Have gangs, at last, come to Baltimore? Rising violence spurs dispute over label

October 25, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,University of West Virginia National Gang Survey GUN SEIZURES School.. .. .. .. .. Number year .. .. .. .. .. of guns .. .. .. ..55 1988-1989 .. .. .. ..35 1989-1990 .. .. .. ..28 1990-1991 .. .. .. ..22 1991-1992 .. .. .. ..44 1992-1993 .. .. .. ..47 Source: Baltimore Public SchoolsStaff Writer Saff writer Ann Lolordo contributed to this article.

The question hangs heavy in the air as Baltimore's chief prosecutor leans forward in his chair on the second floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, measuring his answer in slow bites so his point will not be missed.

"Does Baltimore have a gang problem?" State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms asked in an interview Friday. "The answer is yes."

It's a loaded statement, and Mr. Simms knows it. In a city that values its reputation as a place far off the gang warpath that runs from New York to the nation's capital, there is a reluctance to call Baltimore's "neighborhood boys" anything but "groups" or "crews" or "loose-knit organizations."

But the debate about what to call them illustrates the deep divisions among law enforcers, neighborhood activists and school officials that some say may stand in the way of unified action.

"We definitely have a problem with youth violence, with youths and guns, with youths and drugs," says Lt. Diane Dutton of the Baltimore Police Crime Prevention Unit, echoing a half-dozen other officers. "But it's really stretching the point to call it gang activity."

But Mr. Simms says that local police may soon be forced to relinquishsuch notions about youth crime in a city where one out of every five murders is committed by a teen-ager.

New federal programs aimed at gang intervention, a pending statewide task force study and gang summits in Chicago and Washington, D.C., last week are driving a discussion that will be hard to ignore.

believe if the police department was honest, if the politicians were totally honest, they would have to say the seeds of a gang problem exist in our community," said the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, who participated in a revival at the gang summit in Chicago.

And Mr. Simms' 19-attorney juvenile unit is reporting new correlations over the past year between crimes by Baltimore's youths and whether they claim affiliation to one of the city's dozens of neighborhood crews. The bottom line: Youngsters who belong tend to be repeat offenders.

"It's a trend that's been developing for the past few years," Mr. Simms said. "I'm ready to stand up and say that today. We've been looking at the problem here for a year now, and we're seeing the connections. There are gangs in this city."

And some say that Baltimore -- one of only six cities nationwide with a population of more than 200,000 that doesn't have some form of police gang unit -- is tempting disaster.

"It's almost impossible to imagine a city the size of Baltimore -- with its proximity to New York and Philadelphia and Washington, with its violent crime rate, with its drug problem -- not having some sort of gang activity," said Dr. G. David Curry, of the University of West Virginia's National Gang Survey project.

"By not recognizing it, you're standing still while it spreads. You're not getting the kind of cooperation between all the groups and agencies that you need to deal with it. And when the problem finally reaches critical mass, the only option you have left is to suppress it in a military fashion."

In Baltimore, they call themselves the McCabe Avenue Boys, the Old York Road Boys, the Whitelocks, the Park Heights Group and the Jamaican Posse. Some go back generations -- passed down from father to son, from big brother to spud sibling -- neighborhood fraternities in which the secrets of life were learned. That was generally the pattern until about 10 years ago, when sophisticated out-of-town drug organizations began moving into town and providing new motives and deadlier means to the local "boys."

"In the old days, you'd get into an occasional fistfight or scrape, but it was mostly just a bunch of guys hanging out on a street corner or playing football in the park," said Bernard Stokes Jr., chief of security for the Baltimore City Schools.

"Now, they're taking over the street corners and the parks They're taking over whole neighborhoods. I don't have a problem saying that there's something loose in the city these days that wasn't here when I was a kid."

What Mr. Stokes does have a problem saying is the word "gangs" -- even though his 94 officers seized 47 guns last year, the biggest haul since 1987.

Last month, school and other police officers quelled a melee near Douglass High School involving about 300 members and followers of the Whitelocks and R&G "groups" -- rivals from Reservoir Hill and the neighborhood around Reisterstown Road and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Residents like Willie and Sallie Johnson have watched thei neighborhood come under occupation by the R&Gs. The Johnsons do not hesitate to call the group "a gang."

"They have leaders, they have names, they are organized and they are armed," said Mr. Johnson, a retired crane operator. "And they have everybody on this block terrified. I call that a gang. Some people might even call them an army."

Still, Mr. Stokes says he is reluctant to call even that "gang behavior" for fear that "labeling it will encourage it."

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