanders, speak to failure like no other indicator.

Deputy Police Chief Larry Smith says about 4 percent of Durham crime is gang-related. That 4 percent, however, sustains itself with gunpowder and hot lead: 103 multiple-victim shootings in the first quarter of 2014.

You won’t find a better measure of Durham’s gang problem than that one.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.