PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) - The police sergeant told the classroom of eighth-graders a story.
It was real, he said, and it involved a gang that once operated from the Cradock neighborhood of Portsmouth, the city where they live.
About 14 years ago, a young man named Cam was going places. He scored a scholarship awarded by Jay-Z and began classes at North Carolina A&T State University.
But Cam also was friends with a gang leader named OG Mack, and he wanted into the gang, Sgt. J. Dempsey told the Cradock middle schoolers seated in desks before him. Cam was clean-cut, and OG Mack saw a way he could use him: to knock on the door of a house so the gang could rob it.
Cam did it.
Gang members rushed inside, held the homeowner at gunpoint and pistol-whipped her. All to rob a safe that turned up empty, the sergeant said.
When Dempsey later tried to talk to Cam, he wouldn’t snitch on the gang. But OG Mack? He did.
Cam went to prison.
That was about a decade ago. He should be getting out soon, Dempsey said.
“But when he gets out, where’d that degree go?” the sergeant asked.
The students sat silent.
“That’s gone. Everything’s gone. He threw away everything just so he could be cool with these guys.”
Police might have once aimed such talks at high-schoolers. But in Portsmouth, officers are finding - and arresting - ever-younger teens involved in gangs and crime.
That’s why Dempsey was here, talking to kids barely into puberty: 13 or 14 years old. It’s part of a broader effort rolling out this year to stop teenagers from falling into the gang world.
Cam’s was one of several cautionary tales the sergeant told the students that February day. He spoke of a man who was murdered by his childhood friend, a gang leader, for money and jewelry. And he told them about another whose fellow gang members left him to die on a porch during a home invasion.
The message: Gangs will tell you anything to get you in, they’ll use you, they’ll turn on you. Often the only way out is getting sent to prison or getting killed.
Over the summer of 2019, Portsmouth police discovered two gangs had set up in Dale Homes and Southside Gardens, and officers believe the groups were responsible for an increase in violent crime in several neighborhoods earlier last year.
From August to October, officers arrested 34 known gang members with the aid of state police, according to figures from the department.
What they weren’t expecting: 41% of those arrested were juveniles. Of the adults, most were just 18 or 19, right out of high school.
The youngest arrested was 13.
“Which was alarming to us,” Police Chief Angela Greene said.
Dempsey, who has worked in the department’s gang unit for over a decade, said police have always seen some young kids involved in gangs, but what’s happening now is different. Gang members are much younger than Dempsey said he’s ever seen before.
“Almost all of the crime being committed by gang members currently in Portsmouth is 18 and younger,” he said. “I’ve never seen 13- and 14-year-olds before the last year and a half that were the primary aggressors in these gangs. … That’s what we’re dealing with.”
The crimes aren’t isolated to Portsmouth and spill over into neighboring cities. Greene has said people from the two gangs are suspected in the February 2019 shooting that left two injured at Norfolk’s MacArthur Center mall and in the Memorial Day weekend shooting at Chesapeake’s Holly Cove, where a man was killed and nine others were shot.
Police acknowledge it’s a difficult problem to fix, and tactics they’ve relied upon in the past - such as using harsh federal drug and gun laws to put people away for longer - don’t work when the offenders are kids. What’s more, teens charged as juveniles get out quicker than adults, and police have found themselves arresting the same kids repeatedly - a revolving door.
To try to get to the heart of the issue, Greene said her department is now focusing on prevention and intervention. Since December, Dempsey and other officers have been visiting the city’s middle schools, sharing his presentation and stories in an effort to stop kids from being lured into gangs in the first place. And to reach those who might already be headed that way, Greene has plans to roll out a diversion program in partnership with the juvenile courts.
“There’s an issue starting from society, at home, in the neighborhoods, that (is) much bigger than the police department, much bigger than arresting our way out of the situation,” Greene said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot.
“We have to go deeper to the root of the problem.”
In the spring of 2019, Portsmouth police noticed an increase in violent crime, particularly homicides and aggravated assaults.
Officers began focusing on the hardest hit neighborhoods, including Dale Homes, Southside Gardens, Swanson Homes and Lincoln Park.
Previous coverage: Gang violence seeped into Portsmouth neighborhoods. Here’s how police are fighting back. »
A June 5 shooting in Dale Homes - during which a 12-year-old was grazed by a bullet - brought to light a “gang nexus,” Greene has said, two competing gangs in Dale Homes and Southside Gardens.
To help with manpower, local police brought in state troopers to help off and on over late summer and fall. That’s when officers made their arrests of 34 documented gang members.
Only nine of them were 21 or older, Greene said. The oldest was 25.
Nine times, police arrested the same juveniles more than once, she said. Some of them were arrested upwards of four times in the span of just a few months.
And the crimes were felonies, including violent ones. Stolen cars. Stolen weapons. Aggravated assault. In one case, attempted murder, Greene said.
“We have a much bigger problem than we thought with our juvenile gangs,” she told City Council members in a work session presentation earlier this year.
A handful of years ago, particularly around 2011 and later 2015, police took down numerous local gangs in several high-profile federal cases. With gang leaders locked away for years, Portsmouth saw a bit of a lull in gang activity, Greene told The Pilot.
“And now we’ve got a group that has now kind of taken over and (is) trying to rise back up to that,” she said. “We’re hoping to dismantle that before it gets to that point.”
Greene declined to identify the current gangs by name, so as not to give them notoriety or jeopardize detectives’ ongoing efforts to break them up.
Targeting these gangs has, in some ways, proven tougher than breaking up ones driven by older adults. Dempsey said gangs typically have a clear, linear hierarchy. But the ones filled with teenagers appear more loosely organized.
Before, if police took out several of a gang’s top members, it would fold without that strong leadership, Dempsey said.
Another challenge: In the past, local police worked with federal authorities to seek federal charges against gang leaders and dismantle the organizations that way. They can’t use that tactic with juveniles, Dempsey said.
“We’re having to completely go back to the drawing board,” said Dempsey, who asked that The Pilot not use his first name because of his assignment with the gang unit.
Dempsey said he doesn’t know what may be behind the shift to more young people in gangs, but he noted that a lot of the activity is driven by social media, with members posting images with guns and money online daily.
Greene said many of the kids come from poor neighborhoods and may have a home life that lacks support and guidance. They may be looking for a family to belong to, a sense of protection and security or for someone to show they care about them, she said.
“At first, the gangs seem to be that option, to kind of get them in the door,” Greene said. “But once they’re in, they’re in. And there’s no real logical way of getting out.”
The joint efforts with state police - which resumed in February - have yielded some decreases in crime, Greene said.
The city saw 14 homicides in the first half of 2019, six of them in the neighborhoods where police are now focused. There were just two homicides in Portsmouth the last six months of the year, and neither happened in those communities. Overall, the number of gunshot wounds was down slightly citywide, by about 7% in 2019 over the previous year, according to figures from the department.
Many of the guns used were stolen, and Greene said an average of 22 a month were taken out of vehicles and homes last year in the city. That’s trending down, she said, with only four stolen guns reported in January.
But police and other city officials know arresting people once they’re deep in the gang world isn’t solving the problem.
Greene has plans to roll out a diversion program for teens later this year, in partnership with city schools, prosecutors and the courts.
Called the “Respect” program, it will target children under 18 with misdemeanor criminal offenses - such as simple assaults, disorderly conduct, trespassing - and those with a history of truancy and curfew violations. Greene said it could later expand to include certain felonies, such as larceny or stolen vehicles, when appropriate.
The intention is to catch kids before their crimes get more serious.
“Maybe we might be able to change their mindset and give them hope and options for the future,” Greene said.
Participants could be ordered by a judge to complete the nine-week program - the threat of a conviction hanging over their heads if they don’t finish - or they could be referred by teachers, counselors, school resource officers, parents or guardians.
It will be modeled after a similar program Greene and Steve Drew - who’s now police chief in Newport News - developed several years ago when they worked for the Richmond Police Department, she said.
Greene said the goal is to run the program twice annually during the school year, with about 20 participants per session.
At the beginning, social services workers will meet with the children’s families at home, talking to them about services they qualify for and any drug, alcohol or mental health issues that might be at play.
Over the nine weeks, participants would be taught about gang prevention, conflict resolution and self-respect, and parents would be required to attend several sessions, held at school, Greene said.
She said she also wants to connect the teens with mentors who don’t work for the police department and will stick with them after the program ends.
Those who finish the program will be taken shopping for dress clothes to wear to graduation, and the students may be rewarded with a trip to see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Greene said she’s been meeting with the schools and courts about launching the program in the fall, and she’s still looking for mentors and funding for the clothing and trip.
To help those who are already enmeshed in gang life, Greene said the city is looking to adopt a national model developed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In part, the program calls for cities to hire an outreach worker who operates separately from the police department. That person would meet with teens already incarcerated to come up with a plan for when they get out, including help finding jobs, Greene said.
Dempsey and the other officers wrapped up their anti-gang presentations in the middle schools this month. In choosing what stories to tell the students, Dempsey chose ones that would resonate and give them concrete reasons to avoid gangs, he said.
At Cradock Middle School in February, Dempsey and a fellow gang detective told the eighth graders there’s no loyalty in gangs, no family. They told them to avoid areas where gangs hang out, and to take a hard look at the people they’re hanging out with: Are they helping or hindering you?
They told them to tell an adult if they’re approached by a gang member, seek out positive mentors who will help them grow. Go to school.
“That’s what’s going to get you out of here, that’s what’s going to get you what you want,” one of the detectives told them. “Look at what you’re doing now, and what you want to be when you grow up. What are you doing to get to that?”
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