Special Reports

It’s up to us – it’s up to our whole community

Even police agree they can’t arrest Kansas City out of its gang problem.

Gang membership is woven into the fabric of many social issues, experts say.

Factors such as poverty, domestic abuse, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, social isolation and even immigration all play a role in driving kids as young as elementary school age to join a gang.

Experts now advocate a broad, community-based approach that puts police officers at the table with teachers, parents, neighborhood leaders, probation and parole officers, social service providers and government officials to acknowledge the problem, confront any lingering denial -- and develop ways to fight back.

"There has to be buy-in support from the city, the county and the federal governments," said Luis Cordova, director of community programs for the Mattie Rhodes Center. "When you look at gang intervention, there aren’t many experts out there who know what to do."

After identifying who becomes involved with gangs and who is "at risk," the community should address these broad categories of needs:

Academic, by tracking, tutoring and mentoring at-risk kids and gang members, keeping them in school.

Economic, by referring dropouts to job training programs or paid community service, such as graffiti removal projects.

Social, by educating parents and supporting families with referrals to health services, employment opportunities and substance abuse counseling.

The options for youth under such a model are almost endless. An anti-gang program in Bloomington, Ill., opened an ice cream parlor to give kids a place to gain work experience.

Community leaders in Kansas City hope to see more wholesome after-school activities for kids, such as music and art opportunities, soccer leagues and a reinvigorated Night Hoops basketball program, which has seen participation decline since its high point in the 1990s.

Resolving other issues would require help from the federal government. Dennis Carroll, director of the Northeast Mobile Crime Watch, would like to see some federal action on illegal immigration, which he said is feeding Latino gang membership in the Northeast area.

"Stabilize or triage the situation with illegal immigration and then begin working on the problem," Carroll said. "We might be able to get a hold on the problem, but we’re in overload now."

But pitfalls exist. The history of programs to prevent gang activity and violence is marked with well-meaning failure, including some programs that made the problem worse.

One well-studied 1940s program in Chicago sought to transform anti-social street gangs into positive youth groups, and was copied much later in Los Angeles and Boston. Reviewers determined, however, that the programs had the unintended consequence of strengthening gang ties and increasing crime.

Even aggressive police enforcement can be ineffective. In 1987, the Los Angeles Police Department flooded a small section of the city with more than 1,000 officers during one weekend. The end result was 1,453 arrests, which netted only 32 felony charges.

Today, the U.S. Justice Department warns that "overreaction in the form of excessive police force and publicizing of gangs may inadvertently serve to increase a gang’s cohesion, facilitate its expansion, and lead to more crime."

Writing for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Finn-Aage Esbensen dismissed the idea of a quick fix.

"Clearly, there is no one ‘magic bullet’ program or ‘best practice’ for preventing gang affiliation and gang-associated violence."

But until the community decides how to respond, the battle is best fought in the homes and neighborhoods, said Derek Ruffin, a former police officer who now teaches Spanish at Northeast High School.

"It starts with parents," said Ruffin. "These are just kids. It’s all about family and belonging."

How communities can keep gangs out or stop them:

Develop positive alternatives such as after-school and extracurricular activities for young people.

Support anti-crime and delinquency programs that discourage gang involvements.

Work with local police and Neighborhood Watch programs. Statistics show that watch programs can deter crime.

Take on a zero- tolerance policy on a gang-related activity and share those views publicly.

National Crime Prevention Council