Ride around the streets of Salisbury, a historic North Carolina town about halfway between Charlotte and Greensboro in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, and you will see some graffiti that looks way out of place.
Gangs in this small Southern city some 2,500 miles from South Central Los Angeles and 500 miles from Brooklyn have splattered once pristine walls with messages pledging their allegiance to the Eight Trey Gangster Crips of L.A. and the Nine Trey Gangsters of New York City's United Blood Nation.
Salisbury Police Department gang investigator Det. Todd Sides says the local thugs that claim affiliation with big city street gangs probably have a very tenuous connection back to those gangs and they aren't involved in red vs. blue warfare. "Here the violence is between the guys on the east side of town vs. the guys on the west side of town, not Crips vs. Bloods," Sides says as he points out the letters "ESP" for "East Side Pride" sprayed on a stop sign.
Regardless of the reason for the beefs between local gangs, they are no less deadly than any other gang battles. "We had never had a juvenile kill another juvenile in this city, until last year," Sides says.
That incident last May shook the city.
A party resulted in a gang fight between crews representing the east side vs. crews representing the west side, and a 13-year-old girl named Treasure Feamster had the misfortune of being the innocent bystander. Feamster was killed by a stray round.
Salisbury is not alone in its pain. Small towns all over America, far from the mean streets of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, are now being plagued by gangs.
How places like Salisbury, Rogers, Ark., Hazleton, Pa., Iowa farm communities, and thousands of other communities, towns, suburbs, and small cities became gang turf is a complex story of money trails, family relationships, American and international migration patterns, and cultural influences. But it can be easily boiled down to some basic root causes.
There's money to be made in small towns. Gangs are all about money. So if a town doesn't have a drug distribution network, a gang will step in and provide one.
Ironically, one of the reasons why a town sometimes has an opening for a gang to establish a drug distribution network is that law enforcement has been doing its job.
Det. Tony Verna of the Lebanon (Pa.) Police Department believes this phenomenon played a role in giving gangs a leg up in the local drug market. "Some of the people who were established before, we were lucky enough to build a case against them and they are now serving some time. So that freed up things for the gang members."
In most cases, gangs discover these markets purely by chance. A member will move to a small town and discover that there's money to be made and then cut a deal with his homies back in the city. The profit margin is especially high for L.A. gangs who sell drugs in the East because drugs are so much cheaper in Los Angeles.
"It's not like the whole gang has to move to North Carolina," explains retired Los Angeles Sheriff's Department gang investigator Richard Valdemar. "One member of the gang goes to, say, Charlotte and calls his homies and tells them how much money he can make for them if they send him some drugs. That entrenches the gang in another city."
Once the gang infests that new city, its tentacles are also likely to reach out to suburbs and surrounding rural areas. For example, Sides says that one of the more active former L.A.-based gang members in his jurisdiction came to Salisbury via the much larger North Carolina city of Greensboro.
Most gang investigators say that it's rare for a gang in a big city to actually plan to take over the gang trade in a smaller city or town. Still, it can happen.
Valdemar says he helped investigate a 2003 case in which the Mexican Mafia plotted to seize the drug market of Oklahoma City. "A crew of eight guys was sent there by the Mexican Mafia, and they took over the Oklahoma City drug market, brought all the local dealers under their control, and indoctrinated them as Sureños (gang members loyal to the Mexican Mafia)."
Obviously, Oklahoma City is not a small town. But Valdemar says he wouldn't be surprised if the Mexican Mafia and other powerful prison gangs were behind some of the spread of gangs into smaller cities and even towns.
And there is some evidence that he may be right. Sides says that last year one of the workers laboring on a hospital expansion project in Salisbury tagged the roof with "Sur 13." (The number 13 is gang code for Mexican Mafia.) Also, officers in Rogers, Ark., have discovered that local Sureño gangs are in contact with veteran Sureños in Los Angeles via MySpace.
Leaving the Homies
Despite suspicions that some gangsters move to small towns on the orders of prison gangs or big city shotcallers, the truth is that most move out of the city for two reasons: heat from police and rival gangs and pressure from parents.
"They are really being hit in the big cities [by police crackdowns] so they see smaller towns as places they can operate with less interference," says Steve Edmunds, a gang specialist with the Iowa Department of Corrections.
The other reason gang members are moving into "Mayberry" is that Mom and Dad think that getting them out of the city will get them out of the gang. It's a good theory.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Valdemar says he has seen every ethnic group try this desperate solution, and it usually results in Junior establishing his big city gang on the streets of his new town.
Officer Jon Smith of the Rogers (Ark.) Police Department agrees. "It's sad because the families actually have good intent," he says. "But the kid is already indoctrinated in gang life."
Another problem that arises when a gang member moves from the big city into a small town is that he can live large on his reputation, or at least the reputation of his gang. This is particularly true if he is from California.
Rogers PD gang investigator Cpl. Craig Renfroe says that California gang members moving into his jurisdiction gain instant status. "He may be a little fish in a really big pond in California, but when he comes here, he's a big fish."
Rogers is a town of 50,000 in the northwest corner of Arkansas, and it has benefited greatly from Wal-Mart's national headquarters in nearby Bentonville and Tyson Foods in neighboring Springdale. Laborers have flocked to the area to work in construction and in the food plants, many of them Hispanic people—legal and illegal—from California.
About five years ago the city started to have a problem with street gangs. "We now have three gangs with ties to Sureños," says Officer Smith.
Smith believes the gangs were not imported from California so much as the gang culture itself. "A lot of the gangs we have here were started locally," he explains. "But they were started by kids whose brothers, parents, and uncles were in gangs in California."[PAGEBREAK]
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.[PAGEBREAK]
Combating gangs in small towns isn't much different than battling them in big cities, except for one major difference: Resources.
Retired LASD gang investigator Wes McBride believes that the biggest problem small agencies face when gangs move into their towns is that they rarely have the money to pay for education and training for their officers. "Without that training, it's hard to recognize what you are seeing," he explains.
Once officers have the training and know what they are dealing with, their next big problem is that they need the green light from local government before they can go public and really take the fight to the gangs. Most city leaders are reluctant to admit they have a gang problem.
However, their attitude usually changes when there is a sensational incident, what McBride refers to as a "bloodbath one weekend." When that happens the local government admits the problem and police are ordered to fight back.
The fight takes two forms. The first is to crack down on the gangs with street operations, building cases against them, and prosecuting them. The second is to deprive them of future members through school and community programs designed to keep kids out of gangs.
There is no nationwide protocol for identifying who is a gang member; each state has its own. For example, some states will allow law enforcement to classify a person as a gang member on the basis of self-admittance such as tattoos and statements of gang loyalty on MySpace. Others require officers to prove that a self-professed gang member is actually in a gang. That puts them behind the eight ball in terms of enforcement strategies.
Another hurdle that gang investigators must overcome in both big cities and small towns is that many gang crimes are not reported. No-snitching campaigns pressure civilians who have been robbed, raped, or beaten to stay quiet. And gang members rarely cooperate with police even when they have been viciously attacked by their rivals. Sides says the gang code of silence can be frustrating for Salisbury detectives: "This boy had his arm blown off by a shotgun blast, and he won't tell us who did it. That makes it really hard to make a case."
One way that small town gang investigators overcome this problem is by using the very nature of small towns against the gangsters. In a small town, there is less anonymity, people know their neighbors. And this makes it easier for small town gang investigators to track the worst of the worst. "These guys are starting to understand that we know who they are; we know who they run with; and when things happen, we know where to find them," says Det. Christopher Orozco of the Hazleton (Pa.) Police Department.
Orozco is a street crime coordinator attached to a gang task force organized by the Scranton FBI office, and he knows by experience that one of the best tools small town law enforcement can wield against gangs is to build a federal case against them. "Some of the career offenders are looking at serious time without parole when we make federal cases. They are scared of federal charges," he says.
The fear of federal time can be used to get even hardcore gangsters who say they will never snitch to rollover on their homies. "I can't tell you how many people have told me, 'I swore I would never do this. But let me talk to you,'" Orozco says with a laugh.
"At that point it's no longer 'snitching' in their mind," adds Sides. "It's helping themselves out."
Reaching Them Young
Sides says the youngest gang member he has seen in Salisbury is nine years old. So he believes it's critical to reach these guys at an early age through school programs.
Salisbury has a pretty active Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program in the local schools. It also has a Project Safe Streets Program that tries to educate the parents about what their kids may be getting into.
"You really need to focus on the parents if you want to see results," Sides says. "You need to teach them how to raise their kids up right."
Salisbury has established a family day program that gives parents school supplies for their kids and a free lunch if they sit through gang awareness seminars. For some of the city's poorer residents, which include parents of some of the most at-risk kids, this is an attractive offer.
A Growing Storm
"A lot of these kids are in gangs because Mom and Dad aren't working and they have no money," Sides says, and he worries what will happen now that the economy is stalling and job cutbacks are sure to follow.
New Haven's Crespo shares that same worry. "The gang situation is going to get a lot worse in our communities," he says.
Valdemar says he saw this coming back when he was on the job, but he didn't see its magnitude. "We really have a flood now," he says. "Before it was a trickle, and myself and some other guys had our fingers in the dike. I don't know what will stop it now."
For small town law enforcement, the rise of gangs on their streets means that their jobs have just gotten a lot tougher and a lot more dangerous. And the violence is just beginning.
Editor's note: The city of Salisbury, NC, covered our story about small-town gangs on a local television station. To see the video report, click here, then click on the video camera icon.
In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.
Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.
Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic. Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.
Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test. Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?
Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship. Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.
Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization? The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.
Chapter 6: Women Warriors. Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.
Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines. The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.
Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold. Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?
Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11. Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.
Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?
Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't. When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.