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CAN looks at gangs Deputy Willie Espinoza: ‘We don’t have a problem in Bradley County — yet’

February 25, 2009

CAN looks at gangs Deputy Willie Espinoza: ‘We don’t have a problem in Bradley County — yet’

Gang awareness was the topic at the Community Action Network meeting Tuesday at the First Baptist Church.

The Community Action Network is sponsored by the United Way of Bradley County.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Todd Royal, Cleveland Police Cpl. George Campbell and Bradley County Sheriff’s Deputy Willie Espinoza were the keynote speakers at the meeting.

According to Matt Ryerson, Project director of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program, the Community Action Network received many requests from residents to discuss gangs and how prevalent they are in Bradley County.

“Many cities neighboring us such as Chattanooga and Dalton, Ga., are combating this problem. We wanted to have this meeting to be proactive and to identify and address issues here in our community,” Ryerson said.

According to Royal, a gang is defined as a group of three or more individuals who meet all of the following criteria:

n The group has a name and an identifiable leader.

n The group maintains a geographic, economic or criminal enterprise/turf.

n They associate on a continuous or regular basis.

n They engage in delinquent or criminal activity.

Many kids, who are recruited into gangs, come from single parent homes, are latchkey kids or kids whose parents work multiple jobs, according to Royal.

“Make no mistake. Kids can be recruited from any neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, black or white. It doesn’t matter upper class, middle class or lower class,” Royal said.

Although gangs are obviously present in Chattanooga the gangs are not organized, according to Royal. This means less violence and crime amidst the gangs; however, once or if a gang becomes organized violence and crime will skyrocket.

Gangs often require new members to commit violent crimes such as murder, rape or robbery, before being accepted into the gang. Some gangs may even inflict beatings or sexual assaults upon new members as an “initiation.”

Royal indicated there are many reasons people are in gangs: seeking protection from a rival gang, being born into a gang family, bowing to peer pressure, or the glorification of gangs presented by the entertainment business.

“Kids who have fathers, uncles or brothers who belonged to gangs typically end up in gangs,” Royal said. “If you listen to certain music lyrics, you’ll hear the ‘artist’ talking about slinging dope and being involved in a gang. They sing about how they have lots of money, nice cars and lots of girls. That entices children.”

Joe Smith has fostered 19 foster-children. During his time as a foster parent he has encountered children who have been exposed to gangs.

“They have an absence of hope and an absence of healthy esteem builders,” Smith said. “We need to restore that.”

According to Smith, parents need to stay actively involved in their children’s life.

Royal suggests parents pay close attention to their children’s “myspace” and “facebook” profiles.

“Also, pay attention to who your children are hanging out with. Who they’re friends with. What they’re wearing,” Royal said.

Individuals who are members of gangs carry certain characteristics. The characteristics vary by gang association, according to Royal. Examples can include:

n Wearing the same color continuously — Gang colors typically are blue, red, and black and yellow.

n Sports jerseys — If an individual is a Tennessee Titans fan yet wears a Chicago Bulls jersey, this is an indication he may be involved in a gang.

n Drawing signs — Pitchforks, dice, pyramids, swords, devil horns, crowns, five-point and six-point stars, double lightning bolts and swastikas represent gangs.

n Using slang language such as “cuz,” “crab,” “slob,” “dawg,” or using hand signals in abundance. Some gangs have even created their own alphabet.

n Wearing clothes to one side of the body. Positioning a baseball cap, a belt buckle or tying shoes to the left or right side of the body could possibly indicate gang membership.

n Brands or tattoos embellishing gangs.

Commonly known gangs are the Black Disciples, People Nation, Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Crips, Bloods, Hell’s Angels, Aryan Brotherhood and Outlaws.

Espinoza presented items obtained from both Cleveland city and Bradley county schools which were classified as “gang wear.”

A black and gold backpack with a five-point crown, blue, red and black bandannas, a blue binder with gang symbols and homework assignments with gang symbols written on the pages.

“This backpack may look like it’s cute and for a little girl, like a little princess; however, the colors are black and gold and the crown, these signs represent the Latin Kings.

“When I found out where this backpack was sold, I went to the store and I told the store associate what it represented. The store associate said, ‘The store heads don’t care because it’s bringing in money.’ We can’t have that mentality,” Espinoza said.

“When I asked these kids about the bandannas they tried to say, ‘Oh, it’s for blowing my nose.’ These bandannas aren’t being used for that. They were folded neatly and were pressed. It’s showing allegiance to gangs,” Espinoza said.

Although the Cleveland City School System and the Bradley County School System offer programs such as D.A.R.E., life skills training and the Second Step program which briefly touch on gang awareness there are no local school programs that focus primarily on gangs, according to Ryerson.

“The truth is there’s not much out there available even on a national level and that’s what’s challenging. There is a program called G.R.E.A.T., which stands for ‘Gang Resistance Education and Training,’ which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice which is gaining popularity though,” Ryerson said.

According to Royal, classifying oneself as a gang member is not against the law — it’s the criminal activity that makes the organizations illegal.

“We’re trying to get the district attorneys to enforce harsher sentencing on individuals who are associated gang members that commit crimes,” Royal said.

“We don’t have a problem in Bradley County — yet. We don’t have the drive-bys like Chattanooga and Dalton, Ga. But there is gang presence in our community,” Espinoza said.

“You can see gang graffiti along a few of our streets now. Dalton Pike, Central Avenue, Bates Pike. It’s here,” Campbell said.

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