Special Reports

Uncle Sam lends a hand (and muscle) to local fight against gangs

Local law enforcement has a powerful new ally as it fights illegal street gang activity: the federal government.

When local officers talk to each other, they’re using radios supplied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Their overtime can be paid by federal dollars. And the guy sitting next to the cop could be an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In early 2006, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would spend about $30 million helping U.S. cities fight street gangs. The results soon were apparent to police in Kansas City and throughout the region.

Richard Kight, a special agent and supervisor for the ATF, has three agents assigned to work with the Kansas City Police Department’s gang squad.

In September, the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department accepted a $192,000 federal grant to initiate a cooperative effort with federal authorities. The grant will pay overtime to officers to identify areas where gangs are operating.

The resurgence of gang activity in recent years has prompted other area departments to re-evaluate.

Police in Olathe restarted their gang unit about 18 months ago, after seeing a rise in graffiti. Sgt. Grant Allen said 14 officers work on the issue part time.

"It’s possibly a matter of time before the violence starts to escalate," Allen said. "We’ve done training in all of our schools to be observant of gang activity."

Other larger cities with gang problems comparable to Kansas City’s have adopted similar law enforcement strategies. Dallas police focus on the same felonies that have landed Kansas City gangsters in jail.

"Our focus is gangs, guns and drugs," said Lt. Santos Cadena.

Like Kansas City, Omaha, Neb., works closely with federal authorities. In the summer of 2006, Omaha authorities arrested more than 30 gangsters on drug and gun charges.

Authorities in Wichita recently announced the kind of gang prosecution about which law enforcement dreams -- two indictments under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that charged 28 members of the Crips with four murders, robbery and drug trafficking.

RICO allows for heavier sentences, sometimes 20 years, and up to life in some instances.

"RICO is the grand prize in the federal gang initiative, but you have to pick your targets," said Christopher Budke, who supervises the FBI’s gang, narcotics and organized crime squad.

Federal prosecutions in Kansas City have tended to focus on volume, moving quickly to take violent gang felons and drug dealers off the street by charging them with firearms and drug violations.

Kansas City Detective Don Stanze said he has used the relative inflexibility of the federal sentencing guidelines to persuade suspects to cooperate.

He told one defendant during a recent interrogation that nine out of 10 people in federal custody cooperate with police to try to reduce their sentence.

"The 10th one who didn’t, wished he had," Stanze said.