Most people associate gangs with big cities.
But a forum for youth services workers this week brought attention to the problem in Tippecanoe County.
Local authorities say while there are gangs in the area they’re nowhere near the level of, say, Waco, Texas where a fight between rival bikers resulted in nine deaths this week.
But some fear gang influence could rise to that level if the community doesn’t band together to limit it.
Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Pat Harrington says law enforcement started to notice an emerging trend of gang activity around the time he took office in 2007. He says they’ve worked since then to keep the problem from getting out of hand.
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress becoming aware of it, learning how to interact with them, how to police it, and then how to prosecute it,” he says.
Harrington says applying “gang enhancers” to felony charges—which can double a criminal’s sentence—also seems to deter such crime. But Michael Tajc, a gang specialist who works for the Prosecutor’s Office, says without continued efforts the gang problem could easily grow.
"We have motorcycle gangs," says Tajc. "We have white supremacy gangs. We have gangs in middle school. I mean, we’ve got it all.”
Harrington says it’s important to note that kids as young as 10 are being recruited. Many start out with small crimes -- stealing from cars or vandalizing property. But he says that can be just the beginning.
“The people that are running the gangs are trying to figure out ‘Will that individual break the law? And will they have no problem with breaking the law?’" says Harrington. "And then as they move up to being 16, 17, and 18, they’re getting into other things. Could be selling drugs, could be running drugs.”
Aaron Johnson is a Tippecanoe County juvenile probation officer. He says there are a number of juvenile gangs in the area. But he says it’s nowhere near the threat level in cities such as Chicago or Detroit. And he says local gangs aren’t fighting over territory—they just don’t like each other.
“So what we’re looking at is more homegrown gangs that originate from some sort of legitimate connection to an adult, usually a parent or relative that has legitimate ties to a gang," says Johnson. "The kids are embracing that and then creating their own gang image here in Tippecanoe County.”
Johnson says the homegrown gangs are mostly involved with graffiti, vandalism, petty theft, and drugs. But he says the more access to weapons they have, the more danger they pose to the general public. So Johnson helps law enforcement keep track of what gang members are doing, primarily by monitoring social media.
“For instance, one of the gangs is called Stain Gang or SGB, Stain Gang Boys," says Johnson. "Their opponent will put #SGBK, which is Stain Gang Boy Killer, on a Facebook post. That will get the attention of the other group and then they’ll challenge each other on Facebook and a lot of times it ends up with a fight.”
At a forum this week, Johnson told youth service workers about the scope of the gang problem and how to recognize potential gang activity. Robin Loper works for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and runs an afterschool program for 5th and 6th grade boys.
“And some of them come from difficult situations," says Loper. "I have one boy right now that I suspect his father may be involved in a gang. So I came to just be a little bit more educated about gangs, and just didn’t know how I could better help the boys that I’m working with.”
Loper says she appreciates attention being brought to the issue, but was looking for a more concrete action plan for what the community can do to limit gang influence.
“I guess I was hoping that this would be a little bit more focused on the kids as opposed to getting lots of facts about different gangs, because I already knew about that," says Loper. "But I think it’s good in general for everybody to be more aware of what’s going on because I think a lot of folks in Lafayette tend to think there’s not any problems around here.”
Aaron Johnson says there are gang members in every high school in the county, but Lafayette’s Jefferson High School has the largest presence. Casey Frazier is the School Resource Officer at Jeff.
“We’re not gonna lie. We know there are several kids in the schools that participate in that type of lifestyle. They might be flagging, they might be wearing gang identifiers, stuff like that. We’ll occasionally have graffiti on the locker room walls. I can’t say for sure if it’s them tagging an area or if it’s some kids just pretending, but we just try to address it as quick as we can.”
Frazier says the school has a zero tolerance policy for gang activity. He says if school officials suspect someone may have gang ties, the student is called in and warned of the consequences. Frazier says these students are often already involved with either the Department of Child Services or the Probation Department. In those cases, the school will work with those agencies to get further help for the child.
“Because as far as my knowledge we don’t have a gang diversion program in Tippecanoe County," says Frazier. "That might be a great idea actually. But we’ll just try to work with them, to come in here and talk to them, let them know our experiences and the possible consequences.”
Prosecutor Pat Harrington says most kids who get involved with gangs have one thing in common— not enough time with a positive adult role model.
“And we know as parents that if you don’t have a positive mentor for your child, the child will probably find one that you may not approve of," says Harrington. "And that may be the bad mentor.”
Officials say they know of nearly two dozen gangs operating in Tippecanoe County.