Gangs have been of even more interest to Charlotte residents since last month's federal drug and gun-related arrests of 20 alleged members of the Hidden Valley Kings. The city's nascent gang problem has been linked to an increasing number of violent crimes.
The Rev. Fran Cook, a Baptist minister sometimes known as "Rev. Po-po" to kids around town, leads the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's gang prevention program. Started in February 2004 in the department's Eastway Division, Gang of One is now used in all 13 police divisions.
Creative Loafing: Everyone's searching for a motive (in the recent shooting deaths of police officers Clark and Shelton). Particularly since it was just a day after the Hidden Valley Kings arrests, people wonder if the killings were gang-related. Have you heard anything that would substantiate that?
Cook: I have not. I have not. The motive to me and as far as I know to the department at this point is still a mystery. I don't want to mislead anyone by assigning that to any form of gang activity. We don't know that. The timing of course is a reality check. But to my knowledge, those incidents are not related.
Tell me about the origins of Gang of One.
The idea was to provide the youth and their families with the resources that go to the root cause of why they were hanging out with gang members in the first place.
One year after we started Gang of One, we recognized that actually over 80 percent of our phone calls now were coming from areas other than our pilot site in the Eastway Division. So we expanded into all 12, now all 13, CMPD divisions. Since February of '04, we've got over 1,000 hotline calls.
The majority of them were related to youth in a gang or youth at risk of joining a gang but then we also started getting phone calls from folks [looking to learn about gangs].
We've gotten approximately 500 calls relating to youth in a gang. Some of these cases are still open, but of the closed cases, we've been able to help approximately 20 percent of our youth to get out or stay out of gangs. That's approximately 70 kids. At the same time there are several hundred kids that we haven't been able to help get out or stay out of a gang.
When someone comes to you and says they want to get out of a gang, what are their reasons?
Sometimes they want to get out of a gang because of a fellow gang member or friend has been shot or they have been physically harmed. They want to get out because they didn't realize that joining the gang was more than just the bling and the excitement that they see in some gangster music videos. [Maybe] their leader in the gang tells them that they need to move up in rank and they have to beat up someone or they have to go rob someone. And these kids decide that this isn't what they thought it would be. This wasn't the family and the support system and the love that they were looking for.
We work with that young person to make a plan to disassociate from that gang. One of the things we tell the kids is that as you begin to make this transition, don't tell the leader in your gang what you're doing. If they do that, they automatically may become a victim of violence by their gang. We advise them to become involved in activities that prohibit them from becoming involved in gang activities.
We want our kids to begin to make excuses for not being there and back them up. "I can't join you because I've got band practice. I can't join you because I've started this job, and I have to work." Whatever it is that kid needs or is interested in that will keep them away from that gang.
Eventually the gang just lets them go. We're in Charlotte, not L.A. or New York, Houston or Philadelphia. The gang members just don't have that kind of power here. Research shows that our kids who join gangs often are in gangs only for a year or two at the most. Then they just stop.
Gangs are not a law enforcement problem. Gangs are a community problem. We cannot solve the problem of gangs by arresting gang members. That's part of the process but if arresting gang members were the ultimate solution, L.A. wouldn't have gangs. New York wouldn't have gangs. It's more complex than that. We do have to arrest gang members when they commit crimes. We have to hold them accountable. But if we can get a kid off track of joining that gang, we want to do that.
We have things to keep them in positive activities and [around] caring adults. That can be the Charlotte Boxing Academy, Right Moves for Youth or after school programs, drama programs, mentoring, tutoring, even counseling.
How can after-school activities, athletics programs and jobs compete with the lure of belonging to a gang?
It's a tough sell, because the gangster culture is so popular. We are swimming against the tide of popular gang culture. One of our goals is to (emphasize that) the reality of gangs is not camaraderie, it's not family, it's not love. The reality of gangs is violence and death and incarceration. We don't shy away from that.
Are the children of parents who care enough or have time to pay attention to Gang of One really at risk of getting involved in gangs?
When we first started Gang of One there was still a lot of denial in the community and denial with the parents. We're starting to see less of that.
What is the age range that kids start being attracted to gangs?
Our target audience for intervention is middle school-aged youth ages 11 to 13. Prevention is elementary school; intervention is middle school. Intervention is also high school, but it's much more difficult at the high school level because, in our experience, young people have already made up their minds.
Are Charlotte gang members redeemable? Can they be saved?
I'd like to think that anyone is redeemable. There's always hope for someone who has made a bad decision to make a better decision in the future.