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Keeping An Eye On Gang Signs

Summit Participants Say Lifestyle Shows Effect On Some Pre-Teens

September 30, 2006
By TINA A. BROWN, and REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writers

Manchester police officer Bernie Hallums sees middle school students imitating what they see and hear in pop culture, and he worries about the consequences.

Even pre-teens see the often violent feuds rap stars have and decide they want to do the same thing. Or they believe the lyrics they hear, or what they see in the movies, to be real life, said Hallums, the resource officer at Illing Middle School in Manchester. Middle school and high school students are hanging out in groups, causing enough trouble that many are known to police for the wrong reasons.

"I like to call them prospective gangs," Hallums said.

Because of what he and many others have experienced in their communities, about 400 officials and community members from around the state gathered at the Connecticut Convention Center Friday for a gang-prevention summit. About half of the participants represented Hartford agencies, schools and community groups.

Hallums said he attended the summit because, "I want to see what's going on in other towns."

U.S. Attorney Kevin J. O'Connor looked around at the audience and said he wasn't surprised the summit drew a large crowd just by word-of-mouth.

"That tells me that there's a real interest in this topic," he said.

Today's gangs are different from those of the 1990s, authorities said, and police and school officials must be aware of 21st-century gang culture to prevent them from growing. "If we don't recognize that there are gangs, we will blink and we'll have shootings on our hands," O'Connor said.

Bridgeport Officer Michael Gosha confirmed children are absorbing the culture at an earlier age.

"In the early '90s," he said, "we were dealing with 18-, 19-, 20-year-old gang bangers. ... Now I got kids in the know, speaking fluent gangese ... as young as 8 years old."

With the Internet, Gosha said, kids don't have to leave their homes to be part of a gang. He said some children are born into gang culture but many others choose to join gangs for the excitement, the sense of family and protection.

The look of a gang member has changed as well, Gosha said. Their symbols are more than graffiti, hand signs and colors.

Gosha pulled out a blue New York Yankees baseball cap with white lettering as a seemingly innocent hat. In Chicago, it represents the local gang Folk Nation. The "Y" in the "NY" resembles a pitchfork, which is a known gang symbol. The "N" represents "Nation."

He showed pictures of teens with a symbol similar to a paw print - essentially three Os in a triangular pattern - branded into their skin. He said members of the gang The Bloods tie their right shoe laces, regardless of color, with three loops to resemble the paw print and to identify themselves. Gang members wear beaded necklaces and sneakers with a bandana design that anyone can buy.

Some police officers said they haven't seen a lot of the outward or even subtle signs of gang affiliations, but they wanted to prevent their situations from worsening.

Pat Naylor, a community service director in Stratford, said he attended the summit because, "We like to stay ahead of the curve."

Naylor and Stratford Police Capt. Mark Delieto said their town has seen gang activity on a small scale. "We aren't saying it is a top youth problem," Naylor said.

But they realize that problems can grow because of the town's proximity to Bridgeport, where more serious gang problems exist.

"We keep a handle on it. There is absolutely a gang problem," Delieto said, adding the town has a policy of erasing graffiti from the walls of its middle and high schools.

But representatives of communities, even large ones, don't believe they have gang problems.

"It's all about neighborhood issues," New Haven Police Sgt. Ricardo Rodriguez said. "...We don't see that structure and traditional organization."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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