James Halpin, Anchorage Daily News, April 13, 2008
It’s been nearly a year since a dozen teens stormed a Mountain View gas station and attacked a man—apparently because he was wearing a red shirt and cap in the wrong part of town.
Police think that was the city’s first territorial gang dispute. Some of the attackers had ties to the Crips gang, identified by the color blue. Red is the color of the rival Bloods.
“That was his only crime really: He was wearing a color they didn’t like,” deputy Anchorage police chief Ross Plummer said. “That’s what we’re trying to make sure doesn’t happen.”
Anchorage police, growing more familiar with the gangs, are taking members off the streets at higher rates, and prosecutors—both state and federal—are keeping them behind bars longer. Prevention programs to keep troubled kids out of the culture of violence are keeping some off the streets.
Since the Mountain View attack, high-profile gang shootings have been on the wane. But gang activity hasn’t. Police count at least 50 gang-related incidents this year, Plummer said, ranging from graffiti and drug deals to robberies, drive-by shootings and assaults.
‘WARRING FACTIONS’ OF KIDS
Gangs here operate differently than their inner-city counterparts in places like Los Angeles, where they are often strictly divided across racial lines, have rigid membership rules of initiation and are fiercely territorial, Plummer said.
“We still don’t have any gang activity in the sense of what is in the Lower 48, where you have a small number of distinct gangs that are nationwide,” said Alan McKelvie, a researcher with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center who has studied gangs in Anchorage. “We don’t have those up here. What’s up here is kind of warring factions of minority kids.”
Anchorage gangs are often made up of youths who live in the same neighborhood, regardless of race, and they change allegiances and affiliations often. Some are initiated gang members who have moved north from Lower 48 cities, while others are locals who are trying to establish themselves, said patrol officer Scott Lofthouse, who works gang intelligence for police.
FBI, POLICE BAND TOGETHER
The Safe Streets Task Force, a collaborative effort between police and the FBI, is one tool to combat gangs and street crime.
The task force, which first operated in Alaska between 1995 and 2002, was reactivated in 2006 to suppress gang activity following a resurgence in violence that summer and has made more than 30 arrests so far, said FBI Special Agent Eric Gonzalez.
“We’re really working in concert to combat gang violence here in Anchorage, and I think in the past couple of years we’ve seen some real inroads,” Gonzalez said.
On May 1, police plan to increase patrols in neighborhoods like Mountain View, Russian Jack and Muldoon where gangs have been known to operate and flourish. Similar efforts in the past two years have resulted in more busts and fewer gang members on the streets, Plummer said.
More cops on the streets should prevent gangs from getting out of control, he said.
“They’re slowly evolving as time goes on,” Plummer said. “If we don’t do something as a community to keep them from getting entrenched, then in 10, 15, 20 years, we could be looking at the same type of thing as LA gangs, entrenched gangs in neighborhoods that are really hard to deal with.”