Three things came together to push Fort Wayne’s homicide total to a new record last year:
A lethal combination, anywhere. But to understand what a new city task force and its federal allies are trying to get under control, you have to forget what you might think you know about gangs from movies and TV.
The gangs in Fort Wayne are not the highly organized, fiercely loyal groups you’ve seen in big-city dramas. They’re not hierarchal and disciplined, like the gangs in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
They’re loosely affiliated, said Capt. Kevin Hunter, who heads the new Gang and Violent Crime Unit. Someone may be associated with one gang and then switch. There’s a lot of flip-flopping here.
David Capp, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, agrees. Gangs here are a little bit disorganized, he said. They’re tough to get your hands around.
You’ll see thugs who may be banded together this week, and next week they’re shooting each other.
The common denominators of those who start a gang here: Young, 16-25, or sometimes a few years older. Predominantly male, predominantly African-American. They’ve done their best to give the southeast side a bad name, but police say they find themselves looking for and finding gang members in all quarters of the city.
Gang membership is more for protection than it is anything else, Hunter said. A group of friends deciding to sell drugs – they want protection, so they form a gang.
Local and federal law enforcement officers have been trying to get their hands around the gang problem in Fort Wayne for a long time. But with last year’s record-setting homicide total, there is even sharper focus on possible solutions.
Most of these will-o-the-wisp local gangs carry unimaginative names. M.O.B. – Money Over Bitches. Cash Money on Deck. Or they call themselves the 2500s, the 1300s – the block they came from, or whatever, said another task force member, Detective John Greenlee.
The home-grown gangs’ numbers are small – once as high as 400, now no more than 300, Hunter said.
But there are also blacks, Hispanics and whites who claim affiliation with more well-known gangs from other places: Gangsters’ Disciples, Latin Kings, La Raza, the motorcycle gang the Outlaws, even the Aryan Brotherhood and Skinheads, said Sgt. Tom Strausborger.
Overall, there are easily a couple of thousand members of various gangs in the city, Strausborger said.
They create lots of mayhem. Hunter estimates that 75 percent of last year’s murders were gang- and/or drug-related. And the most common victims are the gang members themselves.
If they don’t get out of the gang, it’s either jail or death, Hunter said. We don’t see a lot of old gang members here.
Last month, the city’s new police chief, Garry Hamilton, announced the new unit with the goal of finally bringing gangs in Fort Wayne under control.
The former task force was Strausborger and four other officers. Hamilton combined that unit with the department’s Neighborhood Response Team and added an officer on loan from the Indiana State Police. Suddenly, the task force was 15 members strong and ready to take a very aggressive approach to gangs and violent offenders.
Federal agencies, including Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI’s Safe Streets team, are also involved in the local fight. The Allen County Sheriff’s Department has lent an officer to the Safe Streets program, which homes in on some of the same targets as the task force.
Capp recently returned from meetings in Washington, where he received authorization to add a new attorney.
I’m putting that attorney in Fort Wayne, he said. I want to work more with the Fort Wayne Police Department. We’ve been shortchanged here for quite some time.
We’re very engaged with Chief Hamilton, Capp continued. I like him, and I like his sense of the streets.
What we try to look for federal prosecution is really the worst of the worst, Capp said. We can get these guys off the street and keep them off the street. We can generally hold these guys without bond, and that makes an enormous difference.
Hunter, who also supervises the department’s drug and narcotic investigators, says the gang unit’s officers don’t like to spend their time patrolling randomly and waiting for a call.
We’re trying to do more of a targeted enforcement rather than just saturating an area., Hunter said. We don’t think that’s very effective.
We know who some of the big players are. Some have active warrants. Sometimes we’ll find them with either guns or dope or both, and that helps the case as well.
Strausborger calls it the proactive approach. Our targeted individuals either have active warrants or are suspects in violent crimes, he said. Using tips from citizens, checking social media, cross-referencing past information about suspects and their friends or relatives, the unit stakes out places where they have reason to believe the offenders are hanging out.
We get a tip that John Smith’ is going to do a shooting of his rival Steve Jones,’ Hunter explained. We sit on his house, we know what cars are involved. If a car leaves the target’s home, the officers may tail him, Hunter continued, and if he doesn’t use a turn signal, we stop him. When we stop them, we look for any criminal violations that we can find, Hunter said.
Officers will pounce if they find a major violator, but they are likely to ignore a minor offense. The theory is, word gets around. We’re making sure that they know we’re out there.
As Chief Hamilton said, We know where you live. We know what you drive. We know your girlfriend, Strausborger said.
The hope is that some of the gang members will clean up their act, or, failing that, leave town.
One of our guys, one of our suspects, got on a plane and went to Atlanta, Strausborger said.
Task force members take care to emphasize that the unit’s efforts are neither fishing expeditions nor profiling exercises.
We’re not picking on anybody, Strausborger said. We’re specifically targeting individuals for shootings, robberies, violent crimes.
Three members of the prosecutor’s office work closely with the task force, Hunter said. We talk with them in advance so that we can make good arrests.
Before I got into this, I was a little reluctant to believe that Fort Wayne has gang problems, said Greenlee, a 17-year veteran who was with Neighborhood Response before joining the task force a few months ago.
Greenlee is a believer now. He sees their drugs – spice, meth, they don’t turn their back on anything that can make them money – and he knows their firepower.
Handguns with 30-round magazines. Everything from .22s to .45s. And assault rifles – AK-47s, AR-15s. We’ve seen what they’ve done with them at shootings.
But those involved believe the new unit is making some headway. I think the guys know we’re out here, Greenlee said as he patrolled Wednesday.
The officers point with pride at some high-impact arrests they’ve made in the last few weeks, including the arrest of Marcus Timmons, a 23-year-old accused of shooting into the apartment of a witness to an earlier shooting Timmons was also charged in, and Tramiel Jackson, a 24-year-old accused of shooting and wounding two men on Feb. 11. Task force members followed Jackson’s girlfriend to Indianapolis, where police helped them tail her until she inadvertently led officers to the suspect.
Members of the task force say that they’re getting some response from the community, though they’d like to have more.
I think the worry is that we’re just going to go out there and cast a big net, Strausborger said. We would love to have more input from the community. Not that you need to our job, but we need your assistance. We want to help you clean up your neighborhood. If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t stop it.