Alamance County Fights Gangs, One Kid at a Time

Allen Blue is always on call. He is not a fireman or a surgeon, but he does save lives and put out fires of sorts.

Blue is Alamance County’s Gang Prevention Coordinator. He can be called in the middle of the night to help settle a dispute or during the day by a principal to meet with a kid who is showing signs of gang involvement. Older gang members know who Blue is, and the younger ones eventually learn.

He doesn’t wear a badge. He also doesn’t carry a weapon, but he does carry a Nextel phone so he can alert law enforcement if he is in a dangerous situation.

Blue is at the heart of an on-going fight against gangs. His is a voice of reason. “Change the way they think and it’ll change the way they act.”

His message is simple: “This is the roadmap you’re on and you’re headed to jail, quick.”

According to NC Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s annual report, Alamance County had 629 juvenile offences in 2010. Combatting gangs may lower this number, “Gang’s communicate by fighting,” says Blue.

The secrecy and ambiguity of gangs make them difficult to track, but police have identified over 90 gangs in the Alamance County, with more than 400 validated members. Major gangs in the area are the Bloods, the Crips and SUR 13 and their crimes are usually rivalry and drug related.

Trapped by Poverty

The task force studies graffiti or "tagging" to decode gang messages.

The Game, a well-known rap artist and a member of the Bloods, recounts growing up in a neighborhood defined by poverty, drugs and violence in his song, “Born in the Trap.” Driving through one of Burlington’s “traps”, Blue explains, “There is only one way in and one way out.” You move in because of poverty and you come out as a gang member.

According to the N.C. Department of Justice, 18.5% of Alamance County residents lived in poverty in 2010. This trap is one of the cheapest places to live in the area but is it is also the hub of gang life. The Bloods dominate this trap, and people who live here are forced to embrace the culture.

Older gang members or “Original Gangsters,” often lure kids into gangs with money. Blue typically sees them offer a kid $10 a day to sell drugs. They suddenly have $70 more a week and parents don’t ask questions. This triggers a domino effect, “Suddenly they have a new cell phone, and their friends want to know how they got it.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration recognizes Alamance County as one of the top drug trafficking areas in the United States, largely due to its link to the interstate. “Many kids smoked marijuana, which lead to dealing, which eventually leads to gangs,” said Emily Sanford, an Elon University student who attended Williams High School.

Parents need to step in, “There’s no way you can avoid it, denial is not going to help anything,” said Jones.

Strolling through the Burlington’s Police Department, Blue’s wit and energy is met with jokes and high-fives from his police colleagues. But when he’s driving the streets of Burlington, Blue’s eyes widen, his posture stiffens and his radar is high. He is conversant with a language that communicates through intricate codes and symbols. Blue points to a red “X” spray painted on a tree, “That is a message to the other gangs: this is the Blood’s territory.”

The knowledge that his job could be saving a life is never lost on Blue. He used to be a substance abuse counselor.  “I was repairing hurt little boys at age 52,” he says, meaning that the addled and addicted adult males he worked with were still wounded children inside. Blue points to three middle aged men drinking out of brown bags on a street corner as an example. Blue knew that the men he was helping never received the guidance they deserved, and he always felt more work needed to be done on prevention.

So Blue now works with kids instead of adults, encouraging and assisting them to make positive choices. “I try and change their travel path by getting them involved in support groups, afterschool programs and sports teams.”

(From left to right) The reformed task force Chip Cobb, C.J. Sharpe, Brandon Jones and David Turner.

In August, Burlington Police and Alamance County Sherriff’s Department spearheaded a renewed effort to combat gangs by appointing four full-time investigators to the gang task force. Sgt. Brandon Jones and Cpl. Chip Cobb of the Sheriff’s Office and Cpl. David Turner and Pfc. C.J. Sharpe of the Burlington Police, work with Blue and other agencies in the county to crack down on gang crimes, prevent membership and to educate the public.

“We reach out to informants and use a lot of intelligence. We know the street names, the relationships . . . We have to know the scene to connect the dots,” Jones said. The task force also gives presentations on gang awareness to parents, students and law enforcement, one to three times per week.

It is not illegal to belong to a gang. It is illegal to commit a crime in the furtherance of one. The task force walks a fine line, and cannot arrest anyone until a crime is proven to be gang-related.

For this reason, North Carolina has a validation system to help keep tabs on active gang

Cpl David Turner checks the file of a recently validated gang member.

members. The state requires that at least two criteria from a designated list must be met in order for someone to be validated. The Burlington task force requires three. This makes a case stronger in court. Criteria on the list include: the person admits to being in a gang; has gang tattoos or markings; frequents gang areas; and affiliates with gang members.

Once a person is declared validated, he stays validated in the eyes of the authorities for five years, but a file is kept on his actions indefinitely.

Blue’s goal is to prevent every kid he can from becoming a validated gang member. When someone reaches this level, Blue says, “they are considered armed and dangerous . . . They’ll never be treated like you and me.”

Talking the Talk

Blue knows that kids don’t just join gangs for the violence or crime. Many are desperate for some kind of loyalty and protection, “Family for them is the guys on the streets…Through gangs they learn to value who will defend them,” said Blue.

Just like the kids, Blue knows the lyrics to Lil Wayne, 2Pac and Biggy, “I put their headphones on and jam with them,” he laughed. He acts like them and shows them that he has street knowledge too. “These kids taught me everything I know,” said Blue.

Earning their trust is the first step, “They just want to know that somebody cares,” Blue said.

 A Young and Growing Problem

Little Banditos, a Latino gang in Burlington, started in the early 2000’s as a dispute between two boys waiting for the school bus. The next day each boy brought a few more friends, and over time, two rival groups were born. “All they did was attach themselves to a name,” said Blue.

Middle schools are crucial years in prevention “They feel like they have something to prove. They want to emulate what they see on TV and what they see other kids doing at school,” said Jones.

Kids know not to talk about gangs openly, but teachers in Alamance County know the

A group of gang members gather outside of a local high school. Photo courtesy of David Turner

signs. “They don’t consistently turn in homework, follow school rules, or seem motivated in school,” says Amy Singer, guidance counselor at South Graham Elementary.

Parents should not assume that this behavior is a phase,  “I hate the word wannabe. If they wanna be, they will be,” says Jones. Prevention requires a team effort, “We can’t just direct the kid, we direct the family…we need a buy-in from parents,” said Blue.

However, parents are sometimes gang members themselves, “It’s a multigenerational issue…I’ve seen fourth generation gang members,” said Jones.

The task force officers realize that to gang members they look like four white men with badges. It won’t happen overnight, but they hope to break down cultural barriers to produce a more unified and safe community. “If we can save one child it’s worth 100 arrests,” said Turner.

Blue knows that he cannot save everybody, “You have to take [the kids] one at a time.” But he knows he can make an impact, and he will not give up.

“I want them to get over the hump, help the community and maximize their potential,” he said.

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