It began with a question.
Officer R.B. Ralston of the Garland police’s gang unit checks out gang writing on an empty building.
“What clique do you claim?”
That’s what 16-year-old Jacob Orta was asked before being beaten with a baseball bat, stomped and left to die on Kingsley Road. He was later run over by a hit-and-run driver.
They yelled the name of their gang as they attacked Jacob and a friend who had gone to a store for early-morning snacks.
This month, police say, gang members clashed at a house party on Perdido Drive. Five were shot.
But it’s not as if Garland is awash in a rising tide of gangbangers.
In fact, after an alarming 12 percent increase in gang membership citywide in 2005, when Jacob’s was one of two gang-related deaths, police logged an 8 percent decrease and no gang-related murders in 2006.
“Every community has some [gang] membership and some activity,” said Lt. Mark Dillon, commander of the Garland gang unit, a six-person team that works with the city’s neighborhood police officers and school resource officers to track gang activity and identify offenders.
Police say there are a dozen or so street gangs in Garland, the five largest boasting memberships from 121 to 407.
Dress used to be a key factor, but fashion has overtaken it. Baggy pants and oversized shirts are now a staple among high schoolers and hip-hop wannabes.
Lt. Dillon estimated that the city’s 1,438 gang members identified in 2006 are 60 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black and 3 percent Asian.
Sgt. Mark Langford of the Dallas police gang unit said the more than 80 street gangs in that city run about the same: 59 percent Hispanic, 39 percent black and 2 percent “other.”
In 2006, Garland police reported 659 gang-related arrests and another 476 arrests of gang members for offenses that were not specifically gang-related.
Lt. Dillon said the signs usually start showing up in middle school, at age 13 or 14. Most active street gang members are from 17 years old to their mid-20s. After that, they usually either burn out or wind up in jail.
When some street gang members come home from prison, they are what Dallas Sgt. Langford calls “field associates” of prison gangs, which means they are expected to help provide drugs and other favors to members still in prison.
“One of the things we’ve noticed in the last couple of years is cases where the prison gang membership basically supersedes local gang membership,” Sgt. Langford said. “It’s almost dual membership. They won’t ‘dis’ what they were.”
According to Michelle Lyons of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are a dozen major gangs active in the state’s prisons.
According to Ms. Lyons, as of last month there were 9,513 inmates in Texas prisons who were confirmed gang members53 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black and 20 percent white. That may sound like a lot, but they made up only 6.2 percent of the total inmate population of 153,059.
The prison system offers a gang-free prison unit to help inmates get out of gangs and stay out.
But there are no gang-free cities, although many don’t have gang units or police officers in schools that are trained to recognize the signs. Some cities don’t classify any crime reports as gang-related.