A strategy on gangs: Know who they are

Parents, teachers tipped off on signs

Boston police Officer Michael Sullivan gave residents at a Dorchester housing complex a primer last week on how to identify gang members. Boston police Officer Michael Sullivan gave residents at a Dorchester housing complex a primer last week on how to identify gang members. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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After a violent spring in which five people 15 and under have been shot in Boston, police girding for a potentially bloody summer are stepping up a campaign to help parents and teachers spot warning signs that young people may be members of gangs.

In schools and community centers, officers from the city’s most dangerous districts are using PowerPoint presentations, pamphlets, and statistics they hope will provide adults crucial information to help their students and children.

The signs can be as subtle as they can be sinister: A teenager suddenly starts wearing the baseball hat of an out-of-town sports team, but cannot name any of the players. His Facebook page has a map of murders and shootings in the city. He comes home with bruises and cuts on his face that he blames on accidents.

Police say that there are about 100 gangs in the city, most of them named after the streets where their members live or hang out.

Some are corporate gangs, well-financed groups that engage in prostitution, even human trafficking, and drugs to make money. Because their prime interest is in making profit, they usually operate under the radar and do not take part in the neighborhood shootings that draw closer police scrutiny.

It is the territorial gangs, those more interested in settling scores through gunfights than in making money, who keep beat police busy. And it is those gangs that are actively trying to recruit middle school students into their ranks, said Officer Michael Sullivan, one of two patrolmen participating in the campaign.

In Boston, many of the groups responsible for shootings and terrorizing neighborhoods are made up of teenagers and men in their early 20s who use guns to settle petty feuds. They recruit middle school students because they are considered less likely to be searched for weapons and, to fit in, are often willing to steal cellphones and iPods that can be sold for cash.

Since May, five people 15 and under have been shot, two fatally, inducing a greater sense of urgency in the two officers involved in the campaign to alert parents and teachers to the warning signs of gang activity.

“We’re trying to push this as quick as we can,’’ Sullivan said. “I think parents are really in fear right now with the high-profile incidents we’ve had. How do we give them something to work with, versus letting them sit at home in fear? Can they arm themselves with some information so they can get a handle of what’s going on out there?’’

Police are asking adults who suspect children are involved with gangs to call law enforcement or social workers before their child or student can become more entrenched in gang culture.

Sullivan and his partner in the program, Officer Matthew Fogarty, said they came up with the idea to disseminate this information after meeting so many parents who were shocked to learn their children were gang-involved.

Since the fall, the officers have been going to schools to talk to teachers about recognizing gang signs, but in the last six weeks they have been stepping up their visits to include any community meeting that will host them.

Last week, they found a small, but attentive audience in a residential building meeting room on Nightingale Street, where a Dorchester neighborhood group had gathered.

“The outside of our home is no man’s land, and it’s the kids who are in control,’’ said Leslie Moore, one of the residents.

During the presentation, Sullivan and Fogarty rattled off statistics: At 13 and 14, children begin to hear about gangs in their schools. And 75 percent of the homicides in the city stem from gang feuds.

Neighbors can prevent gang violence by paying attention, they said. The officers displayed a slide showing gang graffiti in a Mattapan park and on a child’s backpack.

They said a firearm was found in the backpack, and there have been three stabbings and a shooting in the park in one month, shortly after feuding gangs began defacing the park with their emblems.

The violence was preventable, Sullivan said. “How many people called 911 to complain about the graffiti?’’ he asked. “None. None.’’

The officers then showed a slide of several sports hats that city gangs adopt as symbols for their gangs.

How does a parent tell if a cap represents more than team loyalty? “Ask your kid does he know who the quarterback for the Denver Broncos is,’’ Sullivan said. “Does he know?’’

Another telltale sign: “When the police show up, they’ll take it off,’’ Fogarty said.

Fogarty told those gathered they have to be skeptical of excuses children might use to explain bruises on their faces. He spoke about a talented athlete who said he broke his jaw after tripping and another youngster who said the bandages over his face were because of an acne breakout. Both were hiding injuries from a gang fight, he said.

“We’ve got to ask those questions,’’ Fogarty said.

Sullivan said neighbors should watch for strange behavior, like a group of young people wearing hoods over their heads on a hot day or a teenager hiding something in shrubs.

“If you’re seeing kids in the bushes, they’re probably not plantings plants,’’ he said.

Sullivan told residents not to overreact, but to put warning signs into context. Is the child missing school? Are his grades dropping?

Alva Jones, a 70-year-old grandmother who was at the meeting, said most people know what the signs mean, but just don’t care.

“Some people take a blind eye to what’s going on around here,’’ she said after the meeting. “I think they know what was being said in there, but they just don’t pay attention.’’

But Moore said the information was surprising and helpful.

“I think a lot of people know about kids in gangs wearing blue or red bandannas,’’ she said. ‘They don’t think about caps.’’

Her neighbor, Mako Nagasawa, agreed. After the meeting, he stood outside and glanced over at the neighborhood garden. Before the meeting, he saw it as a small park filled with lush knockout roses and hydrangeas; now it was a potential hiding place for guns.

Staring at it suspiciously, Nagasawa said, “It’s making me want to look at what’s lying around.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at

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