By James Carlson
Copyright 2006 The Topeka Capital-Journal
When two young men were shot to death within a block of each other during a 12-hour span late last week, the word on the street was that the two shootings were gang related.
But the Topeka Police Department says it is investigating the deaths of Trevor Antwan Harness, 21, and Jermaine Cunningham, 20, as separate incidents and hasn't revealed whether gang activity played a part in the two homicides.
But police do acknowledge gang problems in the city have been on the rise this year.
"There's a spike in gang activity. There's an increase in recruitment, and there's certainly been an increase in violence," said Ruben Salamanca, the coordinator of the police gang task force.
In early January of this year, Andre Leon Baker, 23, was shot and killed as he sat in a car in a parking lot. In the 12 days following that shooting, Salamanca investigated two more shootings. He attributed all three to gang activity.
In the latest homicides, Harness was shot shortly after noon Friday and was found in the alley between the 500 block of S.W. Polk and Tyler. Cunningham was shot shortly after midnight Friday in the 500 block of S.W. Tyler near 6th Street. A second victim in the later shooting survived.
A Crime and Safety Committee appointed by Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten issued a preliminary report in March that indicated Topeka has about 200 gang members and another 800 suspected or associated members in nine identified gangs. The Safe Streets Coalition, which was appointed by Bunten and also serves as his Crime and Safety Committee, includes members of the Topeka Police Department; Shawnee County Sheriff's Office; and Shawnee County District Attorney's Office.
Salamanca said the local upsurge in gang recruitment and activity is consistent with trends across the country.
"People with gang affiliation - it's becoming quite popular," he said. "It's almost fashionable."
He said there were three components to eradicating gangs in a community: intervention, prevention and enforcement.
"We will continue to arrest, continue to make strong cases against gang members. But that's not enough. We've got to do more intervention and prevention," he said. "Until we're able to intervene in these kids becoming gang members to begin with, we're probably not going to see any results."
And Salamanca said he didn't think there were enough activities and programs in the community to keep kids out of trouble.
"When you talk about programs that might help kids, there are no programs," he said.
The Crime and Safety Committee report said giving children other options was important and also noted the community didn't have enough full-time gang task force officers.
Salamanca is the only full-time officer working gang crimes. His task force is made up of officers pulled off patrol that he trains for six months. He said that allows him to teach more officers.
Members of the Crime and Safety Committee, however, didn't think that was a good idea, noting in their report every time a new group of officers is brought into the task force, it defeats, "the purpose of sustainability and causes the new officers to be retrained."
The committee's report recommended paying for four additional full-time gang task force officers.
Salamanca wouldn't go into details about what the task force members do on a day-to-day basis but said they are constantly talking to gang members.
"Our mission is to interdict the gang crimes," he said. "Our job is to know the gangs, know the gang members and develop a rapport with them to try and find information."
Salamanca said task force members were keeping their ears open in the community where the recent shootings took place, but as of now there hasn't been an increase in patrols in the area.
In the end, he said, his job can be frustrating.
"I get calls all the time from parents saying, ‘OK, you've identified my son or daughter as a gang member. Now what?' " he said.
"If someone's addicted to drugs or alcohol, you send them to counseling. If someone's involved in a gang, what do you do? I don't have the answer to that."
James Carlson can be reached
at (785) 295-1192
Gang activity spikes, Kansas police say