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Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 4/28/2013

Thug life

Gangs are not driving most of the violence in Toledo, but they pose a growing threat that the entire community, including young people and ex-offenders, must help contain.

The misguided refusal of Mayor Mike Bell and Police Chief Derrick Diggs to provide the community with more information on gang-related crimes, including a map of gang territories and boundaries, undermines the community support and relations the department needs to alleviate the problem.

Nothing in those maps would compromise an investigation. They reflect general conclusions about gang activity in Toledo — something gang members already know but other residents might find useful. To secure that information, The Blade had to send a reporter and photographer into the neighborhoods to talk to gang members themselves.

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The Blade maintains these maps are public information. But however the courts rules on the matter, nothing in the law prevents Mr. Bell from disclosing the maps — nothing except his own long-standing penchant for secrecy.

A longtime government employee before becoming mayor, Mr. Bell appears uncomfortable with the transparency needed to operate local government in an open and accountable way. His discomfort in dealing with the public and media has permeated his entire administration.

That’s unfortunate, because the administration will need a strong community partner to deal with crime. Whether Toledo’s gang problem grows will depend more on the community than the police force. If it does, Toledo can expect gangs to take over more of the drug trade, with its turf wars and retaliatory shootings. Violence on the street will become more indiscriminate — and those who commit it more indifferent to who gets caught in the cross-fire.

The problem here is still manageable. Even by police estimates, gang-related shootings made up fewer than 25 percent of the city’s nearly 900 reported shootings over the past two years. Last year, police classified seven of the city’s 36 homicides as gang-related — a far smaller number than homicides that were caused by domestic violence.

Modern street gangs took over the drug trade in some of the nation’s largest cities in the 1970s and 1980s, as urban neighborhoods crumbled under the weight of crack cocaine, a steady loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs, and cuts in social service programs.

In Toledo today, more young people are growing up poor in similar conditions, with fathers who are either incarcerated or otherwise absent. More than 30 percent of the city’s population is poor, and the rate of concentrated poverty — poor people living in poor neighborhoods — grew by 15 percent over the last decade. Some young people don’t see themselves as part of anything but a thug culture.

It’s no accident that members of the same gang often refer to themselves as “fam,” or family. Being part of a gang provides support, stature, recognition, and even a kind of love that others get through traditional families.

But Toledo isn’t gangland — not yet at least. Most of the city’s estimated 2,000 gang members follow some of the rituals of gang life, such as getting “jumped in,” without showing up on a police blotter. A far smaller number are hard-core street soldiers fully engaged in criminal activity and the violence that attends it, including moving drugs and selling guns.

This year, gang-related crimes and shootings are down in Toledo, suggesting that the Police Department’s new data-driven initiatives, including surveillance cameras and software that identifies crime hot spots, are effective. In the long term, however, community members must become more involved.

During the 1990s, Boston dramatically reduced homicides with its Ten Point Coalition, including 70 churches. Working with police, Ten Point sponsored adopt-a-gang programs at churches, advocated for black and Latino youths in court, ran prisoner re-entry programs, and organized volunteers to tutor in high-school equivalency programs. Apologizing for past abuses, Boston police regained the trust of residents, who fingered the players causing the most violence.

Community intervention isn’t just a matter of large-scale programs. It can mean pulling a young man aside, talking to him about life, and encouraging him to do better.

With so many men removed from the community by incarceration, positive adult male role models for young men become critical, especially mentors who understand their background and culture. Ex-offenders and peers can provide some of the most effective examples.

Besides enforcement, Toledo police have taken some solid steps toward prevention. They’ve organized and strengthened neighborhood watch groups, brought city residents into call-ins with gang members, canvassed neighborhoods to talk to and inform residents, and worked with social-service, employment, and education agencies to provide options for young offenders.

Still, Toledo has lacked the sweeping community partnerships that have defined the most successful cities. Police need to find more ways to work with the community to reduce gang activity and crime, while continuing efforts to target the most violent and committed gang members and neighborhoods.

Mayor Bell’s administration can start with open policies that don’t withhold useful information from the public.



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