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Published: Tuesday, 4/30/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

BATTLE LINES: GANGS OF TOLEDO

Mayor calls Blade series ‘irresponsible’

But others in Toledo, including his challengers, say they love it

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell blasted a four-day Blade series on gangs as “irresponsible journalism” and said it could hinder the city’s economic rebound and efforts to attract investors.

The mayor refused again on Monday to release a map created by the police department that shows where gangs in Toledo operate.

“No position has changed based on anything from the information The Blade has released,” Mr. Bell said. “[The map] is an active investigation based on being able to apprehend people who are doing wrong things.”

In “Battle Lines; Gangs of Toledo,” The Blade detailed the story of gangs in the city and published a map of gang territories that was created after exhaustive interviews and research. The Blade in July filed a lawsuit against the city of Toledo claiming the city’s police department is violating the Ohio Public Records Act for refusing to provide access to a “gang-boundaries map” that police use to monitor increasing gang activities and a record number of shootings.

Mr. Bell was critical of “Battle Lines; Gangs of Toledo” after reading the first and second days of he series.

“I would say it is probably one of the most irresponsible forms of journalism that I have read in the paper since I have been in this city, from the standpoint of the recoil it possibly will have on the economy in terms of being able to recruit people and bring people in,” Mr. Bell said. “To me it is almost like kicking someone when they are down. ... Tell me what is the positive side of this?”

‘Service to city’

Others, including several Toledo councilmen and Mr. Bell’s main two opponents running against him for mayor this year — Councilman Joe McNamara and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez — lauded the series. They both said the police-designed map should be made available for public inspection.

Mr. McNamara held a news conference on Monday to express his disappointment over Congress’ failure to pass universal background checks for guns and to urge Mayor Bell to institute a gun buy-back program for Toledo.

He prefaced his statements with comments about the series and later said the mayor should release the city’s gang map.

“As you all know, and as The Blade is covering very well, we have an issue with gangs in Toledo; we have an issue with gang violence,” Mr. McNamara said. “There is no one panacea or simple solution … one angle I am here today to ask the Bell administration to reinstitute, is a gun buy-back program.”

Mr. McNamara said the city spent $25,000 in 2003 for such a program.

Jen Sorgenfrei said the the mayor’s Coalition for Hope, a coalition of community partners is planning a gun buy back in June at a city church. A date and location is not certain, she said.

“It is not just a gun buy-back program,” she said. “It will also include gun safety, anti-gang, and job opportunity.”

Mr. McNamara was surprised to learn during his news conference that the mayor is supporting a gun buy-back program this summer.

“If the mayor is doing that, I am supportive,” Mr. McNamara said.

Regarding the mayor's comments about The Blade’s series, Mr. McNamara and Ms. Lopez said the newspaper did a service to the city.

“I think that we live in a country where freedom of the press is vitally important in terms of providing information to the public and being a watchdog on government,” Mr. McNamara said. “We need a robust media. ... The public has a right to know and what The Blade has done is a basic American value.”

Ms. Lopez said transparency is important.

“I will not suppress the truth,” she said. “Secrecy is not the answer. Newspapers have played a huge role in the changing of our laws.”

Bell: Gangs not news

Mr. Bell on Monday first said Toledo does not have a gang problem but clarified that it is “no different than any other metropolitan city.”

“It’s a gang problem when someone actually creates an action, but up until then it’s just a group of people meeting,” he said. “When it comes into action, that is when our law enforcement goes and initiates whatever is necessary to make sure people feel safe.”

Mayor Bell’s claims downplaying Toledo’s gang problem are contradicted by his own police chief, Derrick Diggs, who told The Blade before its series was published that gangs are an increasing problem in the city.

“Most of our problems are gangs, guns, and drugs,” Chief Diggs said. “It’s all related. ... Are gangs more violent today than they were back in the ’80s around here? Absolutely.”

The mayor said his administration is addressing the problem and pointed out that he has authorized hiring more police officers since taking office in January, 2010, than the previous 12 years combined.

“We are actively working with our youth; we have had the State of the Youth; our Youth March Against Violence; we had our [Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence], which is being nationally recognized; the night basketball, and the PAL program,” he said. “For us, this is not new news. We have been dealing with this actively for a while now, and the crime rates are decreasing.”

Dialogue starts

Toledo City Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson, also with councilmen Tyrone Riley, Rob Ludeman, and Shaun Enright, said the city’s gang map should be released and that the city needs to do more to curb gang violence.

“I think there are a lack of resources for young people in Toledo to provide a viable and sustainable alternative to a criminal life,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said “It is more than a lack of an intact family. That is part of it, but it is also poverty and lack of meaningful opportunities.”

Mr. Riley said: “I do see a gang problem, and I think it has existed for a long time. The Blade has really brought the matter to light and did a good job illustrating the symptoms of unemployment, hopelessness, and poverty.”

Others in the community had mixed reaction to the newspaper’s series.

Albert Earl said his first reaction to the gang series was, “I don’t know if this should have been done.”

“After a day to think about it and grasp the concept and dialogue, I think it was a great thing that The Blade did to make people aware.”

Mr. Earl, a co-founder of the Village 50, said his grass-roots organization has been talking about gangs in Toledo for three years, but the message wasn’t fully received until the Battle Lines series started Sunday.

“Now people are like, ‘Wait a minute. Wow. He said that three years ago. This is a problem.’ Now they’re seeing it. Now there is enough dialogue going on. Maybe, just maybe, people will have more energy to say, ‘I want to get involved,’ ” Reverend Earl said. “Maybe they feel a level of empathy or sympathy to get involved. Unfortunately, this is just the reality of life.”

What’s needed, he said, is for men in the community to redefine for young people what it means to be a man.

“We cannot afford to lose another generation in terms of the violence and the educational issues that are devastating our community,” Reverend Earl said.

The information about gangs in Toledo is important for the public, said the Rev. Donald Perryman of Center of Hope Church on Dorr Street.

“I think that often we stick our heads in the sand … and pretend these things don’t go on, and because it’s easy to demonize certain people, young people,” said Reverend Perryman, who knows at least two of the men from the Battle Lines series personally.

“That's a mistake,” Reverend Perryman said. “Alton Williams is a very talented young man, but we have to make the connections to put them in the right environment where they can succeed.”

Williams, 31, is a former gang member who associated with the Lawrence Blood Villains.

Staff writer Taylor Dungjen contributed to this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com, or 419-724-6171.



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