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Chief Koval's Blog

Gangs in Madison and Why Kids Join Gangs

March 2, 2015 9:01 AM

This week's submission on "Why kids join gangs" has been authored by Sergeant Brian Chaney, who directs the activities of our gang unit.  Sgt. Chaney offers a general primer of potential signs or "flags" that MAY be indicative of a youth who is straying.  While it is by no means a sure-fire litmus test for a kid becoming susceptible to joining a gang, it may prove helpful for a parent or guardian who wonders whether changes they see a child undergoing is more than just a phase of adolescence.

This past weekend, I had a chance to witness first-hand how my gang officers operate.  "Shots fired" is becoming an all-too-familiar call and this past Saturday it reached new "heights" when there was gunfire exchanged in the parking lot of West Towne Mall at a time when the shopping center was teeming with shoppers, diners, and out of town guests attending various activities including the State wrestling tournaments. In broad daylight, in the midst of innocent people going about their everyday business, there was a gunfight between what appears to be rival gangs.  We recovered a number of spent casings and it was nothing short of a modern day miracle that no passing pedestrians or motorists were struck by one of these rounds.  The mall was locked down for a period of time and a labor-intensive investigation was immediately launched.  To make a long story short, a command post was established and through a coordinated, round-the-clock initiative, arrests have been made.  More arrests are probably yet to come.  And while policing is clearly a "team sport," our challenges in figuring out the affected parties of interest and understanding their gang affiliation(s) enabled the investigation to continue to build momentum which resulted in the arrests----this could have taken considerably more time and effort had we not been able to access the real-time intelligence that our gang officers brought to the table!

The events of this past weekend were by no means over when the mall closed for business.  The west side of the City continued to have reports of gunfire over the next several hours.  We also had an 18-year-old man shot with multiple rounds and is fortunate to be alive.  Investigations are always an open-ended matter as we do not want to "settle" or limit ourselves to one "theory" of who committed these acts.  But at this juncture, every lead we pursue is linked to gang activity.

As I was doing a briefing for the press on Sunday night, I was asked if there was any connection to "domestic terrorism," in light of recent events in our country.  While I was quick to dismiss the correlation to the "federal" use of the term, I did have to stop and pause to consider the literal usage of the phrase.  It certainly "terrorized" all of those who were unfortunate enough to have been trapped in the mall or who witnessed the gunfight!   And the parties involved---home grown young men who all claim or attach themselves to a gang---are clearly "domestic" products.  No, Madison, this is not a case where we can rationalize/minimize/discount the rash of gun violence we have experienced to those "outsiders" who invade our comfort zone(s) from Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, etc.,  We HAVE A GANG PROBLEM and it is NOT going away.  Time to wake up, smell the coffee, and get a reality check.

Our best hope for the future are in preemption and intervention.  The ability of our gang officers, neighborhood officers, our schools, our churches, conscientious outreach by groups like "Mentoring Positives," can all play a role in providing our youth with constructive engagement, resources to families, and a means for being available during critical times when it is most needed.  But we must also step up as parents, guardians, and family members.  Personal accountability starts with the individual and those closest to him/her.  As Sgt. Chaney's comments point out, the kids who are most susceptible to joining a gang do so because of things that are missing or a feigned illusion of what a membership in gangs can offer.  Who better to be more apt to see the warning signs than members of the family who live with the youth?

MPD will continue to do our part in trying to be relational with kids.  Gang officers try simultaneously to be a friend, a good listener who suspends judgments, an agent of collaboration with families and social service providers, and a resource.  We do everything in our power in urging avoidance of "the life" or helping those who want to get out.  My gang officers KNOW their kids, their family life, their struggles, and the temptations that loom large.  Sadly, they also know those kids who are in gangs and the various dynamics at play as a result of those affiliations.

While the path of least resistance is to work with our youth and the resources at hand in order to avoid the pitfalls of joining a gang, once the shooting starts and the various crimes take place, the gloves come off.  I will not let the gun violence we have experienced continue to go unabated.  My force is a lot better trained, more disciplined, and will be unrelenting in pursuit of those who would foist their dysfunctional world upon the rest of us.   Arrests from the weekend resulted in two more guns getting off the streets, more people of interest to pursue, and we are uncovering linkage to other crimes that have recently occurred.  Never underestimate the resourcefulness of the workforce that I am blessed to lead . . .we are guardians who are focused on keeping Madison safe and are unequivocal in our resolve! ~ Chief Michael C. Koval


The following portion of this blog was authored by Sergeant Brian Chaney.

Why Kids Join Gangs

After an officer from the Madison Police Department's Gang Unit talks with someone involved in a gang or on the verge of becoming a gang member, more often than not you'll hear that officer say, "I really like that kid."  People may be surprised to hear that both kids and adults involved in gangs can be quite likable.  They are generally good people who have made some bad decisions along the way.  The Gang Unit officers are keenly aware that there is typically an underlying cause for the behavior.

There are numerous reasons why a child may choose to join a gang.  If we can determine what caused an individual to make poor choices, then we can help them work towards making better decisions in the future.  Anyone is susceptible to the influence of gangs.  The gang lifestyle has appealed to persons of every background and the culture does not discriminate based on income or race.  Below are common examples as to why a child may join gang:

• A sense of respect or power, especially for a kid who feels they don't get or have enough on their own, can sway a child toward gangs.

• Attention and caring from a large group of people leads some kids to believe a gang will be like a family to them.

• Money – Kids may believe joining a gang can help them make money, more money than with a legitimate job.  This isn't always for nice clothes or shoes, but can even be to help with the bills at home or to buy food for family.

• The allure of parties and drugs is a very strong one with young people, and one that is perpetuated by the entertainment industry.

• Protection – unfortunately there are so many kids who join a gang because they are being picked on or bullied by a different gang, and they are looking for protection.

There are some behaviors that may give indication that a child is becoming involved in a gang.

A change in attitude:  Such as a sudden disrespect for parents/guardians, a drop in grades or if they begin to exhibit strong behavior for challenging authority.  If a child becomes secretive about their friends, where they live, or the names and contact information of those friends, that should be a concern.

A change of normal habits:  If a child becomes late often or absent from school, violates curfew frequently, or seems to have a new unknown source of money, clothing, or jewelry.   Also, look for signs they suddenly want to be referred to only by a nickname.  Look also for personal graffiti on notebooks, folders, bedroom walls or furniture.  Your child may start wearing only one or two certain colors of clothing, clothing with a certain number on it, or may get a tattoo (homemade or otherwise) of certain numbers or other gang symbolism.

The key to keeping a child out of a gang is to be aware of the warning signs and to intervene once they are identified.  If you believe a child in your life is becoming involved with a gang and you need assistance, there are many locally based social service providers that are available to help.  Please feel free to contact the Madison Police Department's Gang Unit at (608) 266-5951 with questions or additional information.

Posted by: Chief Koval

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