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Ganging up on gangs

They number in the thousands and represent various ages, ethnic groups and neighborhoods. They are also involved with criminal activities ranging from robberies to drugs to violent attacks. But what draws young people to gangs, and what can be done to eradicate gang activity? In Tulsa, local law enforcement, community organizations and even a former gang member are working to curb the trends.

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Sgt. Sean Larkin, head of the Tulsa Police Department’s gang task force, stands in front of a home in north Tulsa marked with gang graffiti. Larkin says that while Tulsa has a gang problem, most of the reported violent crimes are gang-on-gang and not a threat to the general public.Gangs tied to homicide rate

According to Larkin’s latest information from 2009, Tulsa has approximately 2,700 active gang members and associates representing a number of gangs, each with its own colors, graffiti and other signs. Unlike gangs elsewhere, Tulsa gangs tend not to be turf oriented but rather tied together by their chosen affiliation. In fact, some rival gang members live on the same streets.

Gangs include various “sets” of largely African-American Crips and Bloods, as well as several Hispanic gangs located mostly on Tulsa’s eastside with names such as the Latin Kings, Juaritos, Nortenos and Surenos. Police also note that gangs with predominately Asian, Native American or white members also are active in the Tulsa area.

Larkin says gang members typically range from 15 to 25 years old but can be as young as 10 or 11.

“We even have some guys in their 30s and 40s who are decked out in gang colors,” Larkin says.

In 2009, Tulsa had a record 71 homicides, and in 33 of those cases (44 percent), the victim, perpetrators or both were in some way affiliated with gangs. As striking as this statistic is, Larkin cautions against the view that there are thousands of killers stalking Tulsa’s streets.

“At any given time, we know that there are only 10 to 15 individuals who account for 85 percent or more of violent gang crimes,” he says. “It’s not like there’s 2,700 gun-toting, shoot-’em-up guys out there.”

Larkin says law enforcement has learned valuable lessons over the years and is getting better at dealing with gangs, particularly street gangs. He points to a growing number of gang-member arrests and contraband confiscations. Through December 2010, police had made 595 arrests and confiscated 152 firearms; $99,898 in cash was confiscated in 2009.

“We have confiscated a record number of guns, close to tripling our recoveries between 2007 and 2009,” he says.

“Overall, I feel good about how we’re dealing with the gang problem.”

Larkin also points to summer 2010’s Operation Triple Beam, a multi-agency law enforcement effort that led to the roundup of wanted gang suspects, as well as guns, drugs and cash.

Neighbors sick of gang infestation

When suspected gang criminals are arrested, it’s up to Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris and his team to put them behind bars. Harris, now in his fourth term as DA, says gang activity has the full attention of his office.

“It’s an extremely serious problem,” he says. “It’s our problem as a community and it can’t be insulated. It’s like a cancer that will affect the entire body. That’s why we have two dedicated gang prosecutors and a dedicated (gang) investigator in the DA’s office.”

Currently, the DA’s office relies on federal stimulus grant money to pay for these dedicated anti-gang positions. The two-year grant expires in July and Harris is hopeful it will be renewed.

“I hope Washington (D.C.) continues to see the wisdom of this,” he says, citing 411 gang-related case referrals through November 2009. “To not have the grant renewed would be a blow.”

Because of the proven threat of gang violence, Harris’ office is vigorous in its prosecution of violent gang crime.

“The prosecution of violent crime is our No. 1 priority and will always be the top priority,” he says.

According to Harris, law-abiding citizens who reside in gang-infested areas are “sick of living in neighborhoods where kids can’t ride their bikes after dark because of stray bullets from drive-by shootings. People look to law enforcement to solve this problem.”

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