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First In A Series: Hartford, Gangs, And The Police

Police Say Elementary School Students Are The City's Newest Gang Wave

Jeff Cohen

June 28, 2010

School is out in Hartford, and that means more young people with less to do. It also means the police department is gearing up for summer -- a busier, more violent time of the year on the city’s streets.

It’s been two years since the war between two rival gangs – West Hell and the Ave – turned the end of the city’s annual West Indian Day Parade into a violent mess. One man was killed, six children were injured, and the police chief said that the city had a problem with fluid groups of young boys settling their disputes with guns.

Steve Kessler and Anthony Rinaldi are community service officers in the Clay Arsenal and Upper Albany neighborhoods. Kessler still remembers the summer of 2008. He says the gang activity now isn’t what it was. But he fears what it could be.

Kessler: “It was very clear cut. You had dividing lines in the city. If you were an Ave member and you got caught north of Capen Street, caught what they call caught slippin’, you could consider yourself an automatic target. And the same could be held true for these guys from West Hell and NCP. If you got caught south of Capen Street down by Mather Street, you were pretty much a dead man.”

Kessler: “It’s very hard sometimes. I mean I remember one particular case, I told a kid, listen man it’s not against the law to be a gang member. But you gotta understand something. You affiliate with these kids, you’re putting yourself in that red zone. And that bullet, that the opposing gang comes down the road and sees a bunch of you guys hanging out, that bullet doesn’t have a name. And as far as that guy who shoots the gun he doesn’t care who he hits. Cause he’s hitting the bad guys. Doesn’t matter which one. And I remember this kid telling me, 'Yeah, but Steve, I got no beef with no one. I got no beef with no one.' An hour after I say that to him he ended up a homicide victim.”

Kessler says that the police are paying particular attention to two new gangs in the city -- Coke Wave and 2Deep. These gangs, police say, aren't about neighborhood turf battles. These gangs are born in the city's schools.

Kessler: “Coke Wave and these newer gangs, it’s a little different with these elementary school kids that are coming up now in one of the fastest rising gangs out here now, it’s a little different. You don’t have these clear cut dem arcation zones. Some are trying to vie for areas now, but again it’s a work in progress, so to speak.”

Rinaldi: “These gangs are originating in schools and maybe not so much for territory or anything else, but just to group together."

That's Officer Anthony Rinaldi.

Rinaldi: "Maybe some fights in schools, things like that. But they haven’t evolved into a West Hell or Avenue Gang.”

Kessler: “Clearly from a department standpoint and a community service officer standpoint, the greatest challenge we face is the fact that these kids are still moldable.

Rinaldi: “They’re young, they’re impressionable.”

Cohen: "And the hope is to get at it…"

Kessler: “Before we end up like we were two, three, four years ago, where every night you’re seeing another victim of a shooting, that was clearly gang related. It got to the point where if you had one down here you could count within the next half hour you’re going to have one up there. And it was that bad. We don’t want to be in that position again.”

(Transition to car.)

Rinaldi: “This is Pliny street. We just recently had two shootings on this street, which were gang-related shootings. Alright, we’re gonna jump out on this kid with the blue shirt.”

Here, in front of the King Kong grocery on Mather and Garden Streets, Rinaldi and Kessler stop a man they say fit the description of a suspect wanted in a car fire. Turns out they have the wrong guy, and, after a few minutes, they let him and his friends go. As the friends leave, it’s clear they know Kessler well enough to call him by his name.

Friend: "Bye, Kessler."

Kessler: "Alright, we’ll see ya."

Now, another man walks down Mather Street. Kessler says he’s a well known, high-ranking member of the Ave gang with a long criminal history. He's been a suspect in drive by shootings. Again, these two men clearly know each other.

Kessler: "You know, we have a rapport with him. Sometimes it's good. It’s like a cat and mouse game. We both know it. We don’t make business personal. Unfortunately that’s just the way it is. He knows it and I know it. Yeah, lemme see what’s going on with that."

Rinaldi has another young man cuffed near his squad car. Both officers thought the man was wanted in a serious crime, but detectives have already spoken to him, and he’s released. Still, Kessler says the whole event demonstrates that a hot night in Hartford brings everybody out.

Kessler: "You’re going to see with a large influx of people, especially in the summertime when people are out and about and walking, it’s not uncommon to see one person you’re looking for be 10-0 feet away, 50 feet away from another person. This is a high crime area right here."

Rinaldi: "Your adrenaline will start to rush in a situation like that because, number one, you don't know if that kid's going to fight you, because a lot of these guys come out of jail and they tell themselves when they get out, 'I'm not going back...'"

Rinaldi: "This is Green Street. This street was known as Money Green’s area, the Money Green gang. They were a foe of the Avenue also, they were an ally of Bedford street gang, which is called Bedrock. Used to be very very violent street, for a small street, very, very violent...”

Rinaldi: “This is Vine Street here. It was the hot bed for the Avenue gang. This was their headquarters…”

Rinaldi: " What’s up, Dale? What’s going on?"

Dale: "That ain’t my name!"

Rinaldi: "That’s Mama Hattie there. In that dark blue shirt sitting down?"

Kessler and Rinaldi say the past few years have seen an increase in cooperation from citizens. People like Hattie Harris are part of the reason why.

Harris: "I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the evil."

Cohen: "Where is it now?"

Harris: "Well, it’s kind of good. Yeah. Kind of quiet. Well the bad people, the people that was selling drugs and doing different things they’re not here no more. No drug dealing going on that we know of. If it is, it’s hid. Because knowing these two, they’d dig it out."

Kessler: "This used to be Ground Zero for the Ave. gang. You would come by here nights like this and you would see 60, 80, 100 guys out here, all representing Avenue members. This was a very vicious block right here…"

Harris says that these two officers come around enough that she’s come to think of them as children. And she doesn’t say that lightly.

Harris: "When I hear about a shooting or something that’s going on, yes, I do worry about them. And I know that they are out here, yes, I do. I pray for them."

Kessler: "You got to understand something. It may be quiet now, but that could change next week. All it takes is one incident to kick things off. This whole gang war started three four years ago with the taking of a bicycle. You’re looking at me like I have three heads. But that’s the reality of the matter. It’s powder keg waiting to go off. All you can really do is keep an intense level of scrutiny under these people and try the best you can to diffuse things before they become problems.”

Last Wednesday night, right outside of Hattie Harris's apartment, there came a problem. For that, listen to the second story in our series on gangs and Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of Jeff Cohen, author of the blog Capital Region Report. To view other stories on this topic, search Capital Region Report at http://capitalregionreport.wordpress.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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