Of course, one bad kid from California can't just move into a small town and conjure up a gang out of the dust. The truth is that when he arrives, he usually has a very receptive audience. A lot of kids want to be gangsters.
Every gang investigator contacted for this article said the influence of rap music, TV, movies, and magazines glorifying the gangster lifestyle is pervasive and dangerous.
"'Gangster' is one of the most searched words on the Internet," says Lou Savelli, a retired New York City gang investigator. "Kids want to be gangsters; they want the money, the girls, and the cars that they see in the rap videos."
The phenomenon of kids wanting to be gang members can lead to some interesting groups claiming a gang affiliation that might raise some eyebrows and some ire from hardcore members of that gang. For example, white kids in suburban Long Island communities say they are Crips, despite the fact that the gang has an almost 100-percent African-American membership. Savelli says that he's also seen white kids in greater Boston claiming to be Latin Kings and Bloods.
One problem that cops in these and other areas have with such unusual affiliations by local kids is that it makes the kids look like "wannabes" in the eyes of city leaders.
Salisbury PD's Sides says you can call many of the local gang members "wannabes" if you want but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously. "Wannabes are dangerous," he argues. "They will shoot you. They will kill you. And they have no concern about the repercussions."
New Haven, Conn., gang investigator Orlando Crespo agrees. "There's no such thing as wannabes; they're 'gonnabes.' They are the most dangerous guys around because they have something to prove."
In many cases, a small town gang member graduates from wannabe status to hardcore gangbanger the day he gets sentenced to state prison. And he may not enjoy the change in status.
"This guy may have just joined the gang for the status but when he lands in prison, he's going to get the crap kicked out of him by hardcore gang members who represent that gang. Or they may tell him that he really has to represent by kneecapping some guy or beating him," says Iowa prison gang specialist Edmunds. "It's not going to be pleasant for him."
Former Rapid City, S.D., Chief of Detectives Christopher Grant agrees, but he adds that eventually it's likely that hardcore gangsters in prison will accept a small town gang member if he can prove his loyalty. "Your average Crip or Blood in prison doesn't care who claims to be in the gang as long as he's representing properly, as long as he knows that guy has his back."
The Damage Done
Gang members are attracted to small towns for a variety of reasons. But the primary reason is that they can do what they do with less scrutiny and less harassment from the men and women of law enforcement.
"In small towns, it's there for the taking," says Jeffrey Stoleson, former Midwest representative of the National Latino Gang Investigator's Association. "Everything they do in the big cities, they can do here. It's a little more secret here, and they can get away with it a lot easier."
In small towns, gangs can sling drugs, warehouse weapons, and run robbery crews, and it may take a while for local law enforcement to catch on because they may not be familiar with the gang. And even if local law enforcement is up to speed and wants to crack down on them, they may be hamstrung by a lack of political will by local leaders.
The result has been a lot more victims of gang crime nationwide. Experts say the crime rate, particularly the violent crime rate, is rising in small towns and gangs are responsible. Sides and his colleagues in the Salisbury PD say gangs are responsible for 60 percent of violent crime in the city.
Other small towns dealing with gangs are seeing similar numbers. And little wonder, according to Valdemar. "Gang members make up less than five percent of the population, but they are responsible for as much as 70 percent of crime," he says.