Local law enforcement warn that criminal gang activity is on the rise. But, they say, tactics to clamp down on gang-related violence are also ramping up. Dr. J. Aleem Hud grew up in Columbus during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He moved away for a time, and he eventually decided to come back home to the Fountain City.
“But when I came back, Columbus had changed,” Dr. Hud said.
Dr. Hud says he noticed more gangs emerging out of neighborhood organizations, some focusing on community service and others on violent tendencies. He calls gangs a cancer on society.
“Gangs don’t evolve out of a healthy environment,” Dr. Hud told News 3. “In other words, young people don’t grow up or are not born gang members. The family that is dysfunctional has produced hopeless young people. So the hopeless young people are the ones that form the gangs.”
Dr. Hud believes deteriorating families, neglectful schools and local government, and careless communities are contributing to the growth of gangs in the Chattahoochee Valley and beyond. Dr. Hud runs Project rebound, an organization that aims to reach wayward young people.
Dantrell Atajwe, though not officially affiliated with a gang, says a painful need to provide forms a strong desire for people to join gangs.
“Poverty creates an environment for violence,” Atajwe said. “So now that you have people that don’t have much, and now they’re mad that they don’t have much, now they can only clash with each other because they’re around each other all the time. People are not just born violent. They don’t come outside and just want to be violent people. Of course they’re not going to have the best grades in school and act right, because maybe they didn’t eat that night. Maybe their parents have a drug addiction, and they have to worry about paying the rent. So they can’t go to school.”
News 3 spoke with police in both Columbus and LaGrange to learn why young kids are getting absorbed into a gang lifestyle.
“If you take a 15-year-old or 16-year-old kid and you equip them with a gun and drugs, and they’re able to run a street and instill fear in the people, that’s a powerful drug for a teenager’s brain,” LaGrange Police Sgt. Mark Cavendar said. “They give them what they’re missing at home. Next thing you know, you’re hook, line and sinker into a gang.”
Since the LaGrange Police Department doubled the number of officers used and dedicated to cracking down on gang-related crimes, they’ve seen a significant impact. The force started tracking gang-related incidents back in 2014. Violent crimes and drug charges accounted for three-quarters of gang-related crimes that year.
“Nationally across the board, according to the Department of Justice, 89% of all illegal drug sales in the United States are perpetuated or tied back to a criminal street gang,” Sgt. Cavendar said.
LaGrange Police had 74 gang-related incidents in 2015. In 2016, the department had 87 gang-related incidents. So far in 2017, the force has had 30 similar kinds of incidents. Sgt. Cavendar expects the number of crimes to go down because of focused efforts on neutralizing gangs.
“They’re fluid,” Sgt. Cavendar told News 3. “They’re constantly changing. They are constantly changing the way they do things to keep us from tracking them.”
The Columbus Police Department takes a different approach. They do not have a unit dedicated to solely thwarting or investigating criminal gang activity.
“We make everyone aware,” Columbus Police Lt. Roderick Graham said. “So instead of having five or six officers, we have 350 officers who are fully aware of what gang activity is. A lot of people choose sports to get involved in. Sometimes you have individuals who don’t choose sports, but they still want to be part of something. And unfortunately, they’re lead to be part of something that’s negative.”
Lt. Graham says he’s noticed an increase in gang activity. He says chapters and subsets of the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples are most prominent locally. He noted that the city of Columbus had 19 gang-related reported incidents last year in 2016. The department is on pace to match that total, as they have 11 so far in 2017.
The high-profile Peachtree Mall murder trial shines a dim light on gangs and the consequences they can have.
“The gang lifestyle is all about fear and money,” Sgt. Cavendar said. “The more fear you can instill in other gangs or people, the more money you can make. The more money that you make, the bigger the gang you are.”
And while gang members may feel big in the moment, police warn it’s a one-way road to jail or worse.
“It’s a temporary sense of hypeness, but in the end, it’s a dead end,” Lt. Graham said.
Both LaGrange and Columbus Police urge people to watch out for warning signs if they believe their friends or family may be in a gang. Look closely for tagging (spray-painted graffiti). Social media, use of out of the ordinary language, use of hand signs, and wearing different clothing are some other red flags to watch out for if you suspect someone may be in a gang.