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Published: 10/23/2005

Toledo gang unit's focus shifts toward crime suppression

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Officer Mickey Mitchell arrests Markies Turner for allegedly trafficking in drugs on Prospect Street earlier this week. Police say Mr. Turner, 19, is suspected of being a gang member. Officer Mickey Mitchell arrests Markies Turner for allegedly trafficking in drugs on Prospect Street earlier this week. Police say Mr. Turner, 19, is suspected of being a gang member.
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Officer Robert 'Scooby' Furr holds up a bag of suspected drugs he says a drug trafficker and alleged gang member dumped on the ground. Officer Robert 'Scooby' Furr holds up a bag of suspected drugs he says a drug trafficker and alleged gang member dumped on the ground.
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Officer Mickey Mitchcell, foreground, and his partner, Officer Furr. arrest Ollie Haynes, 60, near Dorr Street, accusing him of possessing drugs. Officer Mickey Mitchcell, foreground, and his partner, Officer Furr. arrest Ollie Haynes, 60, near Dorr Street, accusing him of possessing drugs.
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They call this "babysitting" - these critical hours just after Toledo's schools close for the day and teenagers, pumped with energy and hype, spill into the streets.

It is here that veteran Toledo police Officers Mickey Mitchell and Robert "Scooby" Furr know that tensions routinely have a potential to spike.

It's where a passing insult earlier in the day may be answered with a fist, or where simmering gang tensions might boil over.

It's also part of the reason that the Toledo Police Department earlier this year reworked the way it battles gangs in Toledo - moving its focus from intelligence gathering by plain-clothes detectives to immediate crackdown by uniform officers assigned to the new Gangs/Crime Suppression Unit.

Now four uniformed officers and a sergeant, routinely assisted by an agent from the Toledo office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, have replaced Toledo's 15-year-old Gang Task Force. The group sometimes responds to regular calls while also trying to collect gang information.

The change may not be final.

The Toledo Police Patrolman's Association has filed a grievance over the changes, arguing that the new structure has stripped the unit of its investigative powers and crippled its ability to identify the city's gang leaders and their movements.

"I think we've taken a step back in dealing with gangs," says Gregg Harris, president of the patrolman's association. "I think dismantling the gang unit is equivalent with taking the officers out of the schools. You've got something that works, why mess with it?

Uniformed officers have replaced the detectives who would talk to informants, decipher gang graffiti, sort turf lines, and identify leaders. In its absence, they contend, the rioting in North Toledo Oct. 15 was an inevitable eruption as gangs make their comebacks.

Mr. Harris is caught in the middle because the TPPA represents both members of the old unit and the new unit. The union grieved the change based on contract violations, he says.

Chief Mike Navarre looks at it another way.

Certainly, gangs exist, he says. They've left their graffiti, there's plenty of crime, and neighbors are concerned.

"I'm not going to sweep it under the rug," he says. "We have gang problems here."

In fact, in the days before members of the National Socialist Movement came to town, word on the street was that gangs had a reached a temporary truce and were to come out in force as a united front to neo-Nazis who announced they were showing support for a white resident fighting black gangs.

But the chief last week cited part of a three-page intelligence report his department compiled on gangs in July: "It appears Toledo no longer has the type of random violence usually associated with traditional gangs, [that is], subjects being attacked because they are on another gang's turf or wearing the wrong colors.

"Conversely, members from different gangs have been observed socializing with each other at bars and other gathering places without incident."

The problem, he and other officers said, is distinguishing a group of unruly youths from criminal gangs.

The most criminalized gangs no longer routinely fly their colors - wearing the tell-tale reds and blues that marked Bloods from Crips, for example - as they once did. And many well-known leaders of the 1990s are in prison or dead.

After more than a decade and a half in Toledo, the chief said gang turf has mostly been established and members are more focused on selling drugs or other criminal activity than making a show of bravado to rivals or insisting on drive-by shootings that used to mark a member's initiation.

North Toledo residents last week echoed the chief's words.

Residents told The Blade they are concerned about large gatherings of youths on the streets or at abandoned houses, the spray paint that adorns many abandoned homes, and the drugs that filter onto their streets.

But to characterize North Toledo residents as terrorized is an exaggeration amplified by the mob mentality of Oct. 15, when rioters threw rocks, trashed vehicles, and burned a bar.

In all, 114 adults and juveniles were arrested Saturday in the North Toledo rioting. Twenty-three more were arrested last week, including 19 juveniles, charged with the arson of a bar and other looting.

While some may have been gang members, most were just angry or caught up in the frenzy, residents said.

"Occasionally, there'll be a bunch of girls and boys, but that's just adolescence," said Stan Sherwood, a longtime resident, who carries a cane for protection when he walks with his dog.

"[But] I have never been antagonized when I walk. And who is to say they're gang members?"

Officer Furr calls it deciphering "gangs from knuckleheads."

Officers Furr and Mitchell - both of whom went to school in North Toledo - are circling Woodward High School this afternoon, eyes darting in alleys and passing cars. Two groups of teens have clustered on a grassy yard outside Woodward. Hands flicking at each other, they're obviously squabbling.

The officers' sedan accelerates, now bumping along the grass and dirt.

"What the problem is?" Officer Furr barks. Several kids shrug. "Move on," the officer says. The kids reluctantly shuffle away.

Were they gang members or bored teens?

It's tough to say, and there are other calls waiting. A suspicious truck has caught the eye of one of the afternoon units, and the sergeant wants the pair to check out a couple of suspicious males in the central city. Officers Furr and Mitchell also are monitoring the home of a wanted felon.

Though the officers make it routine to quiz suspects about gang activity, gathering intelligence is a tedious process, slowed by constitutional protections to privacy, says Officer Furr, as the police sedan rolls past a couple of teenage boys hunched over on some steps.

They're motionless as the officers pass, but their eyes follow the sedan.

"Do we run up on them and find out what they're doing?" Officer Furr said. "It's that constitutional rights line that we can't cross."

The crew turns toward East Toledo. A father has pummeled his daughter, they are told. She has black eyes, and he's on foot.

There.

Just over there. Around the house. Male in a white sweatshirt, crouched.

Officers Mitchell and Furr are out of their car, and in a fluid few seconds, Officer Mitchell has the 19-year-old man spread-eagled against a neighbor's wall.

Officer Furr is poking into the dirt, searching through filthy papers and bottles and wrappers where the man had stooped.

"It's in here somewhere. Didn't you see him crouch down?" he asks.

Because gang membership is more subtle these days and permeates drug activity and other street crimes, it only makes sense they do routine patrols, they say.

"It's all related," says Sgt. Bill Wauford, who oversees the unit.

But critics complain the new group is driven by arrests. And Officers Mitchell and Furr acknowledge they're not collecting details on membership nor can they decipher the gang graffiti they pass on their patrols.

But drugs are the lifeline of gangs. And it's the drugs and the street crime that they cause that send fear through residents, they say.

Right now, in fact, Officer Furr isn't giving up on his search in the dirt. He kicks a brick aside, stoops, and grins.

"Got it, Mick!" he calls, holding a plastic bag with 53 tiny pebbles in it. If it is crack cocaine, the officers have taken about $1,000 worth of drugs off the streets. Markies Turner, 19, is loaded into a patrol car for the ride downtown. He's charged with two felonies.

Officer Mitchell notes that the suspect had only a couple of $20 bills on him.

"So somebody else here is holding the money," he says, his eyes scanning the nearby houses.

In a little over an hour, they'll arrest a 60-year-old man leaving a suspected dope house, placing another rock into an evidence bag in their trunk. He too will go to jail tonight.

Officer Furr shrugs: "I don't care what they say. We get this stuff, we're getting to the gangs."

Blade Staff Writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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